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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today Margaret Sullivan- media columnist for the Washington Post and former Public Editor of the New York Times joins me to consider the contemporary journalistic ecosystem. Reflecting on her Times tenure, Frank Rich of New York Magazine wrote about Sullivan, “Public editors have come and gone with far less impact. But that was not the case with her. She’s been fearless and provocative and scored a major achievement in getting the Times to reform its use of anonymous sources. I should add the Times has also banned the practice of after the fact quote approval- a kind of uncritical pre-clearance.” I second Frank Rich’s endorsement of Margaret Sullivan as a valiant watchdog of, by, and for the Times and the broader Fourth Estate, speaking to the most salient, enduring issues of public interest. From Edward Snowden’s intelligence disclosures to the Times editorial upheaval to the press’ manic Trump obsessive-compulsive disorder, Sullivan’s has been a steady hand, thoughtfully representing readers through the turbulence, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you here today.
SULLIVAN: Thank you, Alexander. It’s nice to be here.
HEFFNER: I was saying to a friend of mine what an ombudsperson- man, woman, child, right?
HEFFNER: An ombudsmen’s prerogative is to represent the readers- to be analytical and even critical of your own institution- in this case the New York Times- and I wanted to start with your reflections there. And they said, they pay her to do that?
HEFFNER: That kind of audit? An auditor of the paper, if you will, editorial auditor of the paper? And I wanted to ask you if there was any time during your tenure you came in to work and said are they gonna stop paying me tomorrow? Was there- was there a moment when you said that you thought that that was possible? Especially in light of the transition in Executive Editor at the Times. Did you ever think that was a plausible scenario?
SULLIVAN: No. I never did. I’ve had- I had incredible re- uh- support at the Times. Um. You know, the Publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, was completely, you know, I would say, unwavering in his support of me in that role. And I never had him say, uh, and I reported to him- not up through the editing ranks- so I never had him say- never heard him say- I wish you hadn’t written that, please don’t write about that, I wish you would write about this- it. You know. Complete independence. And it’s really an amazing commitment that the Times makes to its readers in having this position. Because you’re right- and your friend is right- that um. It is a little unusual to pay someone to um, to criticize you internally.
HEFFNER: Right. And you’ve done that, admirably. I want to talk about some of your columns and your blogs and your new job at the Washington Post. But first, just to go back to that- was there any moment where you were uncomfortable by the body language of your colleagues insofar as you knew that their assessment of your assessment was that it was unfair to the Times?
SULLIVAN: There- there were many days when I felt uncomfortable. There’s an inherent tension in the job. And you know that going in. I mean, I remember thinking, um, this is a way to finally learn the lesson from the Universe to not try to please everyone- or even to please anyone. Um. But I always felt like if I kept focused on- on representing the reader- that that would keep me in the right place. And so that was always foremost in my mind.
HEFFNER: And looking at your tenure and the reader responses- what most resonates with the New York Times reader today in terms of the substance of the reporting? Is there a major takeaway from the several years you’ve been at this?
SULLIVAN: Readers feel that when they read something in the New York Times- whether in the paper or on the website or on their phone- they have- they bring an expectation that it will be right. That it will have been completely vetted and that it’s correct. And when they are disappointed on that, they’re very disappointed. It’s, it’s, uh, when they read it in the Times, the expect it to be exactly what it should be. And so that’s a very high standard to meet and that’s- that’s what makes the Times as prominent as it is- and it’s really a part of its reputation that has to be protected at all costs.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you this, though, was your estimation that the reader feedback was predominantly about fact or perception?
SULLIVAN: Mm. Well. You know. One man’s fact is another man’s perception. Or woman.
SULLIVAN: Um. You know, for example, when talking about coverage of the Middle East, which is a very hot topic in the public editor’s e-mail and uh- it’s a big complaint- there are such dramatically different points of view on it, it’s impossible to really write a story that’s not going to cause problems on one side or the other. So the Times really tries to do its best, to, you know, tell the news, and to be as neutral as possible. But that’s very difficult in that situation.
HEFFNER: The question of perception…
HEFFNER: That I’m getting at is this idea that certain lives are more valuable.
SULLIVAN: Ah. Yes. Yes.
HEFFNER: The film, Eye in the Sky-
HEFFNER: I think penetrated that point quite brilliantly.
SULLIVAN: Yes. yes.
HEFFNER: So from your vantage point of the incoming e-mail, am- you know, this was also a critique of Facebook when they wanted to light up the Eiffel Tower in remembrance or in other situations involving European countries but not Northern Africa.
SULLIVAN: Right. Exactly. Right.
