Liz Spayd

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  • Liz Spayd’s final NY Times column shows why she failed as public editor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The New York Times failed its readers when it decided to eliminate its public editor position. But Liz Spayd’s final column for the paper encapsulates the false choice at the heart of her analysis of the Times’ work, demonstrating why she was a poor fit for the role.

    Under a Trump administration “drowning in scandal,” she writes, “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.”

    “If I think back to one subject I’ve harped on the most as public editor over the last year, this is probably it,” Spayd adds. Indeed, Spayd, who takes pride in being criticized from all sides, often seemed to have viewed her role as channeling the criticisms of conservatives against the paper.

    What Spayd misses -- and what she has consistently missed throughout her tenure at the Times -- is that not all criticism is offered in good faith. The difference between “aggressive and unblinking” coverage of the president and “more partisan” reporting is squishy, and it often depends on the eyes of the beholder.

    And the paper’s most ardent conservative critics -- the Trump supporters who believe the president of the United States when he says media are “the enemy of the American people” and deliberately produce “fake news” -- will never be satisfied with that distinction.

    All journalism that undermines the White House worldview will be deemed excessively partisan by those critics. Encouraged by the Trump administration at all levels, they are the heirs of a decades-long conservative campaign to convince the American people that journalists are irrevocably biased and cannot be trusted. Attempts to mollify those critics will fail, as they always have -- and at a time when journalists are literally being assaulted for doing their jobs, trying seems a farce.

    Indeed, Spayd’s paean for the “days of Watergate” is itself based on a false premise, as conservatives of that era portrayed the coverage that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon not as “aggressive” reporting, but as part of a liberal plot.

    The public editor is an essential role for the Times, and the paper was wrong to eliminate the post. But Spayd’s feckless false choices have shown the role at its worst.

  • The New York Times is failing its readers by eliminating the public editor

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    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.

  • NY Times Public Editor Helps Out An "Alt-Right" Harassment Campaign

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    What is wrong with Liz Spayd?

    This morning, The New York Times’ public editor fell for an “alt-right” harassment campaign against a reporter of color for the paper, devoting her entire column to scolding the writer over a tweet.

    On Wednesday, the rapper Bow Wow sent an ugly tweet warning President Donald Trump to stop criticizing the rapper Snoop Dogg “before we pimp your wife and make her work for us.” Times culture writer Sopan Deb responded on Twitter by first criticizing the rappers and then by joking that “The outrage from @BreitbarkNews” -- a satirical Twitter feed that uses dog puns -- “is going to be through the woof.”

    Mike Cernovich -- a racist, misogynist writer who frequently directs his Twitter followers to launch harassment campaigns -- immediately set his sights on Deb. In a series of tweets, Cernovich declared that Deb thinks “rape threats against the President’s wife" are funny, repeatedly asked Spayd to comment, and urged his fans to email her to “ask about @SopanDeb’s view that human trafficking is funny.”

    To be clear, this is what Cernovich does: unleash his followers on what he considers his enemies in order to make them miserable. He was one of the leading proponents of “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that baselessly alleged Hillary Clinton’s inner circle was orchestrating a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. After Cernovich and and others in the “alt-right” pushed the story on social media, the pizzeria’s staff received a host of “abusive social media comments” and phone calls. Eventually a man who was trying to “self-investigate” the claims entered the business and fired a gunshot.

    Cernovich’s campaign against Deb worked. Times public editor Liz Spayd devoted today’s column to scolding Deb over his tweet; she explicitly links her decision to receiving numerous emails yesterday from critics. As Spayd relates in excruciating detail, she interviewed Deb, the paper’s culture editor, and the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, and consulted the Times guidelines on social media for the piece.

    Spayd concludes that Deb’s “intentions were innocent,” and even acknowledges that the emails she received may have been the result of a campaign by what Deb told her were “far-right conservative groups [that] have latched onto his tweet for their own purposes.”

    But having learned that the dogs were rabid, she nonetheless decided to throw them a bone, validating a fringe campaign against her paper’s own writer. According to Spayd, “The problem is, not everyone is ‘in’ on the joke. Conservatives may use such tweets -- or retweets -- to further their case that the ‘liberal media’ will do and say anything.”

    This is nonsense. Deb isn’t being criticized by earnest people who really think that he was joking about violence against women. He’s the target of a campaign by professional trolls who want to hurt Deb and have seized on the tweet as an opportunity. As Commentary associate editor Noah Rothman noted, “It's not about conservatism but a willful effort to find offense in humor” by people who are “trying to be offended.”

