Jonathan Chait

The NYT's Public Editor Disaster

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[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

The New York Times is the best newspaper we have. It is full of brilliant writers and editors, and every day it provides a wealth of fascinating stories. It also makes its share of errors and mistakes. As the most important news organization in America, it certainly provides plenty of opportunity for commentary and debate.

Into this ripe field, however, has stepped another dreary "public editor." The Times began this position a few years ago, and offered prime real estate--a big chunk of the Sunday op-ed page--to its occupant. The current job holder is Arthur S. Brisbane, who generally uses his column to write about boring or unimportant topics. Today, however, he managed to stumble on a good and important topic--how newspapers should cover one another--and bungle it horribly.

Last week, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced, and the Times won two richly deserved awards (one for David Leonhardt's column, and the other for an amazing series about legal "irregularities" in Putin's Russia). After some underhanded slaps at the paper for celebrating its awards, Brisbane turns to another paper that won 2 Pulitzers: The Los Angeles Times. One award was for that paper's remarkable articles on a Los Angeles suburb's corruption. Brisbane remarks:

The timing of the achievement was interesting given how The Los Angeles Times was portrayed in The New York Times’s article on Jan. 23 as a newspaper in steep decline with its audience turning away, and indeed the city itself on the bum. When I discussed complaints about that article with New York Times staffers, I was told it wasn’t intended to derogate the other paper but merely to point out that its readers were losing heart. The article did give credit for the Bell coverage, to be fair, but I thought it painted an unflattering picture of general decay.

The problem with Brisbane's argument, at least on first glance, is that everything in the NYT story is true. Any Californian will tell you that the Los Angeles Times--despite some great reporting--is not the paper it was two or five or ten years ago. On closer glance, however, it is clear that Brisbane's real concern is not that the piece was inaccurate, but rather that it wasn't nice enough. He goes on to subtly scold David Carr for writing a critical column, but then he praises Carr for writing a column about a media success story in Minnesota. Then he goes after the NYT Magazine for running an impolite interview with Arianna Huffington. (Naturally, he quotes a reader whining about the decline of polite discourse). At the end of the column, he concludes, "As Rodney King once said, “Can we all get along?" If you think the last line is a joke, read the column. Brisbane is perfectly serious. The man charged with critiquing The New York Times is most concerned with happy stories and people being nice to each other. Who knew that this was the definition of journalism?

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