Times “public editor” is readers’ advocate

July 16, 2006

I spent quite a while yesterday poking around on the New York Times website and, rather on a whim, clicked on the small link titled “The Public Editor” in the list on the left hand side of the home page. As I learned on the destination page, the post of public editor is a relatively recent addition to the Times staff, created to give readers a more direct method of voicing opinions about the paper’s coverage and also holding to account the rest of the staff for controversial situations and events (such as the Jayson Blair incident). The current public editor, Byron Calame, contributes columns at least twice monthly that survey questions and issues prompted by both his own observations of recent coverage and by the concerns of readers who have sent letters to his mailbox (public@nytimes.com).

The coverage appears to be both impartial and insightful: while Mr. Calame has sided with the paper on its decision to disclose the existence of the Swift banking records monitoring program and praised the results of an increased focus on conservative issues in political reporting, he has rightly chastised it for two recent front page stories that contained misleading and inaccurate information. I find his candor refreshing, and I applaud the Times for allowing such self-criticism as is evidenced in Mr. Calame’s reporting.

We must not forget, though, that much of the groundwork for Mr. Calame was laid by his predecessor, Daniel Okrent, whose very earliest columns featured, among other topics, a cogent and harshly critical case study about avoiding even the “slightest hint” of a conflict of interest in assigning reporters to stories and a potentially blasphemous rebuke of what Mr. Okrent saw as an unreasonable tendency of the paper to disregard for publication stories written by other news organizations for the sake of “competitive metabolism”. As his book, Public Editor Number One, chronicles, Mr. Okrent’s stories provoked controversy and vitriolic invective from parties both outside the Times staff and within it.

Finally, and on a tangentially related note, the Public Editor page also features a link to an illuminating and comprehensive overview of recent changes to the paper’s internal organization titled Assuring Our Credibility (pdf) and written by executive editor Bill Keller. The document reinforces and supplements Ethical Journalism (pdf), the Times‘ handbook on ethical standards and practices. Together, they demonstrate a continuing commitment to upholding the journalistic integrity thathas made the Grey Lady into such a pillar of the media landscape.

–D. S. W.

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