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Welcome to the monkey house: The inherent conflict in being the NYT’s public editor

September 6, 2013

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img_0534Margaret Sullivan is the “public editor” of the New York Times, the 5th person to hold that position since the job was created in 2003, after a controversy over the fraudulent reporting of Jayson Blair. In a recent blog post, Sullivan wrote about completing her first year, and said that while she would have done some things differently, she feels she deserves a passing grade.

But it was a follow-up post — in response to an email complaint from a reader — that brought out some interesting questions about the nature of her job, and whether it’s possible for anyone to really do it justice.

The reader noted that the public editor position contains an obvious conflict: although the assignment is to be critical of the New York Times newsroom — when it deserves criticism — Sullivan sits in that same newsroom, and while she doesn’t report to the editor-in-chief (she ultimately answers directly to the publisher) she is still employed by the newspaper. As her email critic put it:

“It’s a conflict of interest no matter how honest the appointee is, and I am not questioning your or your predecessors’ integrity. But your humanity makes you no less vulnerable to the Stockholm syndrome than anyone else. Moreover, I do question whether The Times, as much a club as a business, would or will select any public editor whose sensibility clashes with the paper’s self-important, preppy culture.”

As someone who spent over a decade in the newsroom of a major daily, and was occasionally critical of the processes at work there, I’m acutely aware of the difficulties that Sullivan (and other ombudsmen and women) faces. The tension between wanting to be critical of one’s co-workers and having to work in the same room with them, ride the elevator, eat lunch in the cafeteria, etc. must be overwhelming at times. Sullivan herself describes it as “equal parts fun and horror” (Full disclosure: I was asked to be part of a short list of candidates before Sullivan was hired, but declined the offer).

In a post I wrote after the new public editor assumed the role, I tried to argue that it would be better for the Times to have a hundred public editors — in other words, hundreds of editors and reporters who were willing to engage with readers directly (as some NYT staff already do, to their credit) and be critical of their own work. But as former BuzzFeed bureau chief Richard Rushfield noted on Twitter, many traditional newspaper newsrooms are still far too insular for that to happen. Read more at Paid Content.

 

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