The Trauma of Tepid Times Introspection

Liz Spayd was the sixth Public Editor at the New York Times since the inception of the position in 2003. It was birthed in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal as a palliative to readers who had lost faith in journalism’s ability to apply skepticism to its own. The first public editor, Daniel Okrent, proved unwilling to be the expected apologist.

From the beginning, though, the Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent, showed that the job could be much more substantive than that of email reader–in–chief. His January 2004 column “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” remains a classic. It’s a flawed classic, in my view, because Okrent mistakenly viewed gay marriage opposition as a legitimate political position worthy of sympathy and positive coverage.

But a classic, nonetheless, because it sliced to the core of the sort of important, existential question that the Times ought to be publicly asking itself on a regular basis. He also challenged the paper to introspect more honestly about the incentives that shaped its disastrous coverage of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. And he took a thoughtful look at the Timesreliance on anonymous sources—as urgent a topic today as it was then.

This quotes been taken from Slate’s Will Oremus, because it reflects so much of the irony of what’s needed, and missing, in journalism. He’s all for someone calling bullshit on journalism, as long as it reflects his truth.

Spayd’s final column struck a bitter tone.

There probably hasn’t been a time in recent American history when the role of the media was more important than now. The Trump administration is drowning in scandal, the country is calcified into two partisan halves. And large newsrooms are faced with a choice: to maintain an independent voice, but one as aggressive and unblinking as the days of Watergate. Or to morph into something more partisan, spraying ammunition at every favorite target and openly delighting in the chaos.

She’s certainly right about this, making it almost incomprehensible that this is the time when the paper decided to rid themselves of not only Spayd, but the position. It’s like the guy who’s told by his girlfriend that she’s breaking up with him because she’s a lesbian. He may believe that means she’s always been a lesbian, but he still can’t help but wonder what he did to drive her off guys altogether.

Oremus sees what Spayd can’t.

Spayd was disappointing not because she occupied a role that had lost its meaning but because she squandered a role that should have been as meaningful as ever before.

When the Times created the Public Editor position, there was no twitter, blogs were nascent and the trees on which the paper was printed had yet to die. If you had a gripe with coverage, the newest cool way to let the Suzlbergers know was by email to the Public Editor. As Oremus notes, Spayd’s predecessor, Margaret Sullivan, took to the twitters as well. Spayd was just an old-school email sorta gal.

But more than that, Sullivan, like Okrent before her, saw the role as a watchdog, the Inspector General of the paper. Spayd was more the ombudsman, the mediator who smoothed the ruffled reader feathers with an apology and a tummy rub.

We asked Joe Kahn, the managing editor, to help clarify The Times’s thinking.

It’s a fair question. We did in fact hold off naming Israel as the source of the intelligence the first day. The second day several reporters pressed for answers as to why we should hold off. The answers we were given by several senior officials were boilerplate and off the record. We asked for greater detail about the ways this information could cause problems and no detail was forthcoming.

This ridiculously irrelevant response drew screams of ire and outrage from Spayd? Nah.

The public editor’s take: I agree. It’s a good question and a helpful response. It’s hard to withhold relevant information if the government isn’t providing a compelling reason to do so.

It’s hard? Well then, it’s not as if anyone in journalism should be expected to do anything that’s hard. Hard is so, well, hard. With reactions like this, Spayd reduced the role to dispensable, if not misnamed, as it should have been Public Apologist.

To the extent that the Times, in the course of its latest round of layoffs/buyouts, which is hard to explain at a time when it can barely keep up with breaking news of why Trump is literally Hitler and it’s doing so well in the face of the Resistance’s need to be well-informed, needs an Inspector General to call out its devolution into rank partisanship, the need to question its internal myopia couldn’t be greater. But doesn’t twitter, or blogs like this, do the trick of keeping the media honest?

But it is a shame, because when everyone on Twitter is a Times watchdog, then no one is. There will still be a firehose of complaints directed at the paper, but there will be no one to harness it, no one whose job and right it is to stand in front of the paper’s leaders and say, “This. This is a valid criticism, and you can ignore the rest if you wish, but this one you need to answer to.”

The cynic will say that journalists, advocates all because there are no atheists in the trenches, don’t want someone with integrity watching over their work, calling out their cherry-picking facts, or making up facts, to school the groundlings on what they are to know and believe. But Spayd didn’t have the guts to do that, and to the extent that a sweet if vapid digital hug was sufficient to calm the outraged, she was always happy to give it.

This, blogs, twitter, is woefully inadequate to the task of serving as Inspector General of the media. Their soapbox is huge in comparison, and the overlap of readers small. But now that the media refused to police its own bias, its special flavor of “not quite fake news but not real news either,” who else will do the dirty work but mean old curmudgeons for whom honesty still matters and who won’t fear the snarky “are you serious?” reactions of its editors when one suggests there is a legitimate alternative to the social justice view of the news.


9 thoughts on “The Trauma of Tepid Times Introspection

  1. B. McLeod

    Introspection and journalism are like polar opposites. If it happens at all, it’s only because they have to be sure they are getting their Feelz out adequately.

    1. SHG Post author

      That wasn’t always the case. There were times when even journalists stuck with inconvenient facts.

  2. Richard Kopf


    As you know, I have a keen interest in what the New York Times allowed and allows Linda Greenhouse to get away with in writing for the paper about the Supreme Court. In 2006, Greenhouse was criticized by the Times public editor for fulminations, while she was covering the Supreme Court, about the failure of her generation (and mine) to do (in my words) “justice.”

    Byron Calame, the public editor, was clearly incensed by Greenhouse’s nonchalance and the Times for tolerating Ms. Greenhouse’s breach of journalistic standards. He wrote:

    “[A]s the influential Supreme Court reporter for The Times, a beat that touches nearly all areas of public policy, Ms. Greenhouse has an overriding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions. During the current term, allowing her to cover court developments that involve the topics on which she voiced opinions in June risks giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage. This appears, however, to be a risk that Times editors are willing to take.”

    Calame was not as nasty as I would have liked. But he did call out a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and her editors. Apparently, there is no longer any need for such things in the era of Trump and Roberts.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      When Greenhouse got caught with her feelz in the cookie jar, it was recognized as a grievous journalistic wrong. Those were the days. At least she’s now openly writing op-eds, even though they’re imbued with her legacy credibility as the former Supreme Court reporter, such that her bias is easily mistaken for a well-grounded opinion rather than hysterical nonsense. But Greenhouse still has a job at the Times, and Spayd (nor Calame) does. I hope the pendulum swings back soon.

  3. Mr. Median

    A Public Editor to sniff out whether something is rotten at the New York Times …
    “My nose, thank god, had conked out by then. Noses are merciful that way. They will report that something smells awful. If the owner of a nose stays around anyway, the nose concludes that the smell isn’t so bad after all. It shuts itself off, deferring to superior wisdom.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird.

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