Incoming New York Times Public Editor: “Newspapers Must Be Truth Vigilantes”

Margaret SullivanIncoming New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan says she believes that “newspapers must be truth vigilantes” and that such a focus is “a clear part of our mission.”

Sullivan, whose appointment to the position was announced Monday, will take over the post from current public editor Arthur Brisbane on Sept. 1, 2012.

Brisbane drew criticism for a January 12 report in which he posed the question, “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” In his piece, he said he was “looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” As Adam Clark Estes observed at The Atlantic Wire, “The immediate answer, everyone we follow [on Twitter] seemed to agree, was a resounding YES.”

In a follow-up post, Brisbane said he had been misunderstood, and that his “inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut 'facts' that are offered by newsmakers when those 'facts' are in question.” He added, “I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.” Responding to his original post, Times executive editor Jill Abramson wrote that "[t]he kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists" and that "[w]e do it every day, in a variety of ways."

In an interview with Media Matters, Sullivan, currently editor of The Buffalo News, said she agrees with the contention that newspapers must challenge facts presented by sources or news subjects if they are found to be in dispute, a position she said put her in step with both her predecessor and Abramson.

“I think that possibly what came out of that was that we all know and Arthur Brisbane knows and Jill Abramson knows and every one of us knows that newspapers must be truth vigilantes and there never really was any question about that I don't think,” she said Monday. “Certainly that's a value that we all share and that's not really in question. It's a clear part of our mission, to ferret out the truth. What else are we here for?”

Asked Monday if accepting answers from subjects and sources at face value is not enough, Sullivan added:

“For any newspaper, for any news organization, I don't think it's nearly enough, we have to be much more searching. I think that challenging facts and getting to the bottom of statements is central to the mission of journalism. To me, it's a very clear cut kind of thing.”

Sullivan, 55, comes to the Times post after 13 years as editor of The Buffalo News and an employee of that paper since 1980.

On how she plans to approach the job -- and perhaps differently from her four predecessors -- Sullivan said, “I think that ... the difference is that we live in a very different era right now. It has changed a whole lot in just the past couple of years.”

“We are so immersed in digital culture and the Public Editor's role needs to respond to that. I see this as a way of aggregating the comment and criticism and discussion that's out there into a probably daily or close to daily blog, getting reader comment going in a real time basis and have a true sort of ongoing online conversation with the Times readers about the New York Times,” she added.

Sullivan also said she does not want to “forego the print aspect of it” and will still write a twice-monthly print column in the Sunday Review section.

“I think I'll be inviting reader comment, inviting comment from interested parties and trying to use the blog as a forum for discussion,” she said. “I am hoping to use the multi-media tools that are out there and keep developing.”

Asked about the effect of the Internet and growing information outlets on her job and journalism fact-checking, Sullivan said, “I think that makes it more challenging in some ways and in other ways, should something that's dubious get out there you will hear about it very, very quickly because the entire world has become so able to respond and challenge.”

Sullivan added that she does not plan to focus on any one beat or subject area of the newspaper. As the first woman in the position, she said she may bring a different view than the previous male public editors on some things.

“We bring to our roles and responsibilities and our jobs all the parts of who we are and part of who I am is a woman,” she said. “The first woman to have done a number of things at my hometown paper, having been a working mother who balanced kids and a demanding job. It is who I am and what I bring with me. It is germane, but it doesn't promote a rigid agenda of any kind.”

Sullivan's contract is a four-year deal with an option by either party to end the agreement after the first two years.