The public editor chronicles of The New York Times - Chapter 2 (Part II)

GUEST: Byron Calame
VTR: 06/26/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And this is the second of two conversations with Barney Calame, who after nearly 40 newsroom years at the Wall Street Journal went to the New York Times to write what he calls Chapter 2 of its Public Editor chronicles from the Spring of 2005 to the Spring of 2007.

So, let me pick up now with my guest basically where we left off last time. My offering you, Barney, to comment on a number of the questions that you’ve raised about some of the things you’d … you’re concerned about in journalism.

One of them … “Government attacks on journalists seeking to protect legitimate, confidential sources”. What are you talking about here?

CALAME: Well, I’m really talking about the experience of The New York Times when they wrote a story about warrantless wiretapping by the NSA and I was amazed at the … that the, at the criticism that was leveled at them in that case.

Then later they wrote about a banking consortium and, and administrative subpoenas being used by the CIA to get information about money flows there. And it, it seems to me that the, that the, the attacks on anonymous sources in those two cases and then we find in the last 18 months to two years more and more prosecutors, not just in the highly visible cases, but across the country … local, state and federal prosecutors going after reporter sources more and more.

And I believe that anonymous sources are really important to the watchdog role of our craft. I mean

HEFFNER: Yes, but you don’t like them very much if I read you correctly.

CALAME: I’m against frivolous use of anonymous sources and I’m against … do you mean … I don’t like anonymous sources, I’ve expressed concern about that?

HEFFNER: Yeah … that’s what …

CALAME: That’s what you’re referring to?

HEFFNER: That the over use …

CALAME: Right. Over use, but mainly I’m talking about over use, the frivolous use. And the frivolous use is younger reporters just thinking that they gotta “quick, get a response” and so they say to somebody, “Hey, I don’t need to quote you, just tell me something.”

And that’s frivolous and that’s silly. They’re often getting information that should be on the record. So it’s the frivolous use, whenever you get anonymous sources showing up many more places in the paper.

But then it, it really causes people to be upset and it causes infringement of that really legitimate use and important use of anonymous sources which is in the true whistle-blower situation. Where somebody is inside a government office or inside a company and something is really wrong and they need protection. They need protection so they don’t lose their job or lose their pension or maybe even that they don’t go to jail.

I’m all for anonymous sources in those cases. That’s … that’s the way the press can really carry out its watchdog function. Which is so important. That’s what we’re here for in this democracy. That’s why there’s a First Amendment. So, don’t take away anonymous sources … that … that would be a bad thing to do.

But there needs to be a crackdown on the frivolous use of anonymous sources and the Times and other good newspapers are doing that. And I think they’re getting rid of the silly stuff where you really shouldn’t be thinking about using an anonymous source anyway and you save it for where … for when it’s … use when it’s really important.

HEFFNER: How do you do this? Through editors who know their business?

CALAME: Yes. And the Times has a technique, started by Al Segal the long-time Standards Editor, who’s now retired. But as a part of the follow up to Jason Blair and the scandal the Times had when this young reporter made up information and put it in stories … and some of that involved anonymous sources … they … the committee that investigated said there needed to be more effort put into this throttling of anonymous sources.

So what Al did was … every day he would randomly check two or three stories that … where anonymous sources were, were used … and the Times … the policy change was … the Times said, “every anonymous source has to be identified to the Editor in charge of that story.” So an editor has to know the name of every anonymous source. Al was then randomly spot checking whether the editor really knew the name of this source and that source. And what that meant was, it was a little embarrassing to say, “Well, gee, editor … my source is really the PR person for Con Ed” or something like that. And it was a silly thing like, “Gee, it could be hotter tomorrow”, or something like that.

And so, whenever reporters know that they’re going to have to tell an editor the name of their source, I think it’s done a lot to weed out the frivolous use of anonymous sources.

HEFFNER: Does the … what you would call “not the frivolous use”, does it bother you at all, though. This whole concept of anonymous source … because I must tell you … after the outburst of concern about it … I was very much aware there were fewer times when there … there seemed to be fewer times that anonymous sources were used. And then … now, if I had to count them in the Times again … I think I would count more and more. And it makes me very uneasy.

CALAME: In a perfect world we would know who was saying everything. And this is probably my prejudice as somebody who’s been in, in the craft and, and who feels like it’s a tool that I’ve seen do so much good that I’m a believer and it will be pretty hard to shake my belief. It would be hard to convince me that they should be outlawed … in other words, you couldn’t use them at all.

They’ve, they’ve done too much good. And I think that it’s not the perfect world where you can always go back and hold somebody responsible for what they said.

