By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Margaret Sullivan’s advice for The Washington Post

Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has written a sensible though surprisingly restrained column for The Guardian on how the Post can recover from its self-inflicted wounds: publisher Will Lewis promises to behave; owner Jeff Bezos makes it clear that he’s still committed to the Post and its mission of holding the powerful accountable; and a public editor is brought in “to provide transparency and accountability to readers.” Sullivan, who’s also a former public editor for The New York Times, says she’s not interested in the job herself.

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Thinking through what’s next following The Washington Post’s Alito debacle

Justice Sam Alito. Photo (cc) 2017 by JoshEllie1234.

A few quick follow-ups on The Washington Post’s mind-boggling failure (free link) to report that an insurrectionist flag was flying outside Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s home when the paper discovered it way back in January 2021:

• As I’ve written previously, news organizations never should have gotten rid of their public editors, also known as ombudsmen. A number of these positions disappeared when newspapers were shrinking and losing money. But though some newspapers that eliminated their public editors have returned to profitability, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, the Post is in dire straits these days. Too bad. A public editor could demand answers as to why a story wasn’t published at the time and how it happened to surface right now.

• Speaking of which — why now? What happened? According to the Post’s own story on Saturday, the flag was verified by its now-retired Supreme Court reporter, Robert Barnes. Given that the court is taking some important cases related to the insurrection, did Barnes contact the newsroom to remind them?

• The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, announced in late January 2021 that he was retiring, and he left the paper about a month later. Baron was someone who was seemingly on top of everything, but if there was ever a time when he was giving the Post less than his full attention, this would have been the moment. Conversely, the Post was caught up reporting on the actual events of the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6. At that moment, the Alito matter may have seemed like a sidebar to a sidebar.

• As deep as the Post’s failure may have been, it may have done little damage in the long run. Alito wouldn’t have recused himself from insurrection-related cases then, and at that point there weren’t any. Nor will he now. But with Jan. 6-related cases finally coming before the court, and at a time when Justice Clarence Thomas’ corruption has been fully exposed, the story that insurrectionist flags appeared over two of the Alitos’ homes may hit harder now than it would have three and a half years ago.

• All of this serves as a reminder that no matter what you think of the three justices appointed by Donald Trump (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett), the two worst were appointed by the Bushes — Thomas by George H.W. Bush and Alito by George W. Bush.

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The Dallas Morning News hires a public editor. More news outlets should follow.

Stephen Buckley

There have been rumblings for a while that it was time for news organizations to bring back the position of ombudsperson, also known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who would look at issues in coverage and render a judgment.

At one time the job was fairly common at many larger news organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. But as the business model for journalism deteriorated, the position was increasingly seen as a luxury.

On Tuesday, The Dallas Morning News took a step in the right direction, hiring a public editor who will be independent of the newsroom and report directly to the publisher: Stephen Buckley, a journalism professor at Duke University, who is a longtime journalist and has worked for The Washington Post, the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute. His first column will be published on May 12. According to a press release:

Through active reader engagement and a regular column, Buckley will use an independent lens to help provide readers with understanding and clarity and hold the News accountable for adhering to its high standards. Buckley will be an observer and advocate while informing readers how the News reported controversial topics and issues as they arise.

In an interview with Tom Jones, who writes Poynter’s daily newsletter, Buckley called his hiring “a really bold, counterintuitive move. And the motivation is exactly right, which is: the most important issue for our industry is reestablishing trust with the public.” Oddly, Buckley also said, “I don’t represent the newsroom and I don’t represent the readers.” The public editor’s position has sometimes been described as that of a reader representative. But if Buckley wishes to emphasize his independence, that’s not a bad thing.

A year ago I called for the Globe to restore its long-abolished ombudsman position after the paper published a flawed investigation of MBTA executives who worked from distant locales. It turned out that the story wrong was about some of those executives, and it led to the departure of veteran investigative reporter Andrea Estes. The Globe has never explained what went wrong or why Estes, a respected journalist, was fired. Estes is now doing good work as a reporter for the nonprofit Plymouth Independent.

More recently, Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr wrote that it was time for news organizations to bring back the public editor, taking note specifically of the oft-voiced criticism that The New York Times’ political coverage is too often marred by both-sides-ism — a criticism I’ve been making for many years. For a long time, the Times employed excellent public editors, culminating in Margaret Sullivan, its penultimate and best in-house critic. But the position was abolished after Sullivan’s successor, Liz Spayd, clashed with the newsroom over a few questionable judgments she offered.

NPR still has a public editor, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, and she demonstrates why the position is valuable. She was a guest on last week’s public radio program “On the Media,” offering some thoughtful insights into the recent controversy over former senior business editor Uri Berliner, who resigned from NPR after writing an error-filled essay about what he regards as the network’s liberal bias.

For many news organizations that are still facing financial challenges, bringing back a paid in-house critic may seem like a bad idea. Large newspapers like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times are losing money and cutting staff. But The New York Times and the Globe are profitable and growing. At a moment when trust in the media is at a historic low, hiring a public editor can represent a small but significant step to restoring that trust.

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Emily Rooney talks about local TV news, ‘Beat the Press’ and holding the media to account

Emily Rooney. Photo via the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

On our latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Emily Rooney, the longtime host of “Beat the Press,” an award-winning program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). I was a panelist on the show, a weekly roundtable that offered local and national media criticism. It had a 22-year run but was canceled in 2021. You can watch the 20th-anniversary episode here. The show, which is much missed by many former viewers, had a brief second life as a podcast.