    And Spayd played right into their hands by treating them as if they have a legitimate grievance. Now Cernovich has the opportunity to demonstrate to his fans that they can have an impact by marching to his tune, and he’s taking a curtain call, while continuing to push the envelope

    It’s not the first time Spayd has bowed to pressure from conservatives whose only interest is hurting the paper. In December, Spayd denounced tweets from three Times reporters during an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who read the tweets on-air. She drew opprobrium from the rest of the press for saying the tweets in questions were “over the line” and should have been met with “some kind of consequence.” Carlson, of course, isn’t interested in journalistic standards -- he founded the Daily Caller and has a show on Fox -- but he is very interested in trying to delegitimize the Times.

    Spayd is an obvious, easy target for these campaigns. A central throughline of her columns as public editor has been that conservative complaints that the Times is too liberal need to be treated with respect and responded to promptly. The decades-long effort by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted seems to have escaped her.

    That’s frankly par for the course, and at this point I can’t imagine Spayd’s work improving. But perhaps this horrendous failure will at least convince her to pause and reflect before doing the “alt-right”’s dirty work.

  • NY Times Remains Embroiled In Controversy Over Its 2016 Coverage Of Russia And Trump

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Nearly three months after The New York Times published an influential report on the eve of Election Day insisting “law enforcement officials” had been unable to find concrete links between Russia and the Trump campaign – or find proof Russian operatives were trying to help get Trump elected -- Times editors are still grappling with the controversial coverage. They also remain slow to provide answers to critics who wonder how an article essentially clearing Trump and his associates of links to Russia -- which “hasn’t aged well,” as Chris Hayes put it -- made it into print during such a crucial juncture of the campaign.

    New questions have also been raised about the Times’ decision late in the campaign to sit on the story that Russian officials may have compromising information on Trump; information that was contained in a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official.

    Times executive editor Dean Baquet remains defiant and is lashing out at critics; even one who writes for the Times.

    As for Russia allegedly trying to help elect Trump, Media Matters recently highlighted the Times’ October 31 article, which was headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”

    We noted that an avalanche of revelations have since confirmed the FBI did suspect there were ties between Russia and Trump during the campaign. And when it was published, it was gleefully endorsed by the conservative media as proof that any speculation of there being Russia-Trump connection had been debunked by Times.

    In real time, coming on the eve of the election, the article helped put the media brakes on the unfolding Russian hacking story; the same Russian hacking story that has since turned into a full-time Trump controversy.

    Last Friday, Times public editor Liz Spayd addressed the Times’ Russia-Trump coverage from last fall. Overall, she critiqued the paper’s work as being “timid,” and too often relying on the actions of law enforcement officials, rather than by the paper’s own investigative reporting.

    She was specifically critical of the paper’s handling of the explosive Trump dossier story, noting, “Only after learning from CNN that Trump and President Obama had been briefed on the document did The Times publish what it had known for months.”

    What had the Times known for months? Spayd spells out that Times reporters knew about the dossier, they interviewed its author, knew he was a legitimate former intelligence officer, and could find no “significant red flags” while trying to fact-check the dossier. Despite all that, the Times sat on the dossier story.

    Spayd suggests that part of the reason they didn’t run with the “explosive allegations” was that journalists didn’t think Trump was going to win the election, so the paper didn’t want to risk sparking a controversy by reporting on the dossier.

    Spayd’s appraisal echoes criticism she made last November, just days before the election, when she stressed the Times newsroom hadn’t given enough time and attention to the Russia hacking story. Times readers, she wrote, had been “shortchanged.” (By contrast, she noted the Times newsroom seemed “turbocharged” while covering the Hillary Clinton email saga.)

    The public editor’s most recent critique immediately sparked outcry from within the Times, leading to the odd spectacle of executive editor Baquet airing his complaints about Spayd’s column to the Washington Post. Denouncing Spayd’s critique as a “bad column” that reached a “fairly ridiculous conclusion” (“she doesn’t understand what happened”), Baquet vigorously defended the paper’s election season work on the Russia-Trump story, and stressed that he personally oversaw much of it.

    If that’s the case, Baquet should be able to answer some key, lingering questions about the Times’ misguided October 31 story about there being no evidence of Russia trying to help elect Trump during the campaign:

    • Does Baquet know who the unnamed “law enforcement” sources were who mislead the newspaper about the FBI not being to uncover any evidence of any Russia-Trump link?
    • If those sources lied to the Times, and especially if they did so for partisan reasons, does Baquet agree that the paper is under no obligation to protect their identity?
    • And were those sources part of an anti-Clinton cabal within the FBI, and specifically within the FBI’s New York bureau?
    • Are Times reporters today still using those untrustworthy sources?