But a couple of things. One is you can always … there’s usually an agency or an administration, at least, in control of the Executive Branch that you can hold responsible. I also think some sources … in fact a good number of sources talking on the record say things that aren’t true. And in some cases, particularly in Washington, I think, you know, somebody talking about what they favor or don’t favor. The reporter may well know that that person’s real feeling is “this is a bad policy”, but because the boss or the party or whatever is moving in a certain direction, their public statements tend to fall in line.

HEFFNER: Oh …

CALAME: And so … I’m, I’m not convinced that putting a name on a quote is the salvation. Although you can hold the person responsible … it’s there forever and ever to hold them responsible … five days later and five years later.

HEFFNER: What about this notion that the reporter, if he does believe the anonymous source and he seems to when he says, “an anonymous source told me”, simply says “states it” and puts it on his own shoulders rather than attributes it to some, some thing, some entity now known as an anonymous source “high up in the administration.”

CALAME: I think attributing it to a source is a chance to tell a little bit about why the person said it, how well placed they are. Do they have a grudge against somebody that you can discuss.

Now sources are usually pretty sticky about letting you say things like that. But, if reporters work hard, you can introduce some of that, so that it’s better than simply having it in the reporters name.

I do believe and I did my Master’s thesis in political science … was on the use of unnamed sources in the reporting of governmental affairs. And so I’ve had a long interest in this, in this topic. But I think that the, the use of anonymity is often judged by the paper and to some extent, the reporter in any case.

And this doesn’t really answer your question, but I am saying that if readers come to believe that The New York Times has a certain level of reliability with it’s unnamed sources and they have a, they have a sense out in Kansas City that the Kansas City Star … anonymous sources in that paper have a certain degree of reliability.

Now you’ve got a problem of “Why are stories showing up in the Kansas City Star?”. And sometimes the Kansas City Star can’t do anything about that. But I really believe and based on some research I did for my thesis, readers put a lot of faith in the paper that publishes the anonymous quotation or statement.

HEFFNER: What’s your own assumption about what’s going to happen with government involvement now with judicial willingness to press reporters into having to reply to “what’s your source?”
CALAME: The checks I kept making almost till the time I left to the Times indicated that sources were not claming up. Now some were being more careful, some were demanding that the contact only be done a certain way. They wanted to know what was happening with the notes.

I guess I have a kind of an undying faith that there are always going to be enough unhappy people who want to get their story out that they’ll be willing to talk and even take certain, certain risk … if necessary. It remains the reporter’s responsibility, the editor’s responsibility to make sure that they’re not being used.

HEFFNER: And “shield laws”. How do you feel about that?

CALAME: I’m against a federal shield law because you then would have to decide who’s a journalist. And if you have to decide who’s a journalist, then we get into licensing and all kinds of things like that. And I don’t think even an association of journalists should be deciding who’s a journalist and certainly the government shouldn’t be.

So my problem with the shield law … which I’d probably sort of like to see around, but you can’t have it without deciding … creating a definition for who’s a journalist. And that, to me, is a show stopper.

HEFFNER: Show stopper. Isn’t journalism a profession?

CALAME: No, it’s a craft.

HEFFNER: Come on … what do you mean by that?

CALAME: I mean that there’s no, there’s no Hippocratic Oath that journalists adhere to. There’s nothing like that. Various associations have codes. Various newspapers have codes. But there’s not a … there’s not a fixed set of standards.

HEFFNER: Should there be.

CALAME: (Sigh) Probably, yes. And if you did that, then, of course, maybe that moves you a little closer to a … to making it acceptable to define who’s a journalist and who isn’t. But I believe the First Amendment is there, but could be taken away. And so if it becomes necessary to preserve the First Amendment, I would say, “Let’s establish a code of conduct that would turn journalism into a profession.”

But the truth is the bloggers and people like that are creating a whole other part of the, of the community and, and many people who are bloggers, not all, but many people are very independent and, of course, and would never, I think, I buy into agreeing to, to a specific code, to be a journalist.

HEFFNER: Now where does this lead you … where do you come out on the question of having been … Public Editor, Ombudsperson, if you will … and maybe you won’t … maybe you’ll reject that notion … how do you feel about the old National News Council?

CALAME: Ah …

HEFFNER: I’m not going to let you out of here …

CALAME: I need to be careful …

HEFFNER: … easy …

CALAME: I’m against news councils, but I don’t have a lot of information and I haven’t studied them as carefully as I should have. So I’m sorry … you’re kind of getting a knee jerk reaction. But it’s not that far from saying, “I want to be careful about having some outside body define who’s a journalist” …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

CALAME: It’s a little bit of the same thing. But my instinct is … no, that’s not … the First Amendment means what it says.

HEFFNER: Bloggers are not journalists. Let me … you’re, you’re making that assumption.

