“Slow Learner” was the title of a novel by Thomas Pynchon, with a hefty dose of irony. I never thought I’d apply it to a self-anointed newspaper of record, The New York Times
But after this month’s kerfuffle over reporting overlooked by the FBI at the time of Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination, it may be time to say to The Times: y’all need an ombudsman or public editor.
The Times very visibly dropped its last public editor, Liz Spayd, in May of 2017. The paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., informed his staff: “The responsibility of the public editor -- to serve as the reader’s representative -- has outgrown that one office.”
Not coincidentally, Spayd, a polarizing figure whose contract still had a year to run, had been seen internally as overly critical of the paper’s coverage. Sulzberger went on to defend his action by writing that “today, our followers on social media and our readers across the Internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”
He had a point, as it was the Twittersphere this month that erupted over The Times’ Kavanaughgate. It all started with an online opinion tweet remarkable for its inexcusable frat-boy vision of the world: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun.”
Really? The Times allows that in 2019? Worse, living down to Pynchon’s slow learning, the Times next posted: “We have deleted an earlier tweet of this article that was poorly phrased,” before public outcry forced the Times to come around to posting that “it was offensive and we have deleted” it.
The Times has continued to struggle with editors who simply aren’t “woke.” The news emperor wears no clothes, it seems, and the skin revealed is very thin indeed. In stark contrast, NPR has employed since 2015 former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Jensen as one of the last fulltime public editors at a major American journalism outlet.
I have known Jensen from her Times reportorial days, and I can remember the distinct fish-out-of-water sensation of sharing perceptions on events of the day while walking on New York’s Upper West Side, where her Midwest honest-as-the-day-is-long sensibility stood in contrast to the hip snarkiness of the Manhattanites pushing past us.
Does the lack of an ombudsman really matter? Is Sulzberger right that the Twitter world is sufficiently self-corrective?
I’d like to think so. But it’s a stretch. When you don’t believe you need a public editor, you send a message implying that your organization doesn’t make enough journalistic missteps to merit one, and that the occasional issue that arises can be caught by some random reader out there.
That is not an adequate answer. For example, issues of “access journalism” have been dogging The Times for years, bubbling up from time to time when one or another of its well-connected reporters appears to hold back a story or skew it to protect sources, who have at times seemed to be referring to themselves as if someone else were describing them. The spin can feed chum to Fox News as it chisels away nightly at the public trust needed for journalism to succeed.
The debate over anonymous sourcing versus getting folks on-the-record will no doubt rage on, particularly with a Casa Blanca so porous that it reminds one of The Jumblies by Edward Lear: “They went to sea in a Sieve, they did.” Bestselling books by Bob Woodward and Michael Wolff have documented rumors and whispered stiletto attacks stabbing the backs of fellow West Wingers.
Not to be holier-than-thou, but in thinking back over my days in investigative journalism at ABC News, I never once relied on an anonymous source. I may have gotten leads from those who remained in the background, such as targeted individuals in Belfast or dissidents in Beijing, but ultimately stories never relied on them. As luck would have it, I never needed a 60-Minutes-style shadow interview.
Of course, let’s remember that without “deep throat” we would never have had the Watergate revelations that Woodward brought us back in 1972. And whistleblowers have continued to risk much when revealed publicly. Obama prosecuted eight of them, a questionable achievement, under the 1917 Espionage Act, lest we mistakenly assume that such a purportedly progressive politician was all about journalistic freedoms.
So next time you settle in with your morning paper, fine tune your deception detection meter, for even the watchdogs of the press bear watching, particularly if they are as lacking in self-awareness as The New York Times.
I’m telling you this on deep background. Right? Sailing without an ombudsman’s course correction, The Times might well recall Lear’s sieve-dwelling Jumblies: “The water it soon came in, it did, the water it soon came in.”
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.