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

GUEST: Clark Hoyt
AIR DATE: 1/15/2011

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

And this is the second of two programs with 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 …that other institutions sometimes called their Ombudsman.

Now, 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.

Well, last time I pointed out that Public Editors Okrent and Calame had also joined me here on The Open Mind … and I expressed the hope that my guest wouldn’t mind if first I read the lead paragraph of his very last column in that exalted role. It’s important. He had called it “A Final Report From Internal Affairs”.

It read, “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.

And he wrote, “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, 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.”

And we went on from there. But today I think what I’d like to do is go back a moment to … well, I’d like to ask you about Janet Malcolm’s comments on what every journalist knows about the journalistic pursuit.

But I’d like to go back to what you said you had tried to accomplish … you mentioned three things in that last report of a jailkeeper … or an internal affairs cop …

HOYT: Internal affairs cop, yeah.

HEFFNER: What, what, what did you succeed in doing with each of those three items?

HOYT: Well, I don’t know that I can give you a precise report like that because I think, for example, in the case of what I regard as creep of opinion into news analysis, the Executive Editor, Bill Keller, never really agreed with my analysis about that.

And so I’m not sure that, that I could say that I accomplished a great. I held up a mirror, I, I pointed out things that I thought were issues and then it’s up to the Editors of the Times and the Times staff to decide what they want to do about that.

HEFFNER: But they weren’t just your issues … you were reflecting … I gather what your writers and readers were saying.

HOYT: Oh, yes. You know the Times is constantly under fire … in fact walking here to the studio today, I passed a truck that had a huge sign on the side about, something about the, the lies of the liberal New York Times … parked, parked a few blocks away from here.

The Times is always under assault for being a, a partisan newspaper. I don’t really believe it is. It is certainly a Liberal newspaper on the Editorial pages and the OpEd page.

But I think on the news pages it, it does a … by and large … a really terrific job of what a paper should do which is looking everywhere for things to be held up to the light. If you’re going to accuse it of being a partisan newspaper, for example, you’ll first have to explain to me the story that won a Pulitzer Prize about Governor, former Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat of New York.

You’ll have to explain to me why if it was a, a partisan Liberal newspaper it would have taken out after Congressman Charlie Rangel of, of New York who was then the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and it’s really largely because of reporting in the New York Times that he no longer is.

Similarly Attorney General Blumenthal, the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut, the Times did a story about his non-record in Vietnam. His claims before Veterans audiences that he had served in Vietnam, when he did not.

I don’t believe Fox News would have taken off after any Republican figure the way the Times has appropriately looked into situations involving Democrats … in these cases and in others. There, there are other examples of this.

I think the partisan thing is, is a bum rap. But I think that the Times feeds ammunition to its critics when it allows things to, to come into what are supposed to be analytical pieces … often on the business pages, by the way … that look to … I think any reasonable reader … like the writer’s opinion. You, you can tell where this writer is coming from and I don’t think that’s what journalists should be doing.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but let me ask this question. You, you’ve indicated that whatever we do today we reflect changing times.

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Changing conditions, the nature of our lives, the complexity, the ambiguities, etc. Do you think that it is really possible to … well, let’s put it this way … considerably to play down …to eliminate … no … but to reduce significantly what you don’t like about the opinions that appear.

HOYT: Sure. You, you can write … you can be very analytical about something. You can explain the context of an event, you can explain history that went into why something may have turned out the way it turned out.

You can explain more about the players involved than a, that a so-called … then a straight standard news story would, would allow you to do. You can do all of those things.

It, it’s the point at which you say “the President should have done this, Congress should have done that, corporations shouldn’t be required to do x or so on”, where you’ve crossed a line.

And those lines appear to me to, to get fuzzed at times in the, in The Times.

HEFFNER: And to be fair, what’s the response to what you say? What’s the answer?

HOYT: Well, the answer is a disagreement with my interpretation of some of what I read … was the answer. And …

HEFFNER: You mean this isn’t opinion …

HOYT: Yeah, this isn’t opinion. And, and the answer often was “Well, if it’s prescriptive, if it says ‘you must do x, y or z or should do’, then it’s opinion that’s not permitted, but otherwise it kind of gets gray.

HEFFNER: The good gray Times, gray in another way.