    Banquet’s continued defensive posture is reminiscent of the strategy Times editors took in the wake of the Iraq War in 2003 when it became increasingly clear that the paper’s pre-war coverage had failed badly, especially its over-eagerness to help the Bush administration sell a story about the looming threat of Iraq WMDs. For a year, Times editors defended the paper’s performance.

    It wasn’t until May 26, 2004, that the Times published a mea culpa of sorts. (Days later, the paper’s public editor offered up a scathing critique of the newsroom’s effort during the run-up to the war.)

    Today, Banquet is taking the same approach regarding the Times and the Russian hacking story: The newspaper did nothing wrong and all questions ought to be dismissed.

    But they’re not. From Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to President Obama:

    Public editor Spayd made a good-faith effort to put the Times’ 2016 Russia-Times hacking coverage into perspective and to offer up an honest appraisal. It would be helpful if the Times leadership did the same.

  • NY Times Public Editor Says Problem With Paper’s Election Coverage Is It Was Too Mean To Trump Supporters

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    In a strange move that bodes ill for the paper’s future coverage, The New York Times’ public editor devoted her review of the paper’s election work almost entirely to detailing ways in which she thought the paper hadn’t been understanding enough of Donald Trump’s supporters.

    Throughout the column, public editor Liz Spayd detailed how readers were upset about the newspaper’s election work and she quoted several of them to prove the point. She stressed that reader outpouring from “around the country” was extremely high (“five times the normal level”), and that there was a “searing level of dissatisfaction out there with many aspects of the coverage.”  

    But Spayd’s hand-selected readers led inexorably to her point that the Times had not been sufficiently charitable to Trump voters. “Few could deny that if Trump’s more moderate supporters are feeling bruised right now, the blame lies partly with their candidate and his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric,” she wrote. “But the media is at fault too, for turning his remarks into a grim caricature that it applied to those who backed him.” At every turn, the readers with whom Spayd chooses to engage criticize the purported liberalism of the Times’ coverage. The message the public editor sends is clear: the paper should move to the right to quell reader concerns.

    Yet not a single reader whom Spayd chose to include in her post-campaign analysis expressed any concern about the daily’s Clinton coverage. Nor did she feature any complaints that the paper’s coverage of Trump may have been insufficiently rigorous. Instead, criticism from the left of the paper’s general election coverage was entirely absent.

    The omission and complete lack of introspection is also strange simply because the Times’ treatment of Clinton has been the topic of an ongoing media debate, as a wide array of writers have detailed what they viewed as the paper’s patently unfair treatment of the Democratic nominee. Even the Times’ former executive editor, Jill Abramson, agreed that the newspaper gives Clinton “an unfair” level of scrutiny.

    She was hardly alone this campaign, as numerous media observers and readers alike criticized the paper’s treatment of the Democratic nominee, calling the coverage a "biased train wreck" that indicated "a problem covering Hillary Clinton," who was "always going to be presumed guilty of something."

    Yet gazing over all of that commentary and all those detailed complaints, Spayd saw no reason to address progressive criticism of the paper. It really does appear that the Times-wide denial is complete.

    But so what about the Clinton treatment, some might say. What’s done is done and Trump is the pressing media issue moving forward. I agree. But I also see a direct connection between the Times’ unfair and accusatory Clinton coverage, and what appears to be its increasingly passive reporting on President-elect Trump.

    And it stands to reason: If the main lesson the Times newsroom is being taught from the election is that the paper was too tough on Trump, too mean to his supporters, and that readers think the paper’s “liberal” bias is evident, guess what kind of coverage that produces?

    It produces the kind of coverage where, one day after Trump’s attorney announced the newly elected president was settling a huge $25 million consumer fraud lawsuit filed against him (an unheard-of development in American politics), the Times published a mostly-upbeat, front-page Trump piece that portrayed him as “confident,” “focused,” “proud,” and “freewheeling.” (To date, the Times has published exactly one news article about the Trump University fraud settlement.)

    Right below that article on the front page the same day appeared another puff piece, this one an admiring look at Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, described by the Times as a “steadying hand” with “driving confidence” who might serve as a “moderating influence” with Trump. This, just days after Trump appointed a white nationalist as his top advisor.

    Meanwhile, the Times’ response to the kerfuffle that recently broke out when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed by audience members while attending “Hamilton” on Broadway was oddly passive and defensive. At least two Times staffers, including one reporter currently covering Trump for the newsroom, seemed to denounce the boos as being disrespectful. And in its news report on the incident, the Times noted Trump tweeted about the booing, but failed to inform readers that Trump’s tweet was completely inaccurate: Cast members were not “very rude” to Pence. (It was audience members who booed, not the performers, who thanked Pence for attending and asked that he work on behalf of all Americans.)

