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


Credit: Rani Molla

Margaret 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.”

Does the paper need a public editor?

newspaper boxes

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.

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In her most recent post, Sullivan said that even if she is subject to a conflict of interest, readers like the one who emailed her still hold her accountable. As she put it: “In short, who watches the watcher? In this case, the rhetorical question has an answer: You do.” But if readers are enough to hold the paper accountable, as Gabriel Snyder of The Atlantic asked on Twitter, why bother having a public editor at all? To which Sullivan responded that having a reader advocate within the newsroom can be useful:

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Criticizing your colleagues is a tough job

Rushfield also pointed out another benefit of having a public editor: namely, that many editorial staff at newspapers refuse to take criticism seriously unless it appears in their own pages, written by one of their colleagues (and even then presumably some try hard to ignore it), and that an internal editor can “physically stand in front of their desks.” Bloomberg reporter Alex Parker also noted that staff might be more likely to co-operate with an internal public editor, in the belief that doing so was required. But as Snyder noted, this connection cuts both ways:

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The bottom line is that public editors and ombudsmen like Sullivan are locked into an inescapable Catch-22: if they don’t try hard to be critical of their colleagues, then they might be accused of dereliction of duty, and they will be seen by readers as toadying to the senior editorial staff — or suffering from Stockholm syndrome, drinking the Kool-Aid etc. But if they are too critical, they risk alienating their colleagues completely, which will not only make their lives miserable but also makes it less likely that they will be effective in their job.

For what it’s worth, I think Sullivan has done an admirable job of walking this line. Her criticisms have been fair — without being nit-picky — and from what I can tell she has pursued her case with vigor and tenacity. Until the New York Times becomes so transparent and engaged that it no longer needs a public editor, Sullivan is as good a candidate as I could imagine.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly and Rani Molla



NYT’s post-Internet relationship with readers – Public Editor.

NYT’s pre-internet relationship with readers – Kneel before Zod.

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