HOYT: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … this rap, as you put it … Liberal paper …

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … how would you …

HOYT: Well, look, The New York Times is published in New York. More than half of its print circulation is in the New York Metropolitan area. New York is not like Senator Jim DiMint’s South Carolina.

New York is not like Senator Coburn’s Oklahoma. New York is not like a lot of other places in, in the country. And so I, I would say that the paper has a … if there’s a small “l” liberal outlook in the sense that it, it covers same sex marriages on the … in the wedding announcements … it … without clucking about it … or, or passing moral judgment.

And obviously it’s accepting of those, to publish them. It does not take creationism or intelligent design as serious scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution. It, it covers cultural events that would probably be shocking in some other cities, as events.

And so in that sense it’s, it’s liberal like a liberal arts college … looks at and examines lots of things without trying to pass moral judgment.

HEFFNER: Now suppose I were to say “aha …

HOYT: Yeah?

HEFFNER: … and then change the word to partisan …

HOYT: Yeah, and I think …

HEFFNER: …do you think it’s partisan?

HOYT: … no, I do not think it’s partisan … in the news pages … no. I think it’s pretty predictable that the Times is mostly going to support Democrats editorially. And that it’s going to be a, a Liberal newspaper in its editorial policy and that the line up of columnists on its, on its OpEd page … the, the standing columnist is pretty overwhelmingly Liberal … there are two that you could point to and say they’re conservatives, although they’re of a stripe that’s certainly not in the, the Tea Party mold. And …

HEFFNER: Should they be, in your estimation …

HOYT: (Sigh) I …

HEFFNER: … if you were running the zoo? Would you?

HOYT: Oh, I have … I might have a somewhat different balance of columnists, I might. But I don’t … I, I made an agreement with Andy Rosenthal, the Editorial Page Editor when I came.

And we agreed that if I were to find factual errors in Editorials or OpEd columns, or if I were to take issue with the tone of something, for example, screaming and calling people names in print … in, in … on the Editorial Page … then I was … then I would right about that. I would consider that “fair game” and he agreed.

But we agreed that it’s not my role, it’s not the Public Editor’s role, to take on the opinions of the newspaper or even the opinions of the OpEd columnists.

I, I really think that’s not what a … an Ombudsman or a Public Editor should be about.

HEFFNER: But if there were opinions in the news columns …

HOYT: Oh, yes. Then I … it’s a different matter.

HEFFNER: And you received many, many, many, many emails, letters about that.

HOYT: MmmHhhhm. I did.

HEFFNER: Most of them, I would gather from reading the columns that, that seemed to appear again and again.

HOYT: Well, leaders … Times readers are first of all I heard from a lot of people who weren’t even Times readers, who are simply told or urged by a blog site or one of the many sights from …

HEFFNER: Write the damn New York Times …

HOYT: Exactly … and tell them “what for”. And so I would receive communications that would purport … from some reader that “Your newspaper had the outrageous statement x, y and z” … and no such thing was ever in the newspaper.

And … by the way, I once appreciated the candor of one person who wrote in … infuriated about something that he had been told was in the paper …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

HOYT: … and he said, “If I subscribed to your newspaper, I’d cancel my subscription.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

HOYT: Ahmm, so, you know, there were reader complaints about this. But readers are … the real readers of the Times are pretty sophisticated about knowing the difference between Editorial and OpEd pages and news pages.

HEFFNER: What about the business of anonymity? I mean reading through … and it was a pleasure, I don’t mean that it was painful … reading through all of your columns for those three years …

HOYT: Because …

HEFFNER: And that theme came up again and again and again.

HOYT: Biggest subject. It infuriates readers. And I, I like to think …

HEFFNER: Appropriately, do you think?

HOYT: Yes. Yeah, oh, yeah, yes. Listen, there are times when anonymity is absolutely necessary and anonymity, for example, the Times wrote an article, before I arrived that created a huge stir when the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize … caused other people to want it to be prosecuted for treason … about the Bush Administration’s program of warrantless eveasdropping on American citizens and their communications … international communications.

Ah, bypassing an entire court system that had been set up entirely for the purpose of authorizing such, such activity. And that was a story that, that created a huge furor at the time. I believe it was a huge public service to, to expose this.

