The Times, Its Readers, and their Advocate, Chapter 3, Part I

GUEST: Clark Hoyt
AIR DATE: 1/8/2010

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

And my guest today is life-long print newsman Clark Hoyt. Until a few months ago, he had for three years been the third Public Editor of the New York Times…its readers’ Advocate and Spokesperson, if you will…at other institutions sometimes called their Ombudsman.

Whatever their title, the Times was somewhat late in putting Clark Hoyt and his predecessors in place. Daniel Okrent was named in 2003, was followed by Barney Calame in 2005…and my guest today arrived at the Times in May, 2007. His successor now is Arthur S. Brisbane.

Now, you’ll remember that Public Editors Okrent and Calame also joined me here on The Open Mind … and I hope Clark Hoyt won’t mind if first I read the lead paragraph of his very last column in that exalted role. He had called it “A Final Report From Internal Affairs”.

And it reads, “For the past three years, my assignment has been to try to help this newspaper live up to its own high journalistic standards as it covered a historic presidential election, two wars, the Great Recession, violence in the Middle East and more.

“I have deplored the overuse of anonymous sources, warned against the creep of opinion into news analysis and worried about the preservation of Times quality on the Internet.

“But,” he writes, in truth, I have sometimes felt less like a keeper of the flame and more like an internal affairs cop. ‘What did I do now?’ a reporter asked with a sigh when I called recently.”

So Mr. Mr. Hoyt, I want to ask what is this business about “Internal Affairs”?

HOYT: Well, journalists are supposed to hold other people accountable, people in public life, government officials. But all of us know that it’s pretty uncomfortable to be held accountable yourself.

And I’ve learned … I’ve spent most of my life in newsrooms, and you know this in your bones, but in this role I would, from time to time, come across situations in which people were just quite uncomfortable being questioned about something they had done or hadn’t done in the Times.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I’ve … when Dan was here and Barney was here, I, I think I failed to ask them, but I’ll ask you … how did you feel about this … you write this last “Final Report from Internal Affairs” … obviously there was something that got under your skin about that.

HOYT: Well, actually I thought I was being more light about it than serious. You know the truth is Dan and Barney both had a much more difficult time than I did.

Because as you noted, they were number one and number two … the Times didn’t have a Public Editor or Ombudsman for years and resisted … the entire institution resisted the very notion of such a thing … “An outsider in our midst, presuming to judge about us?”

It was not something that went down easily in Times culture. So I know Dan, who wrote a book about his experience and collected many of his columns in it … described a couple of occasions where people would almost … he would meet with members of the staff and in groups and be shouted down.

He would be, he would encounter genuine hostility. That’s what he reported.

I know Barney had difficult times as well. I think by the time I got there in 2007, people … if they weren’t necessarily enthusiastic about the role, were resigned to it. So that by the time I got there, the truth is I encountered very little of what I would call overt antagonism or hostility and I was almost always dealt with very professionally … even when it was painful.

There were times there where would be “oh, what have I done now” sort of response. But as I said in that column, I like to think more about the Photo Editor Steve Berman who was one of several people who made an, an error in practice … if you will … and allowed the, the Times to be duped in an obit of a photographer who had falsely claimed to have taken that iconic photo of John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s casket.

And had they just checked their own archives, their digital archives they would have discovered that the photo which they had was taken by someone else.

And it was embarrassing for the people involved. But I’ll never forget after the column ran Steve came to see me and to thank me for writing the column.

And said that, that he had learned a painful lesson from it and that he hoped that everybody involved had and that going forward he would … it would make a difference to him.

And I, I really admired and respected that kind of stand-up quality.

HEFFNER: Do you think your successor will have it still easier?

HOYT: I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Is he also a big guy who can yell back?

HOYT: (Laughter) I, I don’t think I ever yelled at anybody. He’s the … he’s a guy with a substantial body of experience coming into the job. He’s been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper columnist and newspaper editor, an executive editor of a newspaper … major paper … the Kansas City Star. He was publisher of the Kansas City Star. He was the Chief News Executive … or he was over the business operations actually of all the Knight Ridder newspapers right at the end before the company was sold.

He has big credentials, and I think that should go a long way toward giving him respect coming in the door. He’s been in the door now a couple of months.

