The Public Editor chronicles of The New York Times - Chapter 2 (Part I)

GUEST: Byron Calame
VTR: 06/26/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and my guest today is one of those wonderful newspaper warhorses who make many of us wish for the good old days of print journalism … which, dear friends, just aren’t going to return.

But let it be noted that on Sunday, June 5th, 2005 a new by-line appeared in the New York Times … Byron Calame.

Barney, as he’s known, began his copy, “It’s time to write Chapter 2 of the Public Editor chronicles at The New York Times. Recently retired after almost 40 years at the Wall Street Journal,” he wrote, “I’ve agreed to become the Times’ second public editor – an outsider dedicated to representing readers and serving as a watchdog over the paper’s journalistic integrity.”

My guest wrote that the first Public Editor, Daniel Okrent – who actually joined me here on The Open Mind both at the beginning and at the end of his tenure at the Times, that he had, “boldly established the genuine independence essential to carrying out the job and elegantly dissected many of the major issues of journalistic integrity”.

Barney Calame added, “A bit more of a nitty-gritty newspaperman, I hope to raise the blinds at the Times in some new ways to allow readers to get a clearer view inside the newsroom process”.

Well, I’ve just re-read all of Barney Calame’s Public Editor commentaries from June, 2005 through his last one on May 6th, 2007 … when he concluded that … quote “The Times is an exceptional newspaper, notwithstanding the questions I have raised as public editor. You, the reader,” he wrote, “receive a newspaper that is unrivaled in its breadth and consistency.”

So, I’ve re-read all of his pieces, making copious notes on all the basic questions they pose concerning contemporary journalism … ones that I want to raise with him in today’s program and our next conversation together.

But now I’ve just seen Barney Calame’s late May 2007 remarks as he accepted a Penn State award for media criticism.

In them, as he writes, with apologies to David Letterman, my guest offers “The Top Ten Things That Worry Me About Newspaper Journalism”. And I think that I’ll simply start today by asking him to comment on some of those ten top worries. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?

CALAME: That’s fair.

HEFFNER: Okay, I’m fascinated by them. I won’t take them necessarily in their order, but Number 10 a la Letterman … you write “Journalists at major papers who have become so highly compensated and situated that they have lost touch with the lives led by many of their readers, especially the less affluent ones, not on the radar scopes of major advertisers.” Why do you put that in the Ten Top Things That Worry Me?

CALAME: It concerns me from my career at the Journal, as well as what I observed at The New York Times. But these are top quality newspapers with some of the top salaries in the newspaper business and it is simply a fact that people lose touch with some of the working people who really make up a big chuck of America. And they’re not necessarily the readers of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, but they are people that all of society needs to care about. And, in particular the, the business executives, let’s say. All the readers of the Journal are not business executives. But the ones who are, they need to know as much as possible about those kinds of people. And so I just find … and I said when I retired from the Journal … a little farewell thing that I was concerned that our staff knew more about nannies and second homes than they did about day care cooperatives and second hand cars.

And what I meant was we just don’t have to struggle with life as much as many, many people do and what newspapers are fundamentally all about is looking out for the people who have less power in our society. So that’s what I was talking about.

HEFFNER: You say newspapers are fundamentally about that … the people who have less power …

CALAME: Yes.

HEFFNER: But quite literally when you come to the Journal and the Times that … that isn’t true. Should it be … must it be?

CALAME: Oh, I think and I think people with my view are probably fading. We’re, we’re not as, as, as on point as we may have once been. But … news papering is a public service … to look out for the people who, who … who don’t have the power to hire good lawyers, fancy lawyers or to hire expert help to get them through a problem of some kind. And so I think that the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, both in various ways, take on that part of society.

The Wall Street Journal for example, did a Pulitzer Prize winning series on the working poor. And other people have certainly done the story, probably before and certainly since. And I think that shows a concern at The Wall Street Journal for the kind of people I was concerned about. It’s just that it tended to be done in kind of a special circumstance.

HEFFNER: You said something a moment ago that led me to think … “I’ve got to say to Barney, but I thought that newspapers were or became a business.” What do you say to that?

CALAME: They have become a business.

HEFFNER: Weren’t they to start with?

CALAME: Ahmm. They were … they were … never a business it seems to me in the distant past as much as they were for … in the very early days of our country … they were for political advantage. And, obviously we had lots of little newsletters and newspapers that were really reflecting an ideology or a political point of view, as our Founding Fathers tussled to, to shape this country.