It required anonymous sources … you’re not going to get people on the record talking about something like this.

But when you write a, a feature story about the décor of apartment building lobbies in Manhattan and choose to use an anonymous source, talking about how ugly one particular lobby is, I think you’re insulting your readers, you’re being lazy and that its bad journalism.

That did happen at The Times. And there are many other examples, there will be these anodyne quotes from people with obvious axes to grind or obvious images to polish, more often. And they’re anonymous and it’s silly, there’s no reason for it, they don’t have to be quoted.

You find very often that these anonymous quotes will come at the very bottom of a story. Well, if they’re so important … if they have to be anonymous and they’re so unimportant that they’re at the bottom of the story, they clearly are something that just doesn’t even … they don’t belong there.

HEFFNER: Okay, but I think most of us are interested …

HOYT: By the way, excuse me, but I actually think I did make progress on this.

HEFFNER: Okay.

HOYT: And the last, the last column about this that I wrote …

HEFFNER: The numbers …

HOYT: … occasioned a memo from … or a discussion from Bill Keller to editors and asking them to have all their people read that column and, and a reminder about the paper’s policy.

Earlier I cooperated with a classic Columbia University’s Journalism School and we studied anonymous sources in the paper. That occasioned a memo to the, to the staff from the Executive Editor. I think that’s one where, where we might have made some incremental, but I wouldn’t claim grand … progress.

HEFFNER: And if we were to do the numbers again, now. What do you think we’d find in terms of stories that included anonymous sources?

HOYT: I don’t know because I haven’t run the numbers most recently. I, I would hope they would be down, but I can’t, I can’t be confident that that’s the case.

HEFFNER: Surely that reporters must themselves know that they’re turning off their readers. I don’t think they need the vicious emails that are received. Why do they do it?

HOYT: Well, it … several reasons. You know I grew up in … early in a reporting culture where anonymous sources were almost a badge of “boy are you really good, you’ve got somebody who is so important to talk to you that and, and you found out something that nobody else could get any other way” and within the cocoon of the newsroom somehow it, it seemed like that was really great to get that.

To the outside world, they think you’re making it up, you’re … or you’re quoting someone who has got some terrible motive that I’m not aware of and therefore I can’t trust that person. Or the person is making it up and I have no way of knowing, because I don’t know who the person is … whether to trust that person or not.

It, it’s a toxic thing. And I, I think that reporters still … especially in Washington where I spent much of my career, the culture there is so competitive, the culture is so anonymous and the fear is that if I don’t accept this information under the ground rules that it’s being given to me, someone else will and I’ll get beaten and I’ll get yelled at by some editor.

And so the whole journalistic official culture in Washington is just dreadful. I’ve, I’ve told people many times, I once … when I was … what …an editor in Washington, I had a story come to me that had this sentence in it. It said, “The Department spokesman, who decline to be identified, refused to comment.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

HOYT: We struck it out.

HEFFNER: You know, there was in the, in the piece that appeared in Columbia College Today about you and your position at The Times. It said, it was talking about your predecessors and I, I always loved this … talking about Dan Okrent, or quoting him first, he said, “I think”, as Public Editor, “I think I had too much fun. Barney didn’t have enough fun. And Clark has it just about right,” says Okrent. “I showed off more and I came in with a chip on my shoulder, so the reporters were gunning for me. Clark has a well nuanced approach, he seems temperamentally suited for it.” Is that because of your experience in the press, in journalism?

HOYT: Well, that was very kind of Dan to say. I, I have great admiration for him and I appreciate that.

HEFFNER: And he wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t damn well mean it.

HOYT: Well, I, I appreciate that. I, I think that’s true. I know him. I think that, that … I don’t know, I can’t explain that. I mean I did enjoy it. I enjoyed the job, believe or not. It wasn’t always fun and there were times where it was intensely unpleasant, but all jobs are like that.

I felt as though I was doing something worthwhile. I felt as though I had two audiences … the newsroom of The New York Times and the public that I was serving.

And I tried my best to be fair with both of them, but I knew early on that I couldn’t worry too much about whether one or the other was mad at me, because they were always … one or the other was always going to be made about me. So I just had to figure out what I thought and say it.

