‘Democracy dies in darkness,” declares the Washington Post, in a line that Dean Baquet, editor of the rival New York Times said, not inaccurately, “sounds like the next Batman movie.” Now the Times has joined the WaPo in dumping its designated internal soul-searcher (dubbed the “public editor” at the New York paper, “ombudsman” at the Washington one). So a more fitting DC Comics–style motto for both papers would be “Who will watch the Watchmen?”
That line (from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with a nod to Juvenal) became painfully relevant to the Times’ exceptionally conscientious public editor, Liz Spayd, when she was fired and her position eliminated this week. Spayd served less than a year of her announced two-year term. News broke only on May 31 that her last day on the job would be two days after that, and the office of public editor would be replaced with a “reader center.” Read the comments beneath a Paul Krugman column sometime and you’ll gain some sense of what that might be like.
Why so hasty, premature, and unceremonious a sacking? Spayd, who said upon her appointment last summer that “I’m not here to make friends,” was apparently a little too good at not making them. A peeved Baquet called one of her efforts a “bad column” and “fairly ridiculous.”
Worse, Spayd was morally on the same team as lynch mobs, according to Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress in his piece “The dark history of how false balance journalism enabled lynching.” This was a slippery-slope argument in response to Spayd’s having said that journalists shouldn’t “apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidate.” Millhiser believed that the many felonies committed by Hillary Clinton in the course of shielding her e-mail from public scrutiny and removing classified information from secure channels was a non-story and that the Times should shut up about it.
The Atlantic attacked Spayd by approvingly quoting bloggers who wrote that Spayd, a 25-year veteran of the Washington Post who rose to the position of managing editor of that paper before editing the Columbia Journalism Review and then moving on to the Times, is “inclined to write what she doesn’t know” and that her work has become “iconic in its uselessness and self-parody.” Slate accused her of “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism” by being too solicitous of the readers, notably when she wrote a column under the “smug” headline “Want to attract more readers? Try listening to them” and when she “sympathized with readers’ chauvinistic gripes about the Times’ sports page.” (The “chauvinists” quoted by Spayd were saying things like “Why are there big stories on Nordic surfing, German ice water swimming and Brazilian badminton and hardly any beat coverage of the Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Devils or Islanders?” The sports editor replied, in Spayd’s paraphrase, that “routine game coverage is not a priority.” Did I mention that the public-editor column was the second-funniest part of the resolutely humorless paper, after the corrections column?)
After Spayd told Tucker Carlson that some tweets by professionally neutral Times news reporters that displayed open contempt for and hostility to Donald Trump were “outrageous” and “over the line” and should face “some kind of consequence,” the blue-checkmark battalions rose up to denounce Spayd, calling her “the worst possible public editor for the Trump era” and “a disgrace,” adding that the Times had “embarrassed itself” by hiring her.
Spayd did her best to be even-handed in the eleven months she held the job. The angry Left could not forgive this.
Spayd did her best to be even-handed in the eleven months she held the job. The angry Left could not forgive this. She noted, for instance, in an elementary insight, that a false statement, even one uttered by a person you hate, even a president you hate, is not automatically a “lie.” If you don’t know your false statement is false, it isn’t a lie, and journalists aren’t mind-readers. In a column entitled “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” she noted that many a liberal and centrist acolyte of the Times told her that they were seeking other outlets for balance. “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she said. That such a statement is now considered “controversial” does not reflect well on the media.
The Paper of Record’s awareness of its exceptional influence, along with its acknowledgment of its capacity to make catastrophic mistakes, is why it hired a public editor in the first place, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, in 2003. It never did place in the seat a devil’s advocate actually antagonistic to its assumptions, but Spayd was the latest in the line of reasonable center-left types of the breed whose figurative if not literal sobriety used to be valued in the newspaper trade before the profession became an outside consultancy for Progressivism Inc. and then the Resistance. Baquet publicly stated that he thought Times columnist Jim Rutenberg “nailed it” in exhorting fellow journalists to “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional” against Trump, back in August. Rutenberg added, in a salvo whose front-page positioning served as implicit institutional endorsement, “Let’s face it: Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy.” Virtually the only journalist at the paper who thinks this kind of talk is “over the line” has been tossed overboard. The journalist who says this column “nailed it” is running the New York Times.