Margaret Sullivan recently finished up her nearly four-year stint as “Public Editor”—read “ombudsman”—of The New York Times. Her tenure accomplished many things, most importantly the potential of web-based media reporting and criticism to combat the media establishment’s groupthink.
Sullivan approached her work by reading the paper from the point of view of its consumers, rather than as a member of the club that produced it. She had been the editor of The Buffalo News, a small paper, which did not prepare anyone for her reinvention of the public editor’s role. Her intimate knowledge of the profession allowed her to see through self-serving explanations that masked how powerful media institutions like the Times cozy up to the powers on whom they report, compromising their ability to be democracy’s watchdogs.
When, during her final week, I asked Sullivan how she had defined her goals during her tenure, she named three in particular: to orient her job toward “a two-way conversation” with readers; to make it “much more digitally oriented”; and to treat her own work as “reported commentary.” And her doggedness in the pursuit of all three would sometimes result in a rare and beautiful thing: the spectacle of our most influential media institution successfully held accountable to standards of fairness and common sense even when its journalists had failed them.
Of course, this happened only occasionally. From the countless questions and complaints she received each week, Sullivan would pick those she deemed most significant and then proceed to demand answers from those responsible. She told me that while some reporters refused to engage and told her to take up her complaints with their editors, she did not encounter that problem near the top of the hierarchy and found executive editor Dean Baquet supportive. Often, Sullivan would follow up on these responses (or non-responses) with her own reporting before judging their merit or lack thereof. Nonetheless, getting answers, much less changes, was usually an uphill battle. As one of Sullivan’s favorite commenters wondered, will Times editors “ever get out of their defensive crouch? Or is it a permanent deformity?”
While change came slowly to the paper, it did come. When I asked Sullivan what gave her the greatest pride, she noted that her four years at the paper had been “bookended [by] the banning of quote approval, and the tightening up on anonymous sources.” She thinks that these changes might have happened without her constant criticism, but I doubt it. On a less exalted level, she also expressed some pride in compelling the paper’s top brass to respond in real time to legitimate complaints from readers, including the paper’s (decidedly misguided) dismantling of the environment blog, its astonishingly sexist examination of Serena Williams’s body type, and, under the category of “reported commentary,” her success in getting former CIA director Michael Hayden to admit that “he can’t prove any harm to national security from the leaks on eavesdropping.” She is also pleased with the paper’s decision to take up her suggestion to hire a fluent Arabic speaker for its Jerusalem bureau (though again, as an independent actor at the paper who reported to none of the paper’s editors, she has no way of knowing just how important her own writing may have been in any given decision).