Accuracy in Media

The New York Times public editor Liz Spayd took a parting shot at the establishment media just days after the paper announced it was eliminating her position.

The Times created the position in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. But apparently publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. feels that an in-house watchdog is no longer necessary, according to a memo he sent to the staff:

“The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But 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. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

Spayd, who was the sixth person to hold the position and was under contract until 2018, decided to leave early. She let readers know that she had doubts about the Times’ and other legacy newspaper’s ability to hold themselves accountable without a public editor, reader advocate or ombudsman:

“Mike Morell, former acting director of the C.I.A. and a backer of Hillary Clinton, earlier this week likened the U.S. media’s reaction to Donald Trump to the Venezuelan media’s reaction when Hugo Chávez became president nearly 20 years ago. With little political opposition to Chávez, the media assumed that role, Morrell said, and ultimately lost its credibility with the Venezuelan people.

The U.S. isn’t Venezuela but the media here shouldn’t fall into the same trap. I don’t worry that The Times, or The Washington Post or others with the most resources will fail to pursue ripe investigative targets. And I hope they do. But in their effort to hold Trump accountable, will they play their hands wisely and fairly? Or will they make reckless decisions and draw premature conclusions?

And who will be watching, on this subject or anything else, if they don’t acquit themselves well? At The Times, it won’t be the public editor. As announced on Wednesday, that position is being eliminated, making this my last column. Media pundits and many readers this week were questioning the decision to end this role, fearing that without it, no one will have the authority, insider perspective or ability to demand answers from top Times editors. There’s truth in that. But it overlooks a larger issue.

It’s not really about how many critics there are, or where they’re positioned, or what Times editor can be rounded up to produce answers. It’s about having an institution that is willing to seriously listen to that criticism, willing to doubt its impulses and challenge the wisdom of the inner sanctum. Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model? We’ll find out soon enough.”

To answer Spayd’s question, the Times had grown weary of the criticism that she and her predecessors heaped upon the paper, and for their admission that the paper had a liberal bias.

With Spayd’s departure the Times can pursue it’s anti-Trump agenda without being criticized from within for its biased coverage.





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