CALAME: No, I’m not making that assumption. I’m being … I’ve learned to be very careful about criticizing bloggers as the Public Editor …

HEFFNER: Why?

CALAME: Because they can unleash thousands of emails upon you.

HEFFNER: So, this is, this is a concern, this is a fear … if, if I may … but here, just between the two of us … what about bloggers? The word “here” and the word “journalists here” …

CALAME: I think bloggers can be journalists. Being a blogger does not mean you’re not a journalist.

HEFFNER: That is …

CALAME: But all bloggers are not journalists in my opinion.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now. What do we do, as a nation … what would you have us do about this mix now …

CALAME: MmmHmm

HEFFNER: … this continuing mix; this democratic journalism. Journalism of the people …

CALAME: Citizen journalists.

HEFFNER: Citizen journalists. Does any of that make real sense to you?

CALAME: I’m not sure.

HEFFNER: I’m going to let a moment to by …

CALAME: All right.

HEFFNER: … to make you sit there with the “I’m not sure”. But that’s fair enough. You aren’t sure. And I’m not sure. But by gosh and by golly, we seem to be getting into more and more trouble in this nation because of this confusion perhaps or the … this, this people’s journalism. But let me move on, my objective is not to make you uncomfortable, believe it or not.

Right here, one of the things that concerns you … revenue: it’s declining. Who will pay for quality journalism? Then you go on, one result “soft” sections inspired and driven by revenue consideration that cause the journalism to be measured more in terms of financial costs. Certainly that’s true of The New York Times.

CALAME: Yes it is.

HEFFNER: All of these sections. And have you responded to questions about the validity of the sections, the multiple sections and the validity of the argument, “this is the way we’re going to pay for the news section.”

CALAME: I sort of surprised myself and came down … I, I … what I did was go back to a lot of things that Bill Keller, the Executive Editor had said in various meetings. And he authorized me, when I told him what I wanted to do, these were inside the newspaper.

And basically when you put them together, he was clearly saying “we’re starting new sections and we’re consulting and working with advertising when we do it, and we hope to serve people, but we hope to generate revenue that will really support the core sections of the newspaper.” He called it the “inner castle” and I ended up saying, ‘I think, it that’s what it takes to preserve the basic news sections of The New York Times then that’s okay.”

Particularly if Keller keeps his word that the quality’s going to have to be up to par, up to The New York Times standards in all of these sections. The concern that I was really referring to and generalizing a bit more is that when you create a section about automobiles … this, of course, has been done in many times … but just for the sake of an example. If you create a section about automobiles, and who’s going to advertise? And when you’re working with advertising from the “get-go” on this idea of a new special section about automobiles, everything sort of starts out in terms of “Gee, we think we can make this much money from it.”

And so it makes … it puts a special focus on how much you’re spending on the journalistic part of that. On how much money you’re spending on gathering the news and if you start finding out there’s really more news here and let’s expand a little bit … you begin to eat in to the expected profits.

And since the whole thing was started with money in mind, or that was the uppermost priority, then you tend to make everything judge by money as that section evolves and grows.

Now sometimes that’s not a problem, but in too many cases, my concern … I was really trying to focus on was … when it starts off as a financial operation, or when the main goal is financial, then everything tends to be judged on financial terms, not on journalistic terms, as you go down the road.

HEFFNER: Do you think those financial terms over journalistic terms … is that what has happened at the Times?

CALAME: I, I … I don’t know enough. The Times would not, basically, talk to me about financial numbers. And that’s certainly their right and I can understand an argument that that’s not really part of journalism. But the truth is … how much revenue The New York Times has, has a lot to do with the resources they can commit to the journalism and that has a lot to do with its quality. So … I don’t apologize for pressing for the numbers, even if I didn’t get them.

But I don’t know enough to say what sections are being judged financially. I have some sense, but not enough to really bring up an identifying public.

HEFFNER: Is it legitimate, though, to have the feeling as one looks at the “good gray Times” today to conclude that many of these stories that now appear on the front page of the News Section, the first section of The New York Times …

CALAME: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … are of a level … or at a level … they wouldn’t have been there before. And this marks a change in the nature of the “good gray Times”.

CALAME: I think it marks a change, but I’m not … I don’t think it’s the kind of change you’re implying. I think there’s been a decision to put different kinds of stories on the front page … to change the mix. I would think of it more as a lighter story; a story not, not so ponderous and heavy.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

CALAME: And, and it maybe doesn’t have “citizenship” written on it. Right? It’s entertaining and, and it … people have decided that needs to be part of the mix to make the “good gray Times” more attractive. And I can support that. I come form the Wall Street Journal, where there was a deliberate effort for most of my 40 years there to have the one story in the middle of the page, we called it the “A head” being really light and fluffy … had to be really high quality writing and journalism. But it was not going to make anybody money or cause anybody to sell a stock. But it helped liven up a pretty, deadly gray page. More deadly gray than even The New York Times … back then.

