Ignoring a problem doesn't solve it

ignoreA few days ago we looked at New York Times public editor Byron Calame's expose of reporting and editing gone bad at the paper. He found problems in an April cover story from the Sunday magazine that claimed women were sentenced to 30 years in prison for nothing more than having abortions. Turns out that the only case cited in support of the claim involved a woman who was found guilty of delivering a full-term baby and then strangling it and hiding it under her bed. Near as I can tell, pretty much everyone except for Times management feels that this is an error that needs correcting. Calame's article explaining all the reporting and editing problems -- which was remarkably kind and diplomatic -- was published in full on Sunday. But no correction from the paper.

Reader Greg Popcak asked the following:

I suppose I am curious about what happens next. Is this it? Are we to expect something from the Times now that this story has been published or have they fulfilled their obligation to the public by publishing this self-criticism?

The reason I would find leaving it here so unsatisfying is that the left hand of the Times is criticising the right hand without the right hand accepting any responsibility. And while this is unsatisfying to me, I would guess that the Times feels it has fulfilled its obligation by allowing one part of its organization to criticize another part. Is that really enough?

Well, a note from the public editor is not the same as a correction. Ostensibly, public editors and ombudsmen are independent of the paper. They serve the readers' interests. Word on the street is that the Times is reconsidering whether to have a readers' representative. The New York Observer's Michael Calderone broke the story a few days ago:

[Executive Editor Bill] Keller wrote in his e-mail that "some of my colleagues believe the greater accessibility afforded by features like 'Talk to the Newsroom' has diminished the need for an autonomous ombudsman, or at least has opened the way for a somewhat different definition of the job."

Mr. Keller added that "the creation of a public editor has helped the paper immensely in a period when the credibility of the media generally has been under assault." The position at The Times was created in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle that emerged in 2003.

I'm not the biggest fan of ombudsmen -- I think members of the media should all work to be more self-aware and papers should use the funds they pay public editors to hire more reporters or editors. But is it me, or is Keller a bit tone deaf to think that people have that much more confidence in his paper after the last year than they did in 2003? Things were bad in 2003, but I don't get the feeling they are that much better now -- particularly after scandals like this latest one.

I might be more supportive of Keller if he would promptly correct errors in his paper.

Photo via DLemieux on Flickr.

Please respect our Commenting Policy