Margaret Sullivan, an Ombud Who Cares
The New York Times building in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)
With criticism and debate over the Obama administration’s deadly drone policy at a high level, it’s easy to forget that this was not the case until very recently. What set off the uproar was NBC’s decision in early February to publish a Justice Department white paper on rules governing US drone strikes aimed at American citizens abroad. This led to an examination of the entire program by the media and some in Congress, and put John Brennan on the spot during his congressional confirmation hearings for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Although the White House has drawn criticism, less has been said about the media’s failure to probe the drone program, and the way they knuckled under to government requests to withhold secrets. One of the few prominent critics of this journalistic “cover-up” was Margaret Sullivan, who happened to be working at the nation’s most influential media outlet, The New York Times. Her main target was… The New York Times.
Sullivan, the former editor of Warren Buffett’s Buffalo News, became the latest person appointed to the paper’s rotating post of public editor (a variety of ombudsman) last September. On October 13, she took the Times to task, charging that “its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as ‘militants’—itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers…. With its vast talent and resources, The Times has a responsibility to lead the way in covering this topic as aggressively and as forcefully as possible, and to keep pushing for transparency so that Americans can understand just what their government is doing.”
This earned her the praise of others who have criticized previous public editors at the Times for their soft critiques of the paper. “On drones and the Times’s withdrawal from the ‘informal arrangement’ not to disclose the Saudi Arabia base, she was right,” Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media critic, told me. “Right and quick, too. I was pursuing interviews with the paper that morning, and she beat me to the punch, scoring a bunch of insightful material from [managing editor] Dean Baquet.”
When I recently asked Sullivan for an update on her current concerns, she replied, “This is a subject that is very important to me, and I’m sure I will keep paying close attention to it. I did see after I wrote about it in October that there was a slightly different and more precise use of the language in stories, and I was heartened by that. The key is not just the language but the whole question of secrecy around the program and how the newspaper interacts with the government.”
But the drone column and later posts on this subject were hardly exceptions to Sullivan’s crisp reviewing. Among other issues she has raised that drew wide coverage and might even have sparked changes: the policy of the Times, and many other outlets, of granting quote approval to their sources; the perils of “false equivalency” in covering hot-button issues; social media posts by Jodi Rudoren, the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, that appeared to reveal bias against Palestinians in Gaza; the paper’s failure to send a reporter to cover Pfc. Bradley Manning’s first day of testimony at his trial for passing documents to WikiLeaks; the paper’s decision in early March to shut down its popular “Green” blog on environmental issues; and many more.
All the while Sullivan managed to file more typical public editor assessments of topics ranging from a dining critic’s particularly harsh restaurant review to errors in the paper’s early reporting on the Sandy Hook massacre. In a March 9 column, she criticized the government’s war on leaks, and also asked more from the newspaper: “The Times needs to keep pressing on all these fronts, and with more zeal in print than it has so far. If news organizations don’t champion press interests, who will?”
This high-profile activity, and apparent impact, comes even as The Washington Post, in contrast, became the latest of several newspapers to eliminate its long-running ombudsman position. In a farewell column on March 1, the paper’s final ombud, Patrick Pexton, focused on issues like grammar, online comments policy and copy editing, although he has covered weightier topics during his tenure.
The change at the Post sparked Jack Shafer at Reuters to title a column, “Does Anyone Care About Newspaper Ombudsmen?” His answer seemed to be, Not many.
Others disagree, at least in the case of The Times. “Margaret Sullivan has revolutionized the public editor position in the best possible way,” Glenn Greenwald, now at The Guardian, told me. “Rather than dwell on trite ombudsman issues of interest only to media types, she has used her position to bravely confront the central questions facing modern journalism in the Internet age.
“More important, past public editors have typically aired only complaints about the Times heard from the right,” Greenwald continued. “Sullivan’s critiques transcend stale ideological boxes. She has focused on exactly the questions which a smart public editor should pursue: How does a newspaper fulfill its prime function of acting as an adversarial check on those in power, and how does it go about informing its readers of facts without concern for who is offended?
“Combined with her willingness to write about issues which scare away even the bravest journalists—such as debates over proper media coverage of Israel and Palestine—this pursuit of truly substantive questions has instantly made her an invaluable voice on all of the key issues of media criticism. That she’s doing it at the Times, while writing about the Times, makes it all the more impressive, and consequential.”