I think that further down the road you still find a lot of power at the heart of, of the big newspaper chains or the famous newspaper editors such as, such as Hearst for example. And so, yes they have become a business, particularly with the conglomerates where it became smart … it seemed to be smart to buy up lots of newspapers. And, I think it became a business to … it became more of a business when there were lots of efficiencies to be introduced in the back shop … in the production of the paper. In, in how you printed the paper.

And if you, if you look back, you’ll see that the profits were really increasing as a result of a lot of these moneysaving technologies that were, that were installed in newspapers. And I think that, that was profit margins of 20% or 25% or maybe some even 30% … really did make people focus on it more as a business.

I think in the newsroom the true believers have felt that it’s a public service and you’re there to, to … you’re there to serve. And, and that is fading because we are now out of ways to save money.

There is a new, new technology and the, the paradigm is really shifting now to electronic journalism, to the Web, to the Internet and it’s changing the whole way one can make money out of providing information to people.

So, I think … in this process … people like me, who really believe that it’s a public service and you’re there to serve the public, not to make money for shareholders except as it’s needed to, to grow the business appropriately. I think we’re, we’re fading. I think we don’t have the standing that we once did.

HEFFNER: Then what happens? What happens to the journalism that you once knew?

CALAME: I think journalism that I care about most … the public service journalism will become more the, the business of, of groups organized around a particular cause. And we’ve had people like that. People who are … who claim at least to pursue the public interest. And I think many of them do. Some that claim to, don’t. But I think it may become … at least for the private sector, it maybe those people who will be watching out for the kinds of folk that I think newspapers traditionally looked out for. And they will have probably electronic publications, blogs and websites that will provide information about their issue or their cause.

HEFFNER: And you don’t view this development with pleasure, do you?

CALAME: I do not. It, it makes me sad. But on the other hand, change is always happening and I feel really lucky that I had a shot at journalism from, from the mid-sixties to, to passed the year 2000 and it was in a time when newspapers had resources, and part of it was this introduction of efficiencies. I, I’m not for sure that the public ever demanded the quality we gave them. But we had money, so we could say, “We need more editors to check things carefully. We need more editors to help guide the coverage.” And we could do those things because the money was there. And my life was at the Journal, so that’s what I know. And certainly the money was available to do that. And it may be that we were providing more quality than people really wanted.

HEFFNER: You, you said that a moment ago. Tell me what do you mean by that?

CALAME: (Sigh)

HEFFNER: Didn’t the … let me interrupt your answer to my question. Didn’t the response that you get … got … as you were the Public Editor of The New York Times indicated that there was a demand for quality. Or am I wrong about that?

CALAME: I’m not sure that it did. I think what struck me was that a very small percentage … I think less than a fourth, maybe even 20% of the people who came to the Public Editor … came with real questions about “Why isn’t this … this seems like this is cheating us. Why don’t you tell us this? Why is it that the Times doesn’t cover this or that?” They were truly interested. I call them citizen subscribers, or citizen readers, because there was a perceptible desire to be informed so they could act. And to me that’s what citizenship is all about.

HEFFNER: Limited to 20%.

CALAME: But the other 75% clearly the majority … were simply angry because a story or the attention given to an issue didn’t fit their preconceived or predetermined notion, or their ideology. And, and many of those people probably were not reading the print New York Times. Some of them were not reading even The New York Times online. They were finding out about New York Times stories from a website with a point of view which would circulate or would post on its blog … “Here’s a story, or here’s part of a story” and it’s really off base and then the loyal followers of that blog site were registering complaints with the Public Editor.

HEFFNER: You know what occurs to me is ask you whether you think that, in fact, as we have this discussion, we should own up to the real probability that only about 20% of the nation, let’s be generous and say, 25% represent citizenship as you and I, I believe, would describe it.

CALAME: I think so. And, except I think voting participation has shown a brief, a bit of an upturn in the past four to six years. But the voting patterns would suggest that people are not taking that part of their citizenship seriously. And they don’t feel that need to be informed in order to be good citizens. They don’t feel that responsibility.

HEFFNER: Absolutely a fascinating point of view. Let me go back to your “Ten Top Things That Worry Me About Journalism”. You say, and you’ve just mentioned blogging, “Newspaper blogging standards are less demanding than traditional standards for news articles and blur the differences.” You’ve really got to worry about that because so much is moving to the blog … to the, to the web, at any rate.

CALAME: To the web. Blogs, I take … at least for now … it’s a special category which even at major newspapers and good newspapers, like the Post … Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. And at the New York Times people have been turned loose as an individual to comment and comment in real time. In other words, they’ll be following some event during the day and, and posting comments, frequently during the day.

