The job of the public editor is to supervise the implementation of proper journalism ethics at a newspaper, and to identify and examine critical errors or omissions, and to act as a liaison to the public. They do this primarily through a regular feature on a newspaper's editorial page. Because public editors are generally employees of the very newspaper they're criticizing, it may appear as though there is a possibility for bias. However, a newspaper with a high standard of ethics would not fire a public editor for a criticism of the paper; the act would contradict the purpose of the position and would itself be a very likely cause for public concern.
I don't want to impose a template, but generally one expects public editors to serve as the internal representative of external critical voices, or at least to see to it that these voices get a fair hearing. A typical column might start with acknowledging complaints about something like the paper's lack of coverage of poor neighborhoods. The public editor would then discuss some possible lapses on the paper's part, get some comments from the editor in charge, and then, as a rule, either encourage the paper to improve its coverage in this area or, at the very least, take a neutral position acknowledging that both the critics and the paper have a point.
Here are some examples from two previous public editors of the New York Times.
The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not. But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.
Mistakes are bound to happen in the news business, but some are worse than others.
What I’ll lay out here was a bad one. It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do.
The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.
Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.
If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.
But these are strange days at the New York Times and the new public editor is writing columns that are not only a sharp break with those of her predecessors, but seem to violate the very spirit of the office.
In particular, Liz Spayd is catching a great deal of flak for a piece that almost manages to invert the typical public editor column. It starts by grossly misrepresenting widespread criticisms of the paper, goes on to openly attack the critics making the charges, then pleads with the paper's staff to toe the editorial line and ignore the very voices that a public editor would normally speak for .
The Truth About ‘False Balance’
False balance, sometimes called “false equivalency,” refers disparagingly to the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side.
There has been a great deal of speculation as to what drives false equivalency, with the leading contenders being a desire to maintain access to high-placed sources, long-standing personal biases against certain politicians, a fear of reprisal, a desire to avoid charges of liberal bias, and simple laziness (a cursory both-sides-do-it story is generally much easier to write than a well investigated piece). Caring too much about fairness hardly ever makes the list and it certainly has no place in the definition.
Spayd then accuses the people making these charges of being irrational, shortsighted, and partisan.
I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates. CNN’s Brian Stelter focused his show, “Reliable Sources,” on this subject last weekend. He asked a guest, Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine, to frame the idea of false balance. Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges, but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.
But, as Jonathan Chait points out, Weisberg has no record of being a Hillary Clinton booster. The charge here is completely circular. He is partisan because he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump and he made a highly critical comment about Donald Trump because he is partisan.
But the most extraordinary part of the piece and one which reminds us just how strange the final days of 2016 are becoming is the conclusion.
I hope Times journalists won’t be intimidated by this argument. I hope they aren’t mindlessly tallying up their stories in a back room to ensure balance, but I also hope they won’t worry about critics who claim they are. What’s needed most is forceful, honest reporting — as The Times has produced about conflicts circling the foundation; and as The Washington Post did this past week in surfacing Trump’s violation of tax laws when he made a $25,000 political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general as her office was investigating Trump University.
Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just certain individuals, however vile they might seem.
Putting aside the curious characterization of the Florida AG investigation as a tax evasion story (which is a lot like describing the Watergate scandal as a burglary story or Al Capone as a tax evader), equating her paper's pursuit of the Clinton foundation with the Washington Post's coverage of Trump is simply surreal on a number of levels.
For starters, none of the Clinton foundation stories have revealed significant wrongdoing. Even Spayd, who is almost comically desperate to portray her employer in the best possible light, had to concede that “some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did.” By comparison, the Washington Post investigation continues to uncover self-dealing, misrepresentation, tax evasion, misuse of funds, failure to honor obligations, ethical violations, general sleaziness and blatant quid prop quo bribery.
More importantly, the Washington Post has explicitly attacked and implicitly abandoned Spayd's position. Here's how the Post summed it up in an editorial that appeared two days before the NYT column.
Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.
Charles Pierce's characteristically pithy response to this editorial was "The Washington Post Just Declared War on The New York Times -- And with good reason, too."
If is almost as if Spayd thinks it's 2000, when the NYT could set the conventional wisdom, could decide which narratives would followed and which public figures would be lauded or savaged. Spayd does understand that there is a battle going on for the soul of journalism, but she does not seem to understand that the alliances have changed, and the New York Times is about to find itself in a very lonely position.