Emily has got serious television news cred. She arrived at WGBH from the Fox Network in New York, where she oversaw political coverage, including the 1996 presidential primaries, national conventions, and presidential election. Before that, she was executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings. She also worked at WCVB-TV in Boston for 15 years, from 1979–’93, as news director and as assistant news director — a time when WCVB was regularly hailed as the home of the best local newscast in the U.S.

“Beat the Press” may be no more, but there’s a revival of interest in responsible media criticism from inside the newsroom. Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr recently wrote an op-ed calling for the restoration of a public editor position at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other news outlets.

In our Quick Takes, I’ve got an update on one of our favorite topics — pink slime. Wired has a wild story out of rural Iowa involving a Linux server in Germany, a Polish website and a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

Ellen recounts a legal saga in Southeastern Minnesota involving the sale of a newspaper group and allegations of intellectual property theft. It’s all about a single used computer and its role in creating a media startup.”

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the public editor

Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)

I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.

As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.

The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”

The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)

But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.

More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.

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Major errors at The New York Times destroy the premise of two stories

There have been two enormous mistakes in The New York Times this week — errors that completely undermined the premise of the stories.

1. On Monday, Lisa Friedman wrote that government scientists had surreptitiously given her a draft report on climate change because they were concerned that the Trump administration would suppress it. But as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explained, the report had been publicly available for months, and was even parked at the Internet Archive.

2. On Wednesday, Adam Nagourney reported on an internecine battle among California Democrats that is supposed to tell us something about the struggle between the party’s progressive and establishment wings. It struck me as pretty thin gruel given that we learn both combatants in the bid for party chair, Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis, supported Hillary Clinton last year, although Bernie Sanders is supporting Ellis now.

But then we get to the bottom and see this: “An earlier version of this article misstated the candidate Kimberly Ellis supported in the Democratic primary race last year. It was Hillary Clinton, not Senator Bernie Sanders.”

Imagine reading this before the correction was made. It’s a completely different story. It’s not about the continued hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters at all. As with the climate-change story, it’s the sort of article that might very well not have been published at all if the facts had been clear beforehand.

I know that quite a few copy editors lost their jobs at the Times recently. Could that have something to do with it? Maybe. But the Times still has a larger editing corps than any other paper. Moreover, these kinds of large, conceptual errors strike me as something that have been endemic at the Times for many years. I suspect it has more to do with the culture than the copy editing.

Sounds like a good topic for the public editor. Oh, wait. Never mind.

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From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Bonfire of the ombudsmen

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at the abuse heaped upon Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton and New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. And though they clearly deserved to be criticized for their lazy, ill-considered commentaries, the over-the-top nature of the reaction says more about their critics than it does about them.

Times public editor: Refer to torture as torture

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane takes on the paper’s queasiness about referring to waterboarding as torture in its news pages — and comes down firmly on the side of clarity. He writes:

The Times should use the term “torture” more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about — and there’s no other word for it — torture. The debate was never whether Bin Laden was found because of brutal interrogations: it was whether he was found because of torture. More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example. Reasonable fairness can be achieved by adding caveats that acknowledge the Bush camp’s view of its narrow legal definition.

Since Brisbane reports that the Times’ institutional reluctance to be forthright stems from not wanting to take sides, I wish he had stated more clearly that refusing to use the “T”-word is also an exercise in taking sides — perhaps more so, since it also involves implicitly accepting the Bush administration’s claim that waterboarding isn’t torture, a claim directly contradicted by history and international law.

Still, Brisbane takes a strong stand in favor of truth, and that’s no small thing when it comes to this highly charged topic.

The New York Times and the T-word

Peter King

The New York Times has a great story today on U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who is presiding over repugnant hearings into the loyalty of Muslim-Americans. Reporter Scott Shane reminds us that King made his reputation as a staunch supporter of the Irish Republican Army, which for years fought for independence from Britain in attacks that included the killing of hundreds of innocent civilians.

Yet I was struck by Shane’s lede, which frankly describes the IRA as “a terror group.” I don’t have any quarrel with that. But I was surprised, given the Times’ well-known squeamishness over using the T-word to describe Islamist organizations such as Hamas, which has engaged in suicide bombings against civilian targets in its war against Israel.

As the Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote in 2008, “To the consternation of many, The Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel.” It’s a policy that has put the Times in an awkward position previously, as in 2010, when the paper reported on criticism of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, for failing to label Hamas a terrorist group.

The United States, Canada, Israel, Japan and the European Union have all classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.

King’s response to being called out as a hypocrite is truly rancid, as he reveals that he couldn’t care less about the lives of British civilians who were killed in IRA attacks. “I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel,” he tells the Times. “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

And in the 1980s, King had this to say: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.”

Shane attempts to make comparisons between the IRA and Al Qaeda, and concludes — correctly — that Al Qaeda is considerably worse. But the parallels between the IRA and Hamas seem pretty obvious.

The IRA engaged in terrorist attacks, but gradually moved toward a renunciation of such attacks as it uneasily groped its way toward a peace settlement with Britain and participation in government.

Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, may or may not be capable of moving toward a peace settlement with Israel. But certainly it was unclear at a similar stage as to whether the IRA was capable of making such a transition.

It’s pretty simple. Either the IRA and Hamas are/were terrorist organizations, or neither is. I hope public editor Arthur Brisbane will explain why it’s all right for the Times to call the IRA a “terror group” when it refuses to do the same with respect to Hamas.

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