That means in some cases, they’re posting comments without checking with the people that they’re commenting on, which is sort of a fundamental of good journalism, it seems to me … particularly if it’s negative. I mean if you’re praising someone, it probably doesn’t matter that much. But particularly if you’re saying something critical, they deserve a chance to say, “Wait a minute, you don’t understand this or this.”

And bloggers are pushing out there and posting stuff, even at the New York Times … with … they have a growing number of blogs … not all of them are like this, but some of the people are posting without asking for comment. And I think that … if that becomes the standard, if it’s being done at the New York Times, on a blog there … then one of the first things that happens is … other newspapers across the country say, “Hey, if it’s okay at the New York Times, it must be good journalism, or it must be okay, so we’ll do that.”

HEFFNER: But what happened to the motivation that brought first Okrent and then you to the Times? The concern that things be done right and fairly with an eye … more than an eye to the older journalistic standards. The blogs, the web just going to wipe that concern away?

CALAME: I don’t think it wipes that concern away. The people who are, are supporting and advocating and endorsing … allowing the blogs to happen believe that that’s part of change. The, the Public Editor was viewed as a response to a particular fiasco, a particular scandal that involved the young reporter Jason Blair. And so it’s, it was viewed as something that the Times … the Times needed to do something really special to try to cleanse itself, to atone for, to do penance for the Jason Blair scandal … in my opinion. And so I think that’s still felt, I think there are definitely people at the New York Times who think, “Okay, we had Okrent, we had Calame, and that’s about enough penance. Couldn’t we stop now?” And, and they’re not convinced that it really helps the Times become a better paper. So you have to recognize that.

But the people who are for blogs and for what I would call a looser approach to the way you’re pushing information out, simply say, “This is the new era, and this is, this is what happens on the web. This is how you do things when you’re doing it on the Internet, when you’re, when you’re, when you’re publishing electronically … this is the way you do it.

HEFFNER: Does that take us back to the differentiation you established between journalists who think of journalism as a cause, as a profession? And those who think of it as a business?

CALAME: Ahem … in fairness I think many of the people who really are … becoming true believers in electronic journalism think it’s a way to really reach people. And they’re not thinking about the profit or making it a successful business, they’re thinking about informing people. They’re thinking about reaching these young people who are 24, 30 and they think Jon Stewart is all they need to keep up on the news.

Well, if you’re going to try to compete with Jon Stewart, you’ve got to be, you’ve got to be spicy, you’ve got to be lively, you’ve got to be quick, you’ve got to be brief and so electronically you can get at those people. I can make the case that you can reach them better, more effectively online …

HEFFNER: Well, what do you think about that case? You can make the case, but then how do you judge it?

CALAME: Maybe I’m too old to judge it, but it, it …

HEFFNER: What do you mean you’re too old to judge it? Seriously.

CALAME: I’m saying that it’s hard to understand some of the young people feeling like they don’t need to be that informed about everything and they’re the younger people that I see picking up the free newspapers that are handed out at subway stations here in New York. I think that it … it may be that we’ve lost young people and if so … this is bad for society, so … and it’s bad for America. But to the extent that people are really not caring to be informed, if we can inform them a little bit … using electronic means and some of the whiz-bang and bells and whistles that you can work with here … then I think that is, that’s a plus. I would still hope that there’s a core that will still be interested in real information, the kind that the New York Times provides from around the world every day and that other good newspapers provide as well. And the problem is … how do those people pay for that kind of news gathering operation on such a small base if it ends up being this smaller, core … maybe you’d have to call it an “elite” … these are people who want to be informed, they probably will end up being people who have the means to be informed.

In other words can they pay a much higher subscription rate for a really good newspaper? And for the people who can afford it, then that maybe the audience of the future for … certainly for print newspapers in the next ten, 15, 20 years. And maybe even eventually for good journalism online. That’s complete, lots of drill-down material and that sort of thing. It, it could be a much smaller audience for high quality.

HEFFNER: So we’re looking then at the possibility or perhaps the probability that the 18th and 19th and 20th century notion of democracy of an informed, a well informed public … a kind of Walter Lippmann concept …

CALAME: Yes.

HEFFNER: … is gone.

CALAME: Yes.

HEFFNER: And now we’re into a post-democratic society. Is that a fair way …

CALAME: (Smile) That’s a possibility. Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: … of putting it.

CALAME: That, that’s in effect what I’m suggesting, I think.

HEFFNER: And, and … Jon’s …

CALAME: … it’s not pleasing. It doesn’t, it doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t cheer me up. It doesn’t … it makes me worry about what I spent my time doing. But I decided you have to say, you know, we took, we took a real whack at good journalism and we did it as best we could and it’s never going to stay the same.

HEFFNER: You mean we’re going to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s the way it is.”

