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Empty Promise

The meaningless transparency of the public editor column.

The public editor's office of The New York Times has been busy this year. Byron Calame, the second journalist after Daniel Okrent to fill the post, has so far been called to editorialize on two particularly controversial Times pieces: James Risen and Eric Lichtblau's report on NSA wiretapping and Kurt Eichenwald's article on a teenager involved in child pornography on the Web. (Both first appeared in December 2005.) Late last month, Calame interrogated the managing editor in charge of the "space budget"--that is, divvying up column inches. Last week, he launched an inquiry into why the Times no longer publishes roll-call votes for its "citizen-readers." Calame also filed a progress report on the paper's efforts at vetting freelancers; he was sorry to find that promised "conflict-of-interest questions" were not yet a mandatory precursor to seeing your byline in the Grey Lady.

It's barely two months into the year and Times readers have already encountered four columns and some five thousand words--not including the web journal, which is just what it sounds like: an infrequently updated and fogey-ish blog--of the public editor's institutional self-disclosure. What have we learned in those writings about The New York Times? On the subject of the wiretapping piece, not much--Calame reported having "unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers" of the report's long delay and decorously suggested some ways the paper could have behaved better. Concern about methodology surrounded the Eichenwald piece, but Calame concluded that "[r]eaders were well served by the special care" that the paper had put into the piece. (Besides, as Calame notes, Eichenwald played his own public editor with a first-person account of the article's composition.) The "space budget" interview netted readers an assurance that important stories get extra play in the paper. As for the Times's policies on printing roll-call votes and screening freelancers, the public editor thinks the paper could do a little more of both. All these verdicts are reasonable--but the purpose of the public editor is to be revelatory. Instead, the column has become a biweekly exercise in pseudo-transparency.

Or, rather, it always has been. When the Times covered the appointment of its first public editor in October 2003, beleaguered publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told one of the paper's reporters that he hoped the new ombudsman would make "The New York Times less opaque as an institution." And Okrent hit all the usual ombuds notes--anonymous quotes, political bias, corrections--during his 18-month stint, often right on key. These plaints, though, are old chestnuts of press criticism. Every paper struggles with them--and most readers squawk about them--at one time or another. And while it's responsible for the paper to wrestle with these issues, a column about them tells you about as much about the Times as a memo from the House Ethics Committee tells you about Congress.

At the Times, as with so many other American newspapers in the last decade, "dialogue" has been deemed the surest route to transparency. (That was the finding of the Credibility Committee, the Times's in-house oversight group, last May.) It may be that the word alone will ward off future journalistic scandals and improprieties; but substantