This Will Only Hoyt A Little …

On June 29, a couple dozen of The New York Times’ Washington bureau staff filed into the sixth-floor conference room at the paper’s I Street headquarters for a brown-bag lunch with one of their old competitors, Clark Hoyt.

Mr. Hoyt was an editor at the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder from 1999 until the chain was sold to McClatchy last year, and during the run-up to the war in Iraq, his bureau won awards and press notices for its reporting on the administration’s handling of the growing Iraq crisis and the war that followed.

Conversely, as the war in Iraq progressed, The Times was facing a general retrospective of its performance in 2002 and 2003, and the occasion was not to be celebrated.

By 2004, The Times was admitting its failure on the story. In a 1,203-word editor’s note published on May 26, 2004, the paper examined several contentious articles that received above-the-fold treatment before the war.

“[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge,” the note read.”

“We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business,” it continued.

And now that Mr. Hoyt is on board as the paper’s third public editor, it seems as though that business is the top priority of the bureau.

The public editor role was actually formed on the advice of the Siegal committee, instituted after the young reporter Jayson Blair was found to have passed several fabricated stories off on The Times. But with Mr. Blair a distant memory, and with fresh interrogation of the newspaper’s coverage of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (largely led by the Washington bureau), the public editor’s role has become that of an in-house media critic, focused on The Times’ A1 coverage.

During a one-hour presentation, Mr. Hoyt was said to have presented some broad Journalism 101 principles—sourcing, attribution and so on—but did not make any overt criticisms of the bureau.

“It was not an attempt to win him over, or for him to win us over,” said Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief who was brought in March 2007 to run the bureau after he left his job as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I think he has a job to do. He happens to be someone who spends a lot of time in Washington. Washington ends up being something he’s got to write about.”

A Washington bureau staffer said that Mr. Hoyt “seem[ed] like someone who was open to listening and wanted to start off on a good footing.”

When Mr. Hoyt was hired in May, Mr. Keller told Richard Pérez-Peña, for a story in his own paper, that Mr. Hoyt’s experience as a Knight Ridder editor in Washington during the run-up to war had contributed to his selection.

This Will Only Hoyt A Little …