HEFFNER: Well you know, it’s, it’s interesting … you talk about credentials and your credentials were equally good and I was impressed with, with the fact and I remember those days so well, when you won the Pulitzer Prize … you did it for a kind of reporting that I want to ask you about … a kind of reporting that puts someone in an awful bad spot. Senator Eagelton …

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … who was George McGovern’s running mate for a moment …

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and you and your colleague uncovered the fact that he had experienced depressions and had had electric shock treatment …

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … for them and that blew him off the ticket. Have you looked back and had any questions about what you did?

HOYT: I’ve been asked that question before and the answer is no. And I’ll … I’ll explain why.

And you’re, you’re exactly right in the way you set it up. And it’s not comfortable to delve into something like that in a person’s life. And I don’t think journalists should do it in the ordinary course of events.

But this was a person who was putting himself in position to be the proverbial “heartbeat away from the Presidency”. Had, had that ticket … that ticket wasn’t going to get elected anyway, given the politics of the time … but let’s say the ticket had been elected, something had happened to the President and you had a major world catastrophe, conflagration, challenge of some kind and it would devolve on this individual to make a decision about that.

His medical history was that under, under pressure … under intense pressure, he tended to go into entirely debilitating depressions. He had several of these episodes … not just one. They tended to come after intense moments in his life such as political campaigns.

And I think that it was a legitimate area of inquiry and it, it … given those circumstances and that it was appropriate that it be laid out there for the public to make a judgment about.

In the end, of course, as you noted, he … Senator McGovern, famously said “I’m a thousand percent behind him” and then dumped him from the ticket in very short order.

HEFFNER: You know when I read about that and remembered the incident and then learned that you had gotten a Pulitzer for that reporting … I thought about what changes have taken place in reporting.

You explained the situation … and a matter of fact, somewhere you wrote “I never was told that it’s wrong to ask a question … any question …”.

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and you did ask the questions and you finally dug up the answers.

We didn’t do that with FDR. The press didn’t do that with FDR. What had changed by the time … by the seventies? When you won the prize.

HOYT: Well, of course, you’re talking about the seventies. Look what happened in the eighties and, and today … I mean it’s almost quaint to think about restraint in looking at the personal and, and health lives of, of public figures, political candidates.

And what’s changed is, is partly just a … it’s everything I think from a general coarsening of our culture, to technology that makes everything faster and faster and, and … the world is just so different today.

You mentioned FDR. FDR was in a wheelchair as a result of polio. Do you think … I wonder … do you think a President could be elected today who was in a wheelchair. I’m not sure.

Abraham Lincoln was a very homely man. Could he have been elected today?

Other Presidents had squeaky voices … could they have been elected today?

There … these are all … our culture has, has moved a long way down a path … I’m not sure it’s a better path, but we are where we are today, so that, that the personal lives of, of politicians are very much under examination.

HEFFNER: But you know I’ve read your work at The Times … believe it or not …

HOYT: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … I’ve read three years worth of Clark Hoyt. And did that attitude of yours …

HOYT: That’s a difficult assignment.

HEFFNER: No. It was a beautiful assignment and it was a self-assignment. Did that attitude that you’re expressing now surface in your dealing with …I won’t say your charges … but the people who … as internal affairs … you were looking after?

HOYT: You know it’s interesting … there were two occasions and you might even say … you might accuse me of being contradictory in this … I’ll argue otherwise … but there were two occasions where this sort of thing arose during my tenure as Public Editor.

One of them was when, in early 2008, the Times wrote a story about Senator John McCain, who became the Republican Presidential nominee … he was the prohibitive favorite at the time … and the story all but declared that he had had an extramarital sexual relationship with a very attractive, young female lobbyist who was some 30 plus years his junior. And a …

HEFFNER: Key word “lobbyist” …

HOYT: A lobbyist … yes …

HEFFNER: Not “sexual”.

HOYT: Well you said keyword “lobbyist” … I’d say in the context of that story, keyword “sexual” … that’s what readers got from it.

HEFFNER: That’s what the Times wrote.

HOYT: And that’s what Times wrote … and it wrote both those words. But the one that caused the flame … that caused all the, the heat was “sexual”.