HEFFNER: That was the thrust of one of your recent columns.
SULLIVAN: Yes. That’s right. And it- it is true that the Times and all American media paid more attention to the terrorist attacks in Paris and in Brussels than they have to attacks in Africa, um, and in other places in the world. And that may make sense from a newsworthiness point of view, but it doesn’t make complete sense from a human point of view because we know that all lives are equally valuable. And so that has to be balanced. But it can get a little bit out of whack sometimes, and I heard from readers that they were um noticing that terrorist attacks could occur in Turkey or in uh Ivory Coast and get relatively little notice where the pages of the Times were filled with articles about the Brussels and Paris attacks.
HEFFNER: So. I don’t know if you often respond to the readers or have lengthy dialogues- I think you’ve published some of your dialogues with readers.
HEFFNER: I recall reading some of them. What would the reader, critiquing that aspect of the Times coverage say if you said in response well, these North African or Middle Eastern states, we expect there to be more terrorism that occurs there because they are more illiberal democracies than the more liberal democracies of Europe or of the United States and North America- is that not a fair editorial position that- that affects the way we would cover terrorism.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. Well look. For one thing, there’s no reader. There’s no specific, you know, there’s not a reader that has the same, you know, represents all readers point of view. There’s many points of view on this. And when I wrote about it, I found that there were lots of readers that said look, I’m an American and I’ve been to Paris, or I’ve been to Brussels and I do care more about what happens there. Is this the new normal for Europe? And there are others who say, you know, I lived in Turkey and I really care about the people and the culture there and you’re not paying attention to that. So there’s a wide variety of points of view. But even the- the International Editor told me that he thought the Times could do a better job of um making it clear that all these lives are are important and valuable and paying attention.
HEFFNER: Yeah. You cite in your column a scholar of communications who put it succinctly, in your words- ISIS kills- and now his words- “ISIS kills thirty plus in Brussels, big story page one. ISIS kills thirty plus in Baghdad, small story, page 6 below the fold.”
SULLIVAN: One of the things that the editors pointed out to me was that there now has been so much violence in Iraq that um- you know, terrible to say, but every bombing, every attack, is not going to get the same prominence. And it’s just not realistic.
HEFFNER: Margaret, it’s in this climate that I think we might talk about anonymous sourcing.
HEFFNER: Because- and I want to think about anonymous sourcing in a political context too, but- the- defense of anonymous sourcing has largely been- you know, not wanting to jeopardize people’s livelihood and jobs, separate and apart from the story itself, the people who are behind the scenes and involved.
HEFFNER: Your columns- your work- triggered a major change in the way the Times is going to evaluate accountability of their reporters and their editors.
HEFFNER: What was the climate and what continues to be the climate that fostered that- engendered that- uh, you could say egregious, or you could just say quite frequent use of anonymous sources.
SULLIVAN: Well, look, sometimes anonymous sources are necessary. And I think everyone in journalism accepts that. There are major stories that should be done that cannot be done with people being- naming themselves on the record. It just doesn’t work that way. But, the Times, and I think other news organizations have gone overboard with this and have used too many of them- and sometimes it’s blown up in the Times’ face. So that there were a couple of stories over a period of six months that were front page stories- one about Hillary Clinton and an investigation in to her e-mail practices- and one about the San Bernardino massacre that were based on anonymous sources and just turned out to be very flawed. And they required corrections or editor’s notes and I really think it was that, more than my hammering away at it that caused this change in policy. But, if I pushed it in that direction, that’s good. But I can’t really take credit for it. I think the Times editors were very far down the road and maybe I pushed it a little bit more on behalf of the reader. Because I think the reader is best served when people are named and they can be held accountable for their information.
HEFFNER: Well, we’ll say that there was some kind of coupling of forces- you and the Times-
SULLIVAN: I think that’s right. I think that’s right.
HEFFNER: That led to that change. But can you elaborate- can you expound on the climate- the motivating factor that has perpetuated the anonymous sources and sourcing that has been in pursuit of the latest greatest scoop, or do you think it has more to do with trust and distrust among reporters and potential sources?
SULLIVAN: Reporters are competitive people. They want to get the story. And if they need to promise someone anonymity in order to get it, there’s a great temptation to do that. And it may be that they feel that there’s no other way to get it. And so I think that’s legit. Why has it grown so much? I think it’s been allowed to grow. And so it’s easier. It’s uh. Much easier to write a story that’s based on anonymous sources than it is to write a story that’s based on a named source.
