By Emily Atkin
In an era of journalism where technology and speed dominate, how can news readers be sure they have the truth? Byron (Barney) Calame, the former public editor of the New York Times, addressed this issue in a speech at SUNY New Paltz on April 22, asserting that news organizations must strive to be “conspicuously accountable” by developing models similar to what the Times has recently adopted.
Calame, who was the second public editor of the Times in 2004, was also an award-winning editor at the Wall Street Journal for 39 years, starting as a reporter and rising to the positions of bureau chief and deputy managing editor. In the spring of 2009 Calame was the eighth James H. Ottaway Professor of Journalism, teaching a course entitled “Journalism and Integrity.” Perhaps it was no surprise then that the title of his speech was “Holding the Press Accountable in a New Era.”
This transition to the Internet “means that journalistic practices are changing in the interest of speed,” Calame said as he introduced his topic. Journalism, Calame stated, has shifted from being solely a provider of public information to a business whose purpose is to “attract eyeballs, and generate the income and revenue that we all need in journalism today.”
This presents an “economic crisis of journalism,” Calame observed. The rapid shift to free, online news and thus the loss of print circulation, results in declining revenues for newspapers. “We are tempted to cut back, but we can’t. In hard times, the press really needs to be accountable.”
Calame, who was also a managing editor in charge of quality control at the Wall Street Journal, understands that since the Times is widely is considered the best newspaper in the country, other publications are likely to follow in its footsteps.
As the ombudsman at the Times for two years, Calame’s job was to scrutinize and criticize the newspaper’s content while suggesting improvements. He told the audience of about 250 people that news organizations should not only have an ombudsman, but also a forum for reader comments, editors to respond to those comments, and someone to scrutinize the ethics of the newsroom.
The Times now hasa public editor, a comment section, a “talk to the newsroom" with editors and a standards editor. All four were formed in response to the Jayson Blair scandal of 2003 when reporter Blair used made up both sources and comments from those sources. It was the biggest scandal in the paper’s history.
“It’s really disturbing when you have people out there who know that something’s wrong, but didn’t know what to do,” said Calame, speaking about those who were falsely quoted by Blair. So, over the last six years, the Times responded by making it easier for the public to voice its concern.
The comment section on the Internet is just one example, giving every reader a chance to voice opinion on a story. But according to Calame, mere comments are not enough. Because everyone can comment and because they are not required to provide t real names, comments range from relevant to, according to Calame, “zealots. You get nuts, people who are ideologues, and their conversation is often really not worth that much.”
In order to prevent words from flowing “like sewage in to your comment section,” said Calame, “Talk to the Newsroom” is a more selective version of comments where readers submit questions to editors “This section is great for readers,” said Calame.
Another way that the Times holds itself accountable is with its standards editor who is “like an inspector general of a government agency,” said Calame. According to Calame, the standards editor prevents statements that may be “in bad taste,” or “just not fair,” or that “don’t smell right,” from ever entering the newspaper..
“The standards editor is essential,” said Calame. “I would tell you right now, if the Times suddenly said ‘we can’t afford both the public editor and standards editor,’ I think the standards editor should be retained.”
Because of the standards editor's presence, “Sometimes, you’re gonna save a reporter’s skin,” said Calame. “There’s a sense of satisfaction that you’re making a contribution to the product.”
No such satisfaction comes with the public editor job, according to Calame, who held the job for two years. “You’re just nit-picking after the fact,” said Calame.
“The public editor job is not unique,” said Calame, “but I don’t know any place where top leadership has given more power to an outsider.” As public editor, Calame was free to criticize whatever aspect of the Times he wanted. He could not be fired, edited, or told not to publish anything.
But the public editor job is not as glitzy as it sounds. As the public editor, not only is the editor at odds with his own institution, but sometimes the public editor can be at odds with the public. At times, Calame said, he received amazingly nasty criticisms from the public.
Through this increased accountability, the Times is perhaps beginning to address its credibility issues. For example, unfounded claims that there were nuclear weapons in Iraq -- claims that eventually led America to war -- were thoroughly condemned by the public editor. The New York Times Magazine published a story on the cruelty of El Salvadorian abortion laws, and the public editor showed the story to be false. According to Calame, these findings reassure the public that the paper is dedicated to truth.
“Simply put, I think Times readers and the quality of its journalism are benefited significantly from this multifaceted, intense, and admirable effort to build conspicuous accountability,” concluded Calame. He hopes their standard would “allow more news organizations to adopt accountability models like the Times.”