And I wrote a column and said that I felt that the newspaper had been wrong because they had no evidence … the story was couched so that it was supposed to be a story about appearances and judgment. But you can’t talk about the appearance of something like that without determining the truthfulness of the situation, which the Times did not do.

There were no … there was no evidence in the story … persuasive evidence that such a thing had taken place. There were no one-the-record or even off, off the record sources or on background sources saying there was an affair.

It was that the … there was the appearance of an affair. People were worried that he was having an affair.

Well, you don’t … I, I just felt that that was a misstep by The New York Times, that the paper … especially a newspaper with its character, its kind of approach to news was falling into a kind of a tabloid-y trap with a story like that, that it was … it was irresponsible, shouldn’t have been published.

Now, later I wrote a column when the National Enquirer for months and months and months had been drip, drip, drip writing about John Edwards and a woman named Reille Hunter who had been a videographer on his campaign and an affair between them and then a love child that they had.

And this story for a long time stayed confined to the, the National Enquirer and to the tabloid world and did not break into mainstream news media.

But finally there came a point when the National Enquirer published photographs of Edwards, the woman and the baby in a hotel room in … I forget, it was Las Vegas or where … but they had a meeting somewhere.

And at that point it seemed to me that the evidence had become so overwhelming and he was still being talked about as … at the time … as, if not a Vice Presidential candidate … a, a potential major figure in an Obama Administration in some way … that, that it was … it had become a story that could not be ignored.

There are some stories you don’t want to be first on … that’s one of them. But there does come a time where you need to deal with it.

HEFFNER: Now, now … hypocrisy … “some stories you don’t want to be first on” …

HOYT: Yeah, well …

HEFFNER: … but you want to have them.

HOYT: Eventually, if you have to. I mean … yeah … that’s a story where I, I, I think the restraint about it was appropriate for a while.

But there comes a time when it’s so clearly a story … when, when it is having a real world effect and you cannot turn your eyes away from that, you have to pay attention to it.

HEFFNER: Would that story …full blown … have appeared in The New York Times in 1930?

HOYT: That’s a great question. And probably not. I … you know … I …

HEFFNER: So, what’s happened?

HOYT: As I said I think our, our culture has changed, it’s more intrusive. Part of it …

HEFFNER: But I’m talking about the Times … I’m not talking about our culture.

HOYT: Well, the Times has changed, too. You know, the, the newspaper is not static, it’s not what it was in 1930. It publishes color photographs, for heaven’s sake … the “old gray lady”.

The newspaper has, has moved and adapted and, and, and mostly quite properly so.

HEFFNER: Properly … that’s an interesting word. “Properly” to survive? Properly because it is proper?

HOYT: Properly because you know, ultimately a newspaper should be a, an accurate and, and relatively complete reflection of the society that it’s covering for the readers in that society.

You can’t publish a 1930 newspaper in 2010 and expect that it would be of, of great value.

You know the original New York Times used to publish every ship sailing and arriving …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

HOYT: … in New York.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

HOYT: … the paper of record was, in fact, a paper of record. It’s not a paper of record now and hasn’t been for a long time. It looks at the world in a different way and, and I think it should.

HEFFNER: You think it should. I, I … you’ve written about survival, about what must be done now to survive … for the newspaper world to survive. Ah, ah … how does it make you feel? It’s like, you know, the television reporters who put a microphone in front of the, the woman who’s child has just been burned to death … “How does it make you feel?” How does it make you feel?

HOYT: Well, you know, I started as a newspaper reporter more than 40 years ago. And I love the printed word on a piece of paper. And I’m a person who literally … I recall choking up one time with emotion when I was in the press room of a newspaper where new presses were starting to run for the first time. And the smell of the ink and the paper dust in the air and the sound of the presses starting to run … you know it was … it, it, it … I don’t know it just brought a whole bunch of things together, you know, including Humphrey Bogart pushing the button and having the presses run and telling the crooked politician, “Listen, there’s your answer”.

I, I mean I love newspapers and the romance of the old fashioned newsroom and all of that.

But … and so there’s a part of me that’s very sad about what has happened. But technology, demographics, a lot of things have come into play that have moved audiences and the advertising that wants those audiences onto, onto new platforms of delivery.

