A final report from Internal Affairs

This is my last column as public editor of The Times.

For the past three years, my assignment has been to try to help this newspaper live up to its own high journalistic standards as it covered a historic presidential election, two wars, the Great Recession, violence in the Middle East and more. I have deplored the overuse of anonymous sources, warned against the creep of opinion into news analysis and worried about the preservation of Times quality on the Internet. But, in truth, I have sometimes felt less like a keeper of the flame and more like an internal affairs cop. “What did I do now?” a reporter asked with a sigh when I called recently.

It takes a lot of courage for an institution like The Times to invite someone like me into its midst: an outsider with no investment in its mystique or the quirks of its newsroom culture. I was handed the equivalent of a loaded gun — space in the newspaper and on its Web site to write whatever I chose about its journalistic performance. My contract stipulated that I reported to no one and could be fired for only two reasons: failing to do any work or violating the company’s written ethics guidelines. I tried hard to be responsible with the power. The contract, designed to guarantee independence, came with term limits, and my term ends this week, as will any formal association with The Times. A new public editor, also from outside, will be named soon.

Steven Goldberg, a reader from Needham, Mass., wrote recently to say that, like a Supreme Court justice, I should be appointed public editor for life, “whether he wants the job or not.” I appreciate the vote of confidence, but it really is time to go. I know of at least one reader who would agree. She wrote in 2008 to tell me that I had no standards whatsoever and that I “must have made a deal with the devil at a young age.” She would not let me use her name in this column because she said she did not want to lend authenticity to “such a pitiful guardian of truth and fairness.”

Each of my predecessors, Daniel Okrent and Byron Calame, faced some degree of resistance from the newsroom, and I do not think anyone thought it would go down easy for me. On my first day on the job, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, sat opposite me in a little room off his office, clapped his hands on his knees and said with a laugh: “Well, you’re here. You must be dumber than you look.”

But my reception by the newsroom turned out to be accepting and unfailingly professional, in large part, I believe, because Okrent and Calame persevered, established the position and made it matter. Times journalists have been astonishingly candid, even when facing painful questions any of us would want to duck. Of course, journalists don’t relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else. A writer shaken by a conclusion I was reaching told me, if you say that, I’ll have to kill myself. I said, no, you won’t. Well, the writer said, I’ll have to go in the hospital. I wrote what I intended, with no ill consequences for anyone’s health.

Those histrionics were extreme and unique. The rule was thoughtful engagement. Take Steve Berman, a respected veteran photo editor, one of several journalists who failed to check out the obituary of a photographer who for years had claimed, falsely, that he took the iconic picture of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his slain father’s casket. After a column pointing out all the missed warning signs, Berman came to thank me. He said he believed in accountability and had learned from the experience. I was surprised but came to know that I should not have been.

Bill Keller, the executive editor, once joked as we walked down the passageway to his office for an interview that he was heading for his weekly proctological exam. But throughout my tenure, Keller was gracious and supportive. When we had what was certainly our disagreement of greatest consequence — over the Times article suggesting that John McCain had had an extramarital affair with a young female lobbyist — Keller showed great equanimity. I said The Times had been off base. Though the story gave ammunition to critics who said the paper was biased, and it was no help to have the public editor joining thousands of readers questioning his judgment about it, Keller said mildly that we would just have to disagree on this one.

The Times stirs passions among those who read it and those who refuse to. “Dear NYT,” wrote Sam Gammon of Austin, Tex., “I love you dearly and have loved you fervently for many years.” Kevin Keller of Knoxville, Tenn., said The Times is a “liberal rag” he would never subscribe to.

The public editor receives as many as 300 messages on a typical day, and the total can spike into the thousands if a blogger or one of the media watchdog sites urges its followers to protest something the paper has published. Coverage of presidential politics in 2008, the Middle East at any time, and the latest developments in the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reliably produced torrents of protest. But the small stuff matters to readers as well. How could The Times have published this sentence in a recent Vows column: “Like she, Mr. Cheong was dating someone at the time.” Like she? Mistakes like this, still uncorrected on the paper’s Web site, make readers wonder whether editing standards are crumbling under the demands of the 24/7 news cycle. And, if The Times is too often getting little things wrong, they ask, what about the big things?

For all of my three years, I heard versions of Kevin Keller’s accusation: The Times is a “liberal rag,” pursuing a partisan agenda in its news columns. There is no question that the editorial page is liberal and the regular columnists on the Op-Ed page are heavily weighted in that direction. There is also no question that The Times, though a national newspaper, shares the prevailing sensibilities of the city and region where it is published. It does not take creationism or intelligent design as serious alternatives to the theory of evolution. It prints the marriages and commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples. It covers art and cultural events out on the edge.

But if The Times were really the Fox News of the left, how could you explain the investigative reporting that brought down Eliot Spitzer, New York’s Democratic governor; derailed the election campaign of his Democratic successor, David Paterson; got Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in ethics trouble; and exposed the falsehoods that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, another Democrat, was telling about his service record in the Vietnam era?

The Times is imperfect. As in any human institution, the 1,150 people in the newsroom make mistakes. But they get much, much more right than wrong. The miracle is that they don’t make more mistakes, given the complexity of creating a daily, comprehensive news report on two platforms, the printed page and the Internet. Without The Times, which continues to invest heavily in news coverage around the world as others cut back drastically, we would all be poorer.

Thank you all for the privilege of serving you. Now I look forward to the change. Instead of being paid to evaluate The Times, I can go back to savoring it — as a reader.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on June 11, 2010.

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