Without a public editor, the New York Times‘ executive editor gets the last word on the word “torture.”
The New York Times’ public editor role was killed off a mere three weeks ago (FAIR.org, 6/1/17), but its absence is already being felt. Yesterday, the Times published the first installment of the paper’s new “Reader Center,” the ostensible replacement to the public editor, and, not surprisingly, it thoroughly underwhelmed.
Reading much like an online version of a letters to the editor page, the inaugural Reader Center was comprised of five short items, only two of which were of serious import to the paper’s coverage. The other three included a breezy social-media back and forth between a staff photographer and a reader about an archival photo, one item of self-promotion about a Times investigative piece, and a update on the subscriber who won a contest to visit the newsroom. Quite a mixed signal to readers who have serious questions or issues with the paper’s coverage. (The Reader Center added an additional administrative item this morning noting that, contrary to right-wing media reports, former FBI Director James Comey did not visit the Times offices yesterday.)
Even among the two items that did raise coverage concerns, the degree to which this new Reader Center pales in comparison to a dedicated public editor was clear. Both of these issues—one on the Times’ use of the word “torture” in a recent exposé, and one critiquing the ethics of how the paper visualized obesity through photography—elicited cursory responses from the paper’s editorial staff.
On the former, Times executive editor Dean Baquet brushed off reader complaints about the exposé’s use of the phrase “widely viewed as torture” as tantamount to simply writing “torture.” He then indulged in a little more self-praise about the paper’s commitment to covering the issue.
With no public editor to mediate or push back, or add context, Baquet’s word became the final one. Readers are left with no advocate to push Baquet on the Times’ long, ignominious history of bowing to White House pressure by not using the word “torture” (FAIR.org, 8/8/14) or, contrary to Baquet’s boasting, sidestepping coverage of the issue (FAIR.org, 8/18/14).
Likewise, a real public editor might have pointed that the “widely viewed as…” caveat also appeared in the exposé’s subhed, giving it more narrative power than Baquet suggested. Or even questioned the logic of using this caveat at all, since it, by own Baquet’s account, was aimed at “describing the perspective” of the architects of a torture program–hardly the point of view you’d want investigations of torture to adopt.
This step backward in accountability and transparency is to be expected, however. By removing the interrogatory power of a staff ombud, the Times not only insures it will have the last word on any issue of its coverage, it effectively tilts the conditions for all critical debate fully in favor of its staff and masthead. It’s a media criticism version of “the house always wins.”
Back in 2013, the Washington Post tried to pass off a similar “Reader’s Representative” replacement when it killed off its ombud. The paper quietly ended that experiment too, after nine months of similarly useless, ephemeral and unresponsive columns.
Now more than ever, the Times’ coverage is in the spotlight, but the veneer of faux-accountability it’s offering is not only bad for readers, it’s a long-term gamble for the paper. It’s a given that the next big missed story or ethical lapse the Times makes won’t be prevented by this Reader Center. And if future installments of it are like the first, the paper likely won’t learn any journalistic lessons from those mistakes after the fact, either.
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