CALAME: Change. Yes. Except that eventually …

HEFFNER: HmmMmm.

CALAME: … people have to end up being scared. Because if they’re not informed and they’re not, they’re not making decisions as citizens either at the local … even at the local level … but a lot of people will stay more active locally …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

CALAME: … when it comes to zoning on their block, or in their neighborhood. But if people become so disengaged that some charlatan comes along and takes a state or a chunk of the country down a weird path, hopefully that will shake people up. My view would be … looking out into the future … would be that that is a possibility if people are not well informed. And that would … that would hopefully cause a review of what are we all about, and how do we want to govern our country.

HEFFNER: A review. It’s going to be too late then, isn’t it?

CALAME: No. Sometimes evolution or if it has to be … a revolution in the craft of journalism could still, could still come about.

HEFFNER: You know, Barney, I have to say that in all the years that I’ve been doing The Open Mind, 51 years … no one has been as frank. No one from the field of journalism, no one from any field has been as frank about what the dynamics seem to be as you are right now. And I, I … very much appreciate that and, of course, kind of wish you’d changed your mind because I agree with what you’re saying and I only wish there were a way out. But let’s look at those ten things that worry you most about newspaper journalism.

Well, let me pick and choose. Liberal assumptions on social issues that can cloud credibility in too many newsrooms. And you’re not talking here about political leanings.

CALAME: No. No.

HEFFNER: What are you talking about?

CALAME: I’m talking about liberalism on social issues. Dan Okrent created a real storm as Public Editor when he asked, in the headline that he wrote, “Is The New York Times A Liberal Newspaper?”. And of course he wrote the lead of the column saying, “Of course it is.”

And he has said in his book which he published later and he will also tell you in conversation … “I wished I had said … I made clear … I was talking about social issues.” And I think that’s a good point.

I think that we simply have people in our newsrooms who are of inquiring mind and I believe they tend to be liberal on social issues. This does not apply to partisan politics. And many readers do not, no matter how many times I would say that to readers, I don’t think they were believing me.

But really reporters and editors are just not that much into partisan politics and so that’s not the issue. But they do have this curiosity, they … they’re out talking to people all the time whose minds are open … in many cases … inquiring minds. And so the whole thing builds up a level of curiosity that leads to a kind of a “Why shouldn’t it be done that way approach?”. Or “If, if this is working for a number of people let’s do it.”

That to me is a kind of a liberal mindset and then it becomes a problem when there’s no diversity in the newsroom and there’s nobody in a news meeting to speak up and say, “Yes, but … isn’t that a little bit of a problem if … for those people who believe in, in intelligent design?” or something like that.

In other words, to have those voices speaking up in the news meeting. They’re aren’t many of them and that means also that people with a more conservative view have to be rising in the newsroom to the positions of, of some authority where they’ll be participating in the meetings where coverage is planned and where you think about … “what’s the hot issue, or what are the hot issues of next year that we need to plan for and make sure we’re staffed for?”

So I think that … at The New York Times I saw it in some cases where editors were simply not as aggressive about questioning a story and in one case a story about abortion, which is a rather tangled tale, but … editors didn’t ask questions and I think it’s because they just thought, “Gee, everybody knows you shouldn’t outlaw abortion. There are some good reasons for having abortion.” And so a story that sort of belittled a country that was imposing criminal law or imposing criminalization on abortion, it just slipped through and it was a, it was a story with several problems and to me that was an example of the mindset that concerns me.

HEFFNER: Is that recognized, that problem at the Times, as the Journal perhaps?

CALAME: Ahem … I think it is, to some extent. I mean Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times put a reporter on a conservative beat … they called it a conservative beat in the 2004 election and I looked into that and decided that was a pretty good thing. I didn’t … I thought it was … from outside, when he did it, I was still at the Journal … I thought that, that’s a crazy idea … that’s pandering. But when I got to be Public Editor and I dug into it and looked at how it had … how it had been handled and what people thought about it … I decided it was a good idea. So clearly the Times has shown some concern about it.

At the Wall Street Journal, it’s a tough situation. The Editorial Page is so conservative and, and gets so far down the road with their free people, free markets and, and the whole question of where does compassion fit into this and does the government had a role in providing a safety net for what capitalism sort of leaves to sort of fall out the bottom of the, of the machinery.

And so the newsroom always had to be working very had not to be seen as a tool of the editorial page. And so that battle maybe obscured the sense that we might have had … “hey, we need to get more Conservatives in the, in the newsroom.”

HEFFNER: Barney we have so much more to talk about. This time our time is up. Stay where you are, we’ll do another program. Okay?

CALAME: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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