But I think what you seeing is a decision by The Times to have a mix of stories and bring some lighter lifestyle type stories to the front page. I don’t think that’s a, a cutback in, in, in resources or quality … it’s simply an editorial judgment.

HEFFNER: Except, Barney, when a Page Six story, literally about Page Six appears on the front page of The New York Times, it’s taking the place of something that would have appeared on the front page of The New York Times, something that … shall I say, would be heavier and more newsworthy.

CALAME: Well, I’m not sure what Page Six story you’re talking about. When there’s a little bit of scandal touching Page Six …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

CALAME: Why not? I mean … you allow for the fact that these are competitors, of course. But … I mean Page Six in the last two years has been newsworthy at various points and given how well it’s known … I’m sorry that doesn’t knock me off my, my chair.

HEFFNER: Then the old notion of “All the news that’s fit to print”? Doesn’t come in to play here? That wouldn’t have been considered fit to print a few years ago. Yeah, it might have appeared in the paper. It’s news. It’s controversy, etc. But it wouldn’t have been on the front page of The New York Times. So, the question is … if you concede that, I mean …

CALAME: I don’t … but, okay.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

CALAME: No. No.

HEFFNER: You would have …

CALAME: The Times never printed “All the news that’s fit to print” …

HEFFNER: Ah, ah, ah … but the question is whether the news that appeared on the front page, preventing something else from appearing … whether it was fit to print. And I guess all I’m saying and you can’t speak for the Times … that wasn’t your job …

CALAME: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And it didn’t seem to me that it fit into that category. That it took the place of other things.

CALAME: But given them some room to make the front page of The new York Times livelier and more appealing to a broad, hopefully … even a broader spectrum of people.

HEFFNER: Some room. Then how much more room? And how long does it go on? But, look, you’re right. I want The Times to survive and if that’s what it takes to survive, well, I guess I, I sort of shudder, but want it to survive. Indeed, last night I was saying to my wife as I was going through the various sections that I accumulated … you know, each one does it’s job so well. Not that I want it to be there in The Times, but I have to admit, they’re doing damn good jobs with their social news and all the other things … the automobile news and all the other things that I think are … that make me shudder a bit, but they are doing a good job.

Question. Can they continue down that path, as I would put it … and still serve the purposes that you believe the Times has traditionally served?

I mean what you said at the end about the Times … “a good, good, good paper.”

CALAME: They can. They can make it work. It’s not a guarantee that they will. I mean … but it’s possible. I think you can balance this, making sure we’ve got enough sections that appeal to enough people, or we picked up … we, we expand into new areas of coverage, so that we get new advertising revenue. But, in fact, remember that everything is changing. And, and on the Web so much is, is, is narrowed down. In other words, people come to the online version and they quickly can drill down and often are inclined to, I think, drill down in the area they’re interested in. So how these sections … these sections aren’t exactly the same online as they are in print.

But to answer your question, I think the Times can make it work. Okay? One of my concerns, which I talked about a lot, is do this they’re using more and more freelancers, people who are not on their staff. It is very difficult, particularly with ethics … okay … and, and, and the stuff that makes journalists … journalism of really high quality … it’s hard to get them into the culture of The New York Times when they’re not in the office, when they’re hired here, there and everywhere to do this. And the Times is refusing to identify what stories are done by freelancers. And I pushed that and they simply didn’t respond. But I think readers deserve to know that. Because freelancers can be very talented, but they’re not paid as well. They’re, they’re simply not into the culture. And some of the problems that some of the … some of the problems that I consider to be among the worst ones I came across were, were, were involving freelancers.

Now, freelancers were quick to call me and say, “Hey, Jason Blair was not a freelancer, he was on the staff.” All true. But … it, it saves money to use freelancers, so they’re using a lot more of them. And they’re not alone. All newspapers are doing that. And that’s a danger.

HEFFNER: You know something … all universities are now using basically freelancers.

CALAME: That’s true.

HEFFNER: That’s what is happening to us. And it’s all for the same reason … the dollar.

CALAME: It’s outsourcing of a sort.

HEFFNER: It is outsourcing of a very important sort. You know you have so much that’s important to say about newspapering today that we’ve come to the end of our program here, but I, I wonder whether you’ll promise me to come back and … after you’ve, you know, sort of taken a decent break … and had your “bends” or whatever they’re going to be as you get out of the hot house that you’ve been in for the last two years … promise me that you’ll come back again and continue this discussion.

CALAME: I’ll serious consider it.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

CALAME: I’m saying yes to nothing for four months …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Barney, thank you again for joining me today on The Open Mind. 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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