Joe Biden, Ukraine, and the NY Times’ desperate need for a public editor

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The New York Times may be the so-called paper of record. But a series of recent controversies over its political reporting have made the paper itself the story, and not in a good way. The Times has relied on a dual strategy of issuing canned statements and letting individual reporters defend the paper more vigorously on social media. And instead of quieting the criticism, that strategy has highlighted the Times’ biggest self-inflicted wound of all: its decision to eliminate the public editor.

The Times is similar to plenty of large corporations, in that management doesn’t like to be questioned. But unlike its peers in the business world, the Times has an opportunity to turn its missteps into proof of its journalistic courage and integrity. It’s baffling that the paper would eliminate this obvious line of self-defense. And the cost of that decision has never been more obvious.

The Times’ latest dilemma stems from the news that Iuliia Mendel, a Ukrainian freelancer who contributed to dozens of stories about that country's politics for the paper, had been hired as spokesperson for its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Those sorts of transitions always draw scrutiny, not all of it warranted. But Mendel’s new job was announced shortly after she co-authored a widely criticized May 1 Times story suggesting that then-Vice President Joe Biden had pushed the notoriously corrupt Ukrainian government to dismiss its top prosecutor in part to aid Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of an energy company that was under investigation.

The story waited until its 19th paragraph to acknowledge there was “no evidence” Biden “intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” And Bloomberg later reported that the probe into the energy company had been “dormant” for years before Biden interceded to force the prosecutor’s removal. Most damning of all might have been the story’s very frame: though it was positioned as an investigation into Republican attempts to peddle the story to damage Biden, the paper allowed itself to be manipulated into peddling the very disinformation it was trying to cover.

The article’s co-author, Times reporter Ken Vogel, weighed in on Twitter to defend the piece during the ensuing social media firestorm, cherry-picking a few criticisms to address and ignoring others. Meanwhile, the Times issued a bland statement standing by its reporting, and some of Vogel’s colleagues rallied around him.

The Times story drew new criticism after Mendel’s hiring by the Ukrainian government inevitably led some observers to question whether Mendel influenced the story in an attempt to land her latest gig.

In response, the paper issued another flat statement offering as a defense that she did not apply for the job until two days after the story was published, and an assertion that Times “editors are confident” that “her reporting -- including her work on our recent Hunter Biden story -- was fair and accurate.” (Vogel has not mentioned Mendel’s new job on Twitter.)

It’s entirely possible that the Times’ explanation is correct, especially because, as Nina Jankowicz, a foreign policy analyst with expertise in Ukraine, points out, Zelensky’s political standing was actually harmed by the Times article, making it a less-than-ideal audition for Mendel if she was trying to use it to facilitate a career transition.

But the Times would never accept this sort of “we did nothing wrong” assurance from any other powerful institution. The paper’s reporters would insist that their readers needed more than a blanket declaration -- and if they didn’t get it, the resulting story would make clear what that denial was worth.

Like Times reporters on other beats, a Times public editor would play an essential role in getting readers those answers about the Times itself. Before the paper eliminated the position in 2017, its public editor (known as an ombudsman at other outlets) was responsible for reviewing reader criticism about the paper’s reporting, ethics, and standards, reporting out whether there was a basis for those complaints, adjudicating the merits of those critiques, and delivering verdicts in regular columns.

The best public editors both give readers a voice that the newsroom has to heed and explain to the general public the complexities that govern the practice of journalism that might not be obvious to outside observers. Public editors operate independently from the newsroom’s editorial structure. They are typically hired on term contracts, rather than as regular employees, and their limited tenure frees them from concerns about currying the long-term favor of their colleagues. But because they are employed by the paper, they are better equipped than media reporters from other outlets to compel managers to answer questions.

In this case, a Times public editor could review Mendel’s past work, including the Biden story, with a detachment not available to her assigning editors; determine whether her critics are describing those stories accurately and weigh their complaints accordingly; and question her co-author, Ken Vogel, and his editors about the role Mendel played in the story. Critics, the newsroom, or both might not be pleased with the result. But the paper would operate more transparently, which would be good for its readers.

Every major news outlet could use an ombudsman. But that internal check is particularly important at the Times.

“What the Times does really matters, affecting the whole media and political ecosystem,” former Times public editor and current Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, explaining why the paper receives so much criticism. “When it exerts its muscle, it can change the course of history. And when it errs -- in fact or in judgment -- the consequences can be monumental. And err it does.”

Without a public editor, the public’s recourse is to use social media to complain about stories directly to the reporters who wrote them. Indeed, that was what then-Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger said he wanted when he eliminated the position, arguing that “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”

That’s a lovely sentiment in theory. In practice, it forces every Times reporter to field the questions that might once have gone to the public editor, while giving none of them the authority to question their colleagues or offer definitive judgements about Times stories. The result has been a cacophony of criticism, and little public introspection by the Times, certainly none of it particularly useful.

This cycle keeps repeating. The month of May alone featured not only the debate over the Biden piece, but also a skirmish over an article chronicling the insults Trump has levied at his possible 2020 opponents; criticism of the paper’s reporting around the Mueller report; and an uproar over a piece about Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director who is a focus of congressional investigations into the Trump administration. In each case, the paper’s work drew vigorous criticism followed by an official defense from the Times of its reporting, sometimes bolstered by responses from individual Times journalists.

The harsh reaction to the Hicks article, by political reporter Maggie Haberman, drew a particularly furious backlash from her colleagues. They praised her “indispensable” journalism while publicly condemning the “insane rants” from her critics and ignoring altogether the specific critiques of her story, as if it were impossible that Haberman could simultaneously be a great journalist and write a flawed article.

There’s a critique that Times reporters -- and Haberman in particular --  are unusually thin-skinned. But by making every Times reporter responsible for fielding complaints about every story the paper runs, the Times has made this bunker mentality -- and the reader impatience with it -- inevitable.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The public editor isn’t a panacea. Having the position did not prevent the paper’s deeply flawed treatment of the 2016 election, and bringing it back won’t break the Times’ political reporting from its adherence to a model of journalism that seems insufficient to the moment. And there is no cure for the cultural phenomenon that encourages people to harangue public figures, including journalists, on social media.

But the paper’s experiment with letting social media take the place of the public editor has obviously failed. It’s not too late to reverse that decision and bring more transparency to a crucial organization. Both New York Times readers and New York Times journalists deserve better than this.