HEFFNER: It’s also much easier to get that quick click online. Right? And that’s the climate that I want you to reflect on. All the way back to your Buffalo News publishing tenure through now- your Washington Post new job- it- you know, you write about spinach. I like to joke about The Open Mind- it’s kind of spinach, cream, a little bit of cream added, salt, spice- but fundamentally it is nutrition for the soul and for the mind- um- do you see and did you see at the Times- especially in the political reporting- a heavier reliance on anonymous sources when you have to say something more frivolous than not?
SULLIVAN: Mm. There is a desire these days- as you know- to drive digital traffic. And so when you’re- when that becomes a very high value, certain things happen. And it- you know- one of the things that happens is that the substantial and perhaps boring story is not always at the highest level of of uh- of priority. And so, you know, I actually do think that stories that people click on- that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Um, in fact, we want people to read stories. And it’s great that there’s a big audience for a story. But it doesn’t always translate in to the most serious kind of journalism.
HEFFNER: And do you think, from your conversations, you’re often, or you were dialoging, with Times editors and reporters- more editors than reporters, right?
HEFFNER: Did you ever question, well, what was the necessity here of the sources when the product was a story that did not contribute to the public interest in any substantive way.
HEFFNER: And I say that, think for a second, and I think I say that in the climate of what you- you write here. “Waiter, where’s our political spinach? “And you’re saying that the readers of the New York Times- and I think readers of your column, broadly, are asking about the consumption habits of political news. And I, so I wonder if anonymous sources are feeding the stories that don’t confront the important issues like immigration, income inequality, international conflict.
SULLIVAN: I think one of the things that I’ve tried to write about in the political realm has to do with how much coverage is being given to what we call the horse race- who’s ahead, who’s ahead in the polls, what does the latest poll say, who won the debate, as opposed to stories that contrast and compare candidates on the issues. And while readers will say I really want those issues stories, I care about that, it’s a little bit maybe like leaving the broccoli on the side of the plate after you’ve had, you know, the pasta. Um. They don’t always want to have the serious story although they may think that they do. And I think it’s really important to make sure that that is provided as as part of the readers’ menu.
HEFFNER: What was the most unfortunate misstep you think the Times made while you- while you were Public Editor?
SULLIVAN: I think those two stories, um, that were based on anonymous sources that I mentioned- about Clinton’s e-mail uh being the subject of a so-called criminal investigation and the San Bernardino uh- shooter- being- you know, talking freely on public, on uh, social media, about her uh jihadist tendencies- you know, both of which turned out to be flawed- those were pretty bad mistakes. They were very high, uh, very prominently displayed, and they had to be recanted to a large extent. So um- those were pretty serious things.
HEFFNER: In the aftermath of Snowden- tell us where you were and how your time as Public Editor informed your view of what Snowden did and the way the Times then fell in to place with its own coverage.
SULLIVAN: Mhmm. Well it was very interesting to be at the New York Times when the Snowden revelations came out because the Times was not the lead news organization on this. Snowden had taken his information elsewhere. And it was a- it was a tough thing for the Editors at the Times. They would have very much liked to have had that story, but they- they had to play catch up on it. And no news organization wants to be doing that. It was actually the Guardian and the Washington Post who led the way on that. And largely through- or at least at the beginning- through journalists like Laura Poitras and Glen Greenwald. And then Barton Gellman at the Washington Post. Um. And those two newspapers ended up sharing the public service Pulitzer Prize for those stories. So it was tough to be at the Times and to realize, well, we can write about this, but we don’t actually- we’re not leading the way. And, you know, some people said that that was because the Times had, in the past, um, held back on stories that uh national security stories or investigative stories that the government didn’t want publish. And there was a famous uh case of that. A story by Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau about electronic eavesdropping that was held for 13 months while an election happened. And- you know- one heard that Snowden was well aware of that and didn’t want to take that chance with the Times. So that was pretty tough on the Times’ reputation. And I- I’m not sure that- I think actually if that information had come the way of the New York Times they would have, you know, used it and used it properly.
HEFFNER: Now I’m sure you got some feedback from people who respect the Fourth Estate but who thought what Snowden did was criminal.
HEFFNER: And there’s a reasonable dialogue.
HEFFNER: And I frankly feel like those reasonable observers have been marginalized. You know, they’re viewed as alien to the craft of journalism today. Do you sense that at all?
SULLIVAN: Well… I disagree that- that- I think that Snowden did something that had to happen. And even President Obama, who, you know, didn’t benefit from this in any way, said that he thought that the discussion- the public discussion that was forced by this- was very important. So Snowden, I think, has to be seen as a great source. I mean you can say what you want to about whether he um- you know- went outside the bounds of legality- but he certainly served the public interest in my mind by bringing this behavior to the forefront.
