The New York Times will soon decide whether it will do away with its public editor.
The two-year term of the current public editor, Byron (Barney) Calame, will conclude in May. There may, or may not, be another.
“Over the next couple of months, as Barney’s term enters the home stretch, I’ll be taking soundings from the staff, talking it over with the masthead, and consulting with Arthur,” meaning publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., wrote Bill Keller, The Times’ executive editor, in an e-mail to The Observer.
Mr. Calame is the paper’s second public editor since Mr. Keller announced the job on his first day as executive editor in July 2003.
Mr. Keller wrote in his e-mail that “some of my colleagues believe the greater accessibility afforded by features like ‘Talk to the Newsroom’ has diminished the need for an autonomous ombudsman, or at least has opened the way for a somewhat different definition of the job.”
Mr. Keller added that “the creation of a public editor has helped the paper immensely in a period when the credibility of the media generally has been under assault.” The position at The Times was created in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle that emerged in 2003.
When reached by phone on Dec. 29, Mr. Calame said he had heard the news. His assistant, Joseph Plambeck, had attended an in-house Q&A on Dec. 15, at which Mr. Keller expressed the idea.
“I have been critical of the newsroom,” Mr. Calame said. “I’ve also praised the newsroom, and I think that Bill Keller has been—quite obviously—unhappy with some of the things I’ve written.”
“It seems to me that the high degree of independence that has been given to the public editor at The New York Times makes it a situation that inevitably causes criticism,” Mr. Calame said.
He added: “So it is not a surprise to me that The New York Times—that Bill Keller, the executive editor, and Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher—would want to sit down and think about whether they want to have a public editor.”
“I would be disappointed to see it eliminated,” said Daniel Okrent, a magazine-publishing veteran who served as The Times’ first public editor. Mr. Okrent said that it’s important to have “an independent voice commenting on the paper, holding it accountable.”
Mr. Okrent was a sharp critic who raised hackles and then won respect during his 18-month term. In contrast, Mr. Calame has been a bit more like that other Barney, the friendly purple dinosaur—and not entirely unlike Snuffleupagus, the once-invisible creature of Sesame Street. The readers were Big Bird, and we could see and hear him—but did he exist to anyone inside The Times?
When Mr. Calame wrote a piece on The Times’ National Security Administration wiretapping story, he did not receive responses to questions from either Mr. Keller or Mr. Sulzberger.
A source with knowledge of the relationship between Mr. Keller and Mr. Calame characterized it as “a really bad relationship.”
In October, Mr. Calame reversed his position on The Times’ SWIFT banking surveillance story: He had endorsed publication of that story, and now he opposed it. Mr. Keller then struck back on Mr. Calame’s Web journal, with a harsh take on that “revisionist epiphany.”
“I think it would be a serious mistake to abolish the position,” said former Times reporter Adam Clymer, who has also posted comments, both pro and con, on Mr. Calame’s Web journal. “It takes time to grow,” he said, “and unhappiness with one or another of the public editors doesn’t undercut the sense of the paper that followed the Blair and Howell Raines business.”
The public-editor position was suggested by the Siegal committee, an in-house group that examined the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal and its roots in the paper during the stewardship of Mr. Raines, then the executive editor.
Times deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman said that “Talk to the Newsroom” is not intended to “duplicate something that the public editor does,” but to “speak with the voice from the editors of The New York Times.”
Indeed, by the definition of the position, Mr. Landman said, the public editor is a representative of the paper’s readers, not the paper itself. When Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus answers a reader question about reviewing self-published books, that is the response of a Times editor—a member of the team.
Mr. Okrent—definitely never on the team—had his own run-ins with Mr. Keller. “He got irritated with me a couple times,” Mr. Okrent said. At times, he said, Mr. Keller “felt that I didn’t understand the newspaper business.”
But he never felt the column was in jeopardy. “There was never a moment that anyone in management led me to believe that I wouldn’t have a successor,” he said.
In January 2005, Mr. Okrent approached Mr. Keller about the next public editor. Mr. Keller considered two of those candidates, according to Mr. Okrent, neither of whom had Mr. Calame’s extensive newspaper background. (Mr. Calame spent nearly four decades at The Wall Street Journal.) “I can say with reasonable certainty that Bill did not think being a newspaper person was an absolute qualification for my successor,” Mr. Okrent said.
Mr. Okrent has never wished for his old job back, although he did briefly covet the 10th-floor desk at one point, saying that he would have liked to comment on The Times’ coverage of the sexual-assault allegations leveled against the Duke University lacrosse team. “I’ll just leave it at that,” he said.
Mr. Keller and Mr. Calame have not talked about a third public editor. “I wouldn’t presume that he would want my opinion,” Mr. Calame said.
Jack Shafer, Slate’s press critic, delivered a body blow to Mr. Calame in May 2006. “Like the most priggish bureaucrat ever to tote a briefcase, Calame wants to know more about the process!” Mr. Shafer wrote in a criticism of Mr. Calame’s column on the N.S.A. wiretapping story.
“I think that Barney has gotten better,” Mr. Shafer said on Dec. 29. “He’s not engaging in the ankle-biting behavior he was before.”
“I would give him a B for reversing direction, and getting away from attacking the capillaries,” he said. “The real job is to go after the arteries.”
“There was no one who’s been more devastatingly critical than Jack Shafer was,” Mr. Calame said. But the criticisms did not engineer an impact, according to Mr. Calame. “And I don’t think my behavior changed.”
Mr. Calame’s Dec. 31, 2006, column was a stern—and, for him, unusual—attack on a story in The Times Magazine that mischaracterized a Central American court ruling, and on the editors who have defended the story without further investigation, and on standards editor Craig Whitney, who is tersely quoted in the column saying that he is not yet ready to issue any correction. It was a far cry from his previous column, on Dec. 3, 2006: “Scoops, Impact or Glory: What Motivates Reporters?” (A: All of the above!) Or the one before that: “Breaking News: Can Times Quality Be Preserved Online?” (A: Probably!)
If the public-editor column is killed—not entirely likely, given Mr. Sulzberger’s devotion to it—what about the 1,400-word slot? Andrew Rosenthal, who takes over as editorial-page editor on Jan. 7, said that he was not aware a change was under consideration. “The executive editor hires the public editor,” said Mr. Rosenthal. “He tells us who it is.”
Mr. Rosenthal declined to offer his own opinion piece on the matter. He did say that he would have no trouble filling the space.
As for Mr. Calame, another retirement awaits. “I have enjoyed it more as I have been in the job longer,” he said of being public editor. “In fact, the main absence of joy for me has been the struggle to write the column every other Sunday. Dan Okrent is quite a stylish writer and wrote amazingly well. I warned Bill Keller that I was not a writer. I’ve struggled a lot with the column.”
Mr. Calame said he had gotten lots of positive feedback from reporters and editors at other newspapers besides The Times. “That makes me feel that there’s a chance that some good has come from it,” he said.