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.” 

The first Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, raised some tough issues, such as his criticism of executive editor Bill Keller for failing to fully come to grips with the paper’s misconduct in the run-up to the Iraq War. But the public editors who succeeded Okrent too often drifted into trivial issues or failed to press editors to get to the root of a controversy. And, even as millions of readers embraced the web, the public editor’s column, which appears approximately twice a month in the paper’s Sunday review, was rooted primarily in print. 

Sullivan, on the other hand, is able to cover so much, so often, because unlike her predecessors, she has used her blog at the paper’s main website regularly—making good on one of her first promises to readers after taking the job. And it’s a good thing she did. She has discovered there are two (nearly) separate audiences for her work: those who read her Sunday columns but seem unaware that she posts frequently on her blog, and those who follow her blog—or get sent there via Twitter—but rarely find her in print. What unites the two audiences, she says, is that they are all “passionate” about the newspaper and “feel strongly” about what should be covered. And they are not at all shy about sharing those opinions. 

“What strikes me is that she’s determined to participate in the online conversation about the Times and its brand of journalism,” commented Jay Rosen, longtime PressThink blogger/media critic and journalism professor at New York University. “The previous public editors did not see this as important. One result: she is on top of things a lot more quickly, like the recent controversy over John Broder’s very negative and influential review of the Tesla” electric car. 

Erik Wemple agrees: “Sullivan seems to be revolutionizing this position of in-house newspaper watchdog through the mere act of using her blog. She has an immediate impact by virtue of her position, and she’s showing that the Internet has a great deal of interest in more frequent dispatches from the public editor of The New York Times. I guess this position has been such an old-school undertaking for so long that a few blog posts—many, actually—have had a transformative effect. She seems to be having quite a bit of fun, too.” 

But how has she been received inside the Times newsroom? “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how open and responsive the editors and reporters have been,” Sullivan told me. “They are clearly used to having a public editor—they know how it works. I haven’t once had someone say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’” 

* * *

So who is Margaret Sullivan, and how did she end up at the newspaper of record?

Sullivan hails from Lackawanna, a former steel city outside Buffalo. As it happens, she and I started our journalism careers at the same place: as summer interns at the Niagara Gazette (I was a decade ahead of her). After getting her master’s degree at Northwestern, she landed at The Buffalo News in 1980 and, in a time-honored route to the top, handled all sorts of beats and editing desks over the years, finally becoming the paper’s first woman editor in 1999. A few years later, when I was the editor of Editor & Publisher, we put her on the cover to represent the belated trend of naming women to run newsrooms. 

But after three decades at the News, “I was ready for a change,” she said. She was single again, her son was in law school and her daughter was attending college in New York City. She had been reading the public editor column with great interest. “I’d always had the idea that this would be something I could bring something to.” 

Meanwhile, she had started blogging in Buffalo and using social media, “so I had some digital experience and a lot of interest. My impression is that it was never a high priority for other public editors to engage with readers other than in print. The Times wanted to change that, and I was very interested in that aspect as well.” 

Unlike previous public editors, she comes to the Times office every workday and has an office in the paper’s main third-floor newsroom. “I liken it to being a police reporter in the cop shop,” she says. 

After reading much of the paper online and in print, she checks her e-mail for “reader inquiries and complaints,” comments by outside media critics and “internal tips” from Times staffers. But “the readers get the greatest emphasis—that’s what I’m here for, ultimately. Dylan said you ‘gotta serve somebody,’ and I try to serve the reader. I’m always mindful that the core reason I’m here is to address integrity issues when they arise. 

“Of course, I bring my own beliefs to the party as well. I care deeply about First Amendment issues, about gender equity, about transparency…and I love good writing and investigative reporting that serves the public interest.” 

But no regular reader will be surprised that she is “especially interested in issues having to do with false balance and false equivalency, and the need to get at the truth on particular issues. I’m not terribly interested right now in parsing the extent to which the Times is or is not a ‘left-leaning’ newspaper,” which some of her predecessors, like Art Brisbane, spent a good deal of time exploring. 

Here’s how Sullivan updates some of the issues she’s taken on in recent months: 

§ The Bradley Manning military trial: the Times did start covering the Manning hearings and trial belatedly. “I don’t know if it was cause-and-effect after what I wrote, but it was good sense to send someone there.” 

§ The overuse of anonymous sources: “Public editors are famous for whaling away at this. Whenever you can name a source, you should do so.” 

§ Submitting quotes to interviewees for their approval: “I thought I’d give it six months and see how it’s working. It would be revealing if it has kept the Times from getting certain interviews.” 

What will be especially interesting, and important, to watch in the coming months is the growing debate over “false balance” that Sullivan kick-started early in her tenure. 

“I think that my thinking has evolved somewhat,” she told me in February. “It seems clear to me that what really matters is fairness, and honesty with the reader. I do continue to think that most news reporters are better off keeping their political beliefs to themselves, but I think there is a role for them to have a more personal relationship with the reader—and they are bound to because of all the social media outlets there. And I think that’s a good thing. 

“I feel very strongly about false balance; it’s an easy call. Where there’s an established truth, the story can state that in its own voice and should do so, confidently, without couching it in ‘we have to get someone to say that.’ I think the story ought to state what’s true. The Times ought to do as much of that as it can, and I think it is moving toward that.” 

Why does she believe that? “I am certainly seeing more and more in news stories a simple statement of a fact, whether it’s about climate change or politics or something else,” she replied. “There’s more comfort now about calling a spade a spade. I certainly don’t want to take credit for it; it’s an evolving process. So much of it has come about because of the instant accountability of the Internet—but I hope I had some role in it.” 

On his blog, Greg Mitchell recently detailed sixteen media outrages that followed the US invasion of with Iraq, ten years ago.