In his farewell column yesterday, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane declared that the paper still lacks “transparency” and “humility.” Also, apparently, online copy editing, as the first version of the column posted on the paper’s web site misspelled Lake Wobegon, badly. The Times, perhaps proving Brisbane’s point about humility, placed the farewell piece on the very last page of its Sunday Review section, at the very bottom, and with no art whatsoever. In other words: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
But, generating more of a response from insiders—including chief editor Jill Abramson—and outsiders, such as Jay Rosen, was Brisbane’s absurd charge that the paper is somehow failing readers because polls show that Republicans now give it lower credibility ratings than before. As if the increasingly fact-adverse GOPers would ever give high marks to largely reality-based media. They prefer the fantasies and truthiness of talk radio and Fox, of course.
I’ve followed Brisbane’s career for years. When I ran Editor & Publisher a few years ago, we put him on the cover when Brisbane (then at the Kansas City Star) was picked to be co-director of Knight Ridder—before that move was short-circuited when Tony Ridder sold the business to McClatchy. Before that, I knew him because he carried the name, and was descended from, the famous Hearst columnist and editor, who was a key character in my book about Upton Sinclair’s fabled race for governor of Calfornia in 1934. I think we exchanged an e-mail or two about that some time ago.
Now, I have my own bones to pick with the allegedly ultra-liberal Times, and do so, almost daily in one venue or another. But Brisbane’s parting shot about bowing to conservatives on “liberal bias” was laughable. Talk about lack of credibility. Brisbane wrote that Times editors and reporters “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.” He complained that Times reporters treat some issues, like gay marriage and Occupy, “more like causes than news subjects.”
Jill Abrmamson responded in a breidf interview with Politico, saying she disagreed with Brisbane’s “sweeping conclusions.” Her reply: “I agree with another past public editor, Dan Okrent, and my predecessor as executive editor, Bill Keller, that in covering some social and cultural issues, the Times sometimes reflects its urban and cosmopolitan base. But I also often quote, including in talks with Mr. Brisbane, another executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, who wanted to be remembered for keeping ‘the paper straight.’ That’s essential.”
This was pretty weak tea. She was admitting that the Times did not exactly offer the “view from nowhere” that Jay Rosen has written so much about—it was the “view from somewhere” but still basically “straight.” And as some of us have long charged, the straight is often too narrow, while the truth sits on the roadside, hidden or, sometimes, in plain sight.
Erik Wemple at the Washington Post added this critique: “So the New York Times covered Occupy Wall Street like a cause, huh? Well, then I don’t want the New York Times spearheading my pet causes. Because the New York Times didn’t exactly hop right on the story of Occupy Wall Street.” In fact, if anything, it mocked Occupy early on. Who can forget those Andrew Ross Sorkin’s columns? (Apparently, Brisbane.)
So what did Jay Rosen think of all this? He has a history with Brisbane, drawing wide attention earlier this year with his outrage (joined by many others) over the public editor’s claim that the paper should not be a “truth vigilante.” Brisbane actually wrote: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Really.
“A major step in transparency,” Rosen pointed out in response to Brisbane’s farewell, “was taken eight years ago by the first public editor, Daniel Okrent, who in his column asked, ‘Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?’ His answer: of course it is. It reflects the city where it is made. What would you expect?…. He didn’t agree that in most coverage of politics and policy the Times was ‘left,’ but he did agree that a tone of ‘implicit advocacy’ came through on social issues: ‘gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.’ ”
“What’s odd to me about Brisbane’s parting column,” Rosen concluded, “is not only that he doesn’t mention Okrent, who was there first. He also doesn’t seem to appreciate the contradiction between calling for greater transparency and bashing the Times for showing that it has a world view. Wouldn’t real transparency mean that the Times embraces who it is, where it is made, and the culture of New York City, acknowledges that it has a sensibility and takes other steps away from the implied (but absurd) default: the View from Nowhere?”
Citing Abramson’s response, Rosen writes: “Believe it or not, that’s ideological evolution at the New York Times. A good way to interrupt this welcome movement toward greater transparency is to frame the world view of the Times as a kind of ongoing scandal, a problem that needs fixing, a blight on its reputation, an injury to its journalism.”
In other words: let Abe Rosenthal rest in piece.