HEFFNER: Right. Or at least it has not been documented among the critics in any way that is crystal clear or transparent that his disclosures have caused terrorist attacks although there’s that general point- that blanket point- that the Times probably continues to hear-
SULLIVAN: Of course.
HEFFNER: And that you’ve heard-
SULLIVAN: Editors are sometimes told- you will blood on your hands if- Jill Abramson was told that. Um. At the highest level of government. If you publish this story, you’ll have blood on your hands. Well that’s a pretty tough thing- that’s an incredible responsibility for an editor to have to balance.
HEFFNER: Speaking of blood on your hands. We’re in a political season where the journalists- your colleague- your former colleague- Jim Ruttenberg- I think acknowledged this and subsequently there’s been some change, even since you and he have written about the character of political discourse and anchors and hosts on television who are kind of profiteering through the Trump phenomenon. I want to ask you a question about being a watchdog now at the intersection of media and politics and the future of the press. In your present capacity at the Washington Post, where do you want to take your column?
SULLIVAN: Well, I- I’m fascinated by what’s happened in media. You know, I started, uh, in journalism a long time ago as a summer intern at the Buffalo News, my home town, and things were very different then and I ended up being editor of the paper- which was an incredible privilege- for 12, or almost 13 years. The changes that I’ve seen happen have been incredibly dramatic and so that whole phenomenon of what the digital revolution has brought to journalism and actually to our culture is what fascinates me and that’s what I’m trying to sort of dig in to and excavate.
HEFFNER: And do you see the web as now a creature of- web 2.0 and the digital age through all of the- the volume of emails that you got at the Times- what do you think most changed your perception of the way the web can serve as a watchdog?
SULLIVAN: Well the digital revolution in journalism cuts both ways. It’s an- it makes for incredible platform. Every time you publish something you are- potentially- publishing- you are publishing to the world. If it’s on the web, it’s, it’s out there for all to see. And that is an incredible distribution very different from the trucks that would take the, you know, stacks of paper around to the Buffalo suburbs. But at the same time, it speeds everything up. It makes mistakes more likely. It sometimes can- doesn’t always- but it can cheapen things. And in this race for digital traffic um- that’s not always the best way to- it’s not always the best journalism that triumphs.
HEFFNER: How do you find the- the kind of uh- equilibrium or lack thereof in terms of the scales of justice and judicious journalism, clickbait, and the integrity of journalists that you admire at the Post and Times and across the country and in fact in the world?
SULLIVAN: I mean it comes down to, to, often comes down to smart leadership among editors. Among the top editors. What’s their vision for the news organization? What’s their vision for the paper? And I think that that can um- you know, that can really change the way- you can, you can do both. I actually believe that you can seek the huge digital traffic and you can do it responsibly and you can also be doing great enterprise or investigative journalism. And in fact, people really want that and are interested in it. I mean, look at what happened at the Boston Globe with- that was- you know- portrayed in the Spotlight movie, um, people I think are very grateful for that kind of deep digging and that isn’t something that has to be one platform or another. It works everywhere. It really doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s on the web or on a- on a- you know, on paper.
HEFFNER: Speaking of spinach- and we’re closing now, but I do want to ask you. What is your recipe, quite literally, you talk about the food- we live in a climate of infotainment. How is spinach going to be compatible with that as we look to the future?
SULLIVAN: I think you have to find a way to make what is nutritious also tasty. And um, you know, I think actually there is-
HEFFNER: And the papers have restraint that have not been exhibited by television executives or maybe just the hosts and producers-
SULLIVAN: Mhmm. Look, I think it can be done in a way that’s attractive and engaging to readers and viewers, without- you know- without losing your integrity. And I think that’s the challenge and I see a lot of hope in that realm.
HEFFNER: And I know that Facebook has recently launched a feature, Facebook Live- there’s been some hurrah around that- what predominates your News Feed- or your Twitter Feed- whatever social media you’re on- is video. And so, I just wonder- to close, Margaret- you’re someone steeped in the print culture. When you think of… importing that restraint of print culture in to a videoscape-
HEFFNER: When you have no editorial control really over Facebook and Twitter because they’re not importing a value system in, in to what they do. They’re starting to a little bit, right?
SULLIVAN: There’s hardly anything bigger than Facebook for news organizations now. And they really have to be in that realm. And they can’t walk away from it. But to some extent, they are giving up control. And it’s tough to give up editorial control. So I think that’s a battle still to be waged.
HEFFNER: Margaret, I hope you’ll come back.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Thank you. Congratulations on your new gig at the Washington Post
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And congratulations on a successful tenure at the Times.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.