Without Fear, Favor or Ombudsman
Twice recently, the New York Times has had occasion to pay homage to a Washington Post ombudsman. In the first case, it recognized the valuable roughing-up the job's current holder, Michael Getler, gives the paper's reporters with his once-a-week "what's wrong with the paper" salvos. Shortly thereafter, the paper noted in its obituary of the Post's first ombudsman, Richard Harwood, that "there are now 38 ombudsmen, about half at newspapers with more than 110,000 circulation." Not one of the papers, however, is named the Times.
That the Times is the English-speaking world's greatest newspaper has today become unarguable. The Post is a regional newspaper with national politics as its local news beat. The Wall Street Journal is a business paper with a few good news pages and an extremely nutty editorial section. The Los Angeles Times, well, damned if I know...
But the great, no longer gray, lady has many weaknesses, and her greatest is undoubtedly arrogance. The Times countenances virtually no outside criticism. This is important, not only because the paper sets the agenda for the entire media but also because, on many stories, its reporting is the only source that millions of people will ever see. This is particularly hard on those who, for whatever reason, find themselves seriously wronged by the paper. In most cases, barring an expensive lawsuit, if the most powerful newspaper in the nation decides to screw you on a question that is not strictly one of easily demonstrable fact, you stay screwed.
Not long ago, the paper's publishing correspondent, David Kirkpatrick, became embroiled in an extremely public dispute with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers. All that Times readers ever learned about the fracas from the paper's corrections page was that the reporter made an insignificant error on the location of one of Eggers's readings. But readers of Eggers's McSweeney's website and Jim Romenesko's Media News were treated to a gluttonous feast of argument, including the two writers' lengthy e-mail correspondence. The postings raised significant issues for the newspaper. For instance, Kirkpatrick wrote, "Despite public disavowals of making money from his work, Mr. Eggers has also made it clear that he does not much like sharing the proceeds." His only example was a lawsuit Eggers settled with his former agent. This hardly proves the case against an author who, Kirkpatrick notes elsewhere in the article, gives away much of what he earns. (The fact that Kirkpatrick is a casual friend of the agent in question does not help matters.) In addition, Kirkpatrick admitted--and apologized for--using comments Eggers told him were off the record. The reporter says he did so only after receiving permission from Eggers's publisher's publicist. Eggers insists this is false and would be journalistically indefensible if true. The publicist calls it a mix-up. Mightn't an ombudsman be able to offer both sides a fair hearing?
An ombudsman would also free Times editors from the painful choice of blaming either themselves or their reporters when they screw up. Currently, nonfactual errors are addressed only in the rare, and highly self-protective, Editor's Note. Even in its extraordinary 1,600-word note on its coverage of accused spy Wen Ho Lee--accurately termed by one wag "equal parts Chicken Little and Spanish Inquisition"--Times editors insisted that complaints were leveled exclusively by "competing journalists and media critics and...defenders of Dr. Lee," as if no disinterested or fair-minded reader would dare to question the paper's news judgments. Similarly, when Kenneth Starr's deputy Charles Bakaly III was acquitted of lying to a federal court about leaking secret information last year, Federal Judge Norma Holloway Johnson nonetheless found that Bakaly "was in fact the direct source, or at least a confirming source, for much of the information found in the [January 31, 1999] Times article," something Bakaly admitted. Yet in the story in question, Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. had informed his readers that Bakaly "declined to discuss" the investigation with him and even quoted him refusing to do so. Since sourcing was crucial to all stories regarding Starr's investigation, the Times appeared to be deliberately misinforming its readers on a story of national consequence. You might think this would prompt some kind of explanation from the paper's editors. Alas, you would be wrong.
Why no ombudsman? Managing editor Bill Keller explains, "We think it makes more sense to have problems and complaints reviewed by people with the responsibility and authority to do something about them, namely, the editors of the paper rather than by a designated kibitzer." His boss, executive editor Joe Lelyveld, adds, "Generally speaking we don't like to cover ourselves--we find it a little too self-referential for our tastes."
Indeed, Metro section Op-Ed page columnist Sydney Schanberg was fired under the previous regime for covering the paper's role in local politics a bit too energetically, as former managing editor Seymour Topping admits in my book Sound and Fury. But the Times's own power is absolutely crucial to stories like the Lee and Bakaly cases. More recently, buried deep inside a story about the paper's choice of an architect for its new headquarters was the admission that part of its proposed site "is now in the hands of 11 property owners, but New York State would condemn it under its powers of eminent domain." Did anyone think to ask these property owners about how they feel about this? One of them, parking lot owner Leonard Weiss, is, unbeknownst to Times readers, suing to protect his property in court. (Isn't this the kind of thing that used to set off regular US invasions of Panama and Nicaragua?)
I could go on, of course, but space restricts me to one final question: In a page-one report from Mexico, two top Timesmen combined to report that George W. Bush and Vicente Fox both wore "black cowboy boots that peeked out mischievously from beneath the bottoms of the pants." Excuse me, guys, but how in hell do boots peek "mischievously"? Why not "perspicaciously" or "sullenly" or even "prudently"? Or do such questions fall into the forbidden category of "undesignated kibitzing"?