    That’s not to say the Times hasn’t published any worthy news articles during the early stages of the Trump transition. On November 19, the newspaper reported on the morass of looming conflicts for the new president:

    President-elect Donald J. Trump met in the last week in his office at Trump Tower with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex south of Mumbai, raising new questions about how he will separate his business dealings from the work of the government once he is in the White House.

    Where did the potentially damaging piece appear? On page 20.

    The Times did follow up two days laterwith a front-page examination of Trump’s pending conflicts. But the question still lingers: Did the newsroom learn the wrong lessons from the 2016 campaign?

  • NY Times Public Editor Apologizes For Discordant Coverage Of Trump's Immigration Speech

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST

    The New York Times' public editor apologized for the heavily edited story on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico and immigration speech, which misleadingly portrayed Trump as “remak[ing] his image” on immigration when in reality Trump doubled down on his anti-immigrant policies.  

    Following Trump’s widely panned August 31 speech on immigration, The New York Times’ Patrick Healy wrote a front page article which praised Trump’s “audacious attempt ... to remake his image on the divisive issue of immigration,” drawing intense criticism from reporters who said that its author had “apparently watched a completely different immigration speech.”

    Subsequently, substantial edits were made to the article without acknowledgment of the changes, prompting public editor Liz Spayd to tweet that she was “looking for answers this morning on the unexplained redo.”

    In her explanation on the debacle, Spayd wrote that “For many readers, the story looked like a significant misportrayal of events” due to the fast-paced nature of the changing events. Spayd conceded that “other major news sites managed to hit the mark” and noted that “mistakes can have a genuine impact” on the newspaper's reputation. From the September 1 article:

    What happened? Why did the first version seem so off and why wasn’t The Times more transparent about the changes?

    I asked Carolyn Ryan, The Times’s political editor, for an explanation. “Trump acted jarringly differently in Phoenix than he did in Mexico, and we scrambled to reflect that, without obscuring the fact that he was backing away from his policy to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants,” she said. “I think readers were eager to see the fiery language and belligerent tone in Phoenix reflected quickly in the story, especially if they had just watched his appearance, and I understand that.”

    What that boils down to is: We were moving as fast as we could and the story changed on us.

    The flaw in hanging this simply on tight deadlines and fast-changing facts is that many other major news sites managed to hit the mark.

    [...]

    All of this may sound like tedious newsroom mechanics, but mistakes can have a genuine impact on The Times’s reputation among readers. In a climate where sinister motives are attached to every word and headline The Times produces, looking squarely at such episodes is a step worth taking.

  • A simple question for the Washington Post

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    For months, I've been trying to get key Washington Post journalists to answer a basic question: Does the Post think it is sufficient to occasionally debunk falsehoods, or does the paper believe it should do so every time it prints those falsehoods?

    It's a simple question, but nobody seems to want to answer it. I've submitted that question to countless "Live Q&A" sessions hosted by Post media critic Howard Kurtz, executive editor Marcus Brauchli, and managing editors Raju Narisetti and Liz Spayd. But none of them have ever answered the question. Kurtz's refusal to do so is particularly glaring, as he ducked the question once by demanding an example of the Post failing to correct a falsehood -- and has subsequently ignored questions that contain such an example. (Here's some background.)

    Narisetti is conducting a Q&A session at 1 PM today, so I'm trying yet again to get an answer. Here's the question I submitted earlier this morning:

    This is roughly the 20th time I have submitted a variation on this question to Live Q&As held by you, Liz Spayd, Marcus Brauchli, and Howard Kurtz, so I hope you'll answer it: Does the Washington Post think it is sufficient to debunk false claims once, or does the Post think it should debunk false claims every time it prints them?

    Mr. Kurtz has praised the Post's handling of the "Death Panels" lie -- but the Post has printed numerous articles that refer to "death panels" without making clear that the charge is false. (E.g.: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/27/AR201002...)

    So, again: Do you think it is sufficient to debunk a false claim once, or should the Post do so every time it prints that claim?

    If you'd like to submit your own version of this question, you can do so here.

    UPDATE: Narisetti just wrapped up, and didn't see fit to answer my question, though he did find time to say the Post should have covered the bogus NBPP story sooner, to comment on the frequency of Live Q&A sessions, and to answer a subscriber's question about an undelivered newspaper.

    I honestly have no idea why Posties would be so afraid of answering this simple little question.