And newspapers are not going to be what they were ever again. And are, in many respects, withering away. What I don’t want to see wither away is journalism, which is something entirely different, which is, which is … newspapers, after all, were a means of delivering it.

What really counts to me is having both the independence and the financial independence, the intellectual independence and the skills to go after important stories to a democracy whether it is holding public officials accountable; whether it’s uncovering corruption; whether it is having the wherewithal to go cover a war. You know citizen journalism may be great in many respects … the … a notion that well people will just contribute to the Internet and that’s the way we’ll learn.

And that certainly can be important. But ultimately you need trained, talented journalists to find out things that the public needs to know.

And I think that’s always going to be a value and the question is how … what are the economics that are going to support it and that’s the, the key question today.

HEFFNER: Are we finding the answer to that key question?

HOYT: Ah, you know, lots of experiments are going on out there. There are things … I’m now consulting for Bloomberg News which is about the only growing news organization I know of today.

It thrives because it identifies audiences and delivers to them information and analytical tools of value to them for business purposes.

But there is and then there are, there are other models like non-profit models, like ProPublica, which has grown up, which is an investigative journalism organization headed by Paul Steiger, the former Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal, that just won a Pulitzer Prize this year … it’s a, it’s a terrific organization.

Is there a perfect replacement model for the general circulation, mass distribution daily newspaper right now? No. It’s still … that’s still something that’s, that’s working its way out. And I, I don’t fully know what the answer is.

HEFFNER: Do you think, and I guess that’s the only fair question that I can ask you … do you think a way will be found out? Can you imagine that one will?

HOYT: Yes. I think, I think a way will be found. And I think it will be a combination of … there are going to be lots of experiments … The New York Times is beginning to experiment with charging for people to come to its website.

Others are, are trying various experiments like that. There’ll probably be some kind of business model that will be a, a mix of pay, advertising, maybe even an NPR like subscription model. I don’t’ know exactly what will, what it will be, but I, I have optimism that there will be a successful model.

HEFFNER: It’s a good thing, I suppose in terms of a successful model that I’m so damn old and I’ll be off the scene soon because I have to admit that there are so many times when I pick up my New York Times, and I wouldn’t’ go a day without it, my wife says the, the question about “what would you do on … what would you take with you on a desert island?” … my answer always would be The New York Times.

When I look at it and I say, “This isn’t The New York Times” … I see so many …

HOYT: Because it’s thinner?

HEFFNER: Oh, no, no, no … I’m not … it’s fatter in many, many ways. I have to lift it up off the floor in the morning, after all.

No, I mean the content of the first page. What is this story, why isn’t it on Page Six of the Post? It probably is. But there it is on the front page, too.

How did you feel about that? How did you deal with that? Or wasn’t that your province?

HOYT: Well, I’ve always believed that a newspapers front page should have a mix of things on it. And that it ought to be a reflection of things that are both the most important of the day and somethings that are just really interesting.

And may not ultimately have cataclysmic … that’s the wrong word … but, you know, huge, important policy value, but, but are just really interesting stories.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I grant that I have to admit they’re interesting stories and I find myself regretting the fact that I’m more and more interested in them. But most important of all, I guess, my feeling is, and it must be yours … if that’s what enable the good gray Times … no longer gray … to survive … that’s it.

HOYT: Well, you know I don’t think you should mourn that. I don’t think you should look and say that if they’re putting a story on that might not be world shaking in it’s, in it’s implications for society, but that is just really interesting … and isn’t pandering in some way or, or prurient …

HEFFNER: I didn’t say … isn’t pandering …

HOYT: Ah, well I’m saying that.

HEFFNER: Okay.

HOYT: If it isn’t or isn’t prurient, I don’t’ see what’s wrong with that. I really don’t see that that’s a, a bad thing for The New York Times to do.

A newspaper should be an interesting thing to read, as well as an important thing to read.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I have to admit The Times is becoming more interesting.

HOYT: And … do you think that’s bad?

HEFFNER: No, I don’t think that it’s bad, I think it’s bad what’s happened to me that I don’t look for the more important news instead …

HOYT: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … on the front page any more. But listen our discussion is going to take us many other places. Our time is up now, but I hope you’ll stay where you are and well’ do another program. Okay.

HOYT: I love it.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Clark Hoyt. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time as well. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

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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