The New York Times is eliminating its public editor position, a move that will reduce accountability at the most powerful news organization in the country at a time when it needs it the most.
Current public editor Liz Spayd, who was reportedly expected to remain in the position until 2018, will leave the paper Friday, according to a note to staff from New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. about the elimination of the public editor role obtained by Media Matters. HuffPost’s Michael Calderone broke the story of the position’s elimination.
Since 2003, the Times has employed a public editor to review criticism from the public about the paper’s ethics, the quality of its journalism, and its standards. With a broad mandate and the ability to work “outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newsroom,” the position marries true independence with the ability to get answers from reporters and editors about their methods and stories.
At its best, the public editor gives readers both a voice and an informed view of how the paper operates. Spayd has frequently failed in her role. But eliminating the position altogether is the wrong move -- indeed, Spayd suffers significantly in comparison to her predecessor, the excellent Margaret Sullivan, who has since moved to The Washington Post.
It is truly unfortunate that this decision comes amid an all-out assault on the press’s credibility -- including numerous attacks on the Times -- from President Donald Trump and his associates. The public's trust in the media has plummeted. A diligent independent public editor could be a key weapon in combating the growing skepticism toward the media, explaining controversial reporting methods like the use of anonymous sources -- and explaining when those practices are justified -- while also reserving room to critique failures.
According to Sulzberger’s missive, the public editor’s role will be largely replaced by “dramatically expanding our commenting platform,” engaging with readers on social media, publishing “behind-the-scenes dispatches describing the reporting process and demystifying why we made certain journalistic decisions,” and creating a “Reader Center” to serve as “the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism.”
This explanation demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role the public editor plays, offering not accountability but assurances that the paper is doing a great job and if it does fail, journalists at other outlets will be able to criticize its work.
This is no substitute for the independent, focused review provided by the public editor, and it’s unclear whether the “Reader Center” will have the sort of public cachet that will require editors and reporters to publicly explain their decisions.
“The one thing an ombud or public editor can almost always do is hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management,” Sullivan noted on Twitter. “The role, by definition, is a burr under the saddle for the powers that be.”
The Times decision follows the Post’s 2013 elimination of its independent ombudsman, who filled the same role under similar circumstances for four decades, and was similarly replaced with a Post-employed “reader representative.”
At the time, former Post ombudsmen warned that this would be a “big mistake,” noting that, in the words of Andy Alexander, “there is a huge difference between an ombudsman who merely reflects what readers are saying, as opposed to an ombudsman who has the independence and authority to ask uncomfortable questions of reporters and editors and then publicly hold the newsroom to account.”
The Post's other media critics have at times sought to review their paper’s reporting. But they lack the same ability to command responses from others in the newsroom -- and the mandate to do that job full time -- when the paper fails its readers.
It was no doubt irritating for Times journalists to subject themselves to Spayd’s often flawed questions. But presuming that the solution is to replace the public editor with a comments section is an insult to the intelligence of Times readers.