HEFFNER: Your concern was for standards.

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What about that concern in the age of the web?

HOYT: Well, it, it’s of several parts. One of them is The Times has successfully resisted the … what has happened at many, many newspapers … where newsrooms have been literally gutted to make up for the decline in advertising revenue.

The Times has about, I think 1,150 journalists in the newsroom today. At the very peak they had 1,300. They were operating at around 1,250 for much of the time I was there. That’s not a great cut.

But those people are being asked to do much more than journalists in the print era, or the solely print era were being asked to do. Because they’re now operating on both a, a printed newspaper and, and the Internet.

And there are jobs today that never existed before … like videographer and, and video editors and, and online editors and so on. And one of the areas in the print side that is, has, has … really in both cases, there’s some concern about copyediting and whether there is enough copyediting to catch things that can be these niggling little errors that, that drive you crazy and make people question whether … if the big thing … is, is the big thing right if they can’t spell the name right?

And that’s one area of standard. Is, is, is it edited as carefully … the printed paper should have four or five sets of eyes on a story … doesn’t always prevent errors, but that’s a pretty thin, pretty thinly … what’s the right word … the screen is fine …it’s a fine screen.

The screen gets coarser for online … there are fewer eyes looking at things before they appear online and so there, there’s that danger.

Another thing is that, that the speed of online … you know, there’s a high premium on get it fast, get first. And mistakes can be made that way.

There was an incident that I did write about in which coverage of, of Caroline Kennedy’s moment where she might have been chosen to be appointed to replace Hillary Clinton and anonymous sources were saying vicious things about her. And it appeared to be coming from Governor Patterson’s office somewhere.

And there were, there was stuff in it that turned out not to be right. And more time, more care … the longer deadline cycle of a daily paper, I think might have made a difference in how that was handled.

Now an argument was made to me, “Well, if you make a mistake online you can correct it very quickly online.”

That’s true, but what about the reader who comes, sees your mistake, leaves … doesn’t know that you’ve corrected it. You, you have no way of, you know, buzz, buzz … come back quickly here … we, we made a mistake.

So, I don’t think that really absolves you. And I think that, that’s an issue not just for the New York Times, it’s an issue for everybody who’s operating in that environment.

HEFFNER: How are we going to deal with that? I mean you’re talking about a 24 hour …

HOYT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … operation in which things are constantly … I know when I go … those rare times to the Net … and I see “updated 16 minutes ago”, I suppose that’s supposed to be very important.

HOYT: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That this is now truer than if it had been updated 20 minutes ago.

HOYT: Well, up-dated, up-dated shouldn’t be “corrected” as in “uh-ho, we got it … had it all wrong before …

HEFFNER: Okay.

HOYT: … and now we got it right. Up-dated is … I mean this is actually a strength of online. Up-dated means that you’re able to provide fresh, new information, more reporting has added to the story, it’s given it some new aspect or angle. That’s, that’s the good part of online.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but it leads to what the bad part of online is.

HOYT: Well, bad part of online is, is a by-product or a, or a … it’s a danger, not necessarily a by-product. A by-product suggests inevitability and I’m not saying that.

HEFFNER: You’re not?

HOYT: No. Because I think … if, if things are staffed and, and if the culture is right about accuracy and, and, and very, very careful editing … it does not have to be sloppy.

HEFFNER: But, Clark, I’m talking about reality.

HOYT: Well … I … I’m talking about aspirations and, and … look The Times online is still a very, very impressive … I sound like I’m speaking for the paper, which I’m not. But I … you know …

HEFFNER: No, it is.

HOYT: It, it … they do a tremendous job.

HEFFNER: Certainly, technologically, it’s amazing.

HOYT: And the content is amazing, too. Yes, there are errors and mistakes. And there are more than there should be. Well there are more than there should be these days in the printed paper, too.

And both are things that I think should be areas of concern.

HEFFNER: Same problem. Time … and I’m getting the signal l that our time is up and I wish like anything that we had started these programs a long time ago. But, even though you’re not there at The Times anymore, you’ve got to promise to come back again.

HOYT: I will.

HEFFNER: And again.

HOYT: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Meanwhile, Clark Hoyt, thanks so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

HOYT: Thank you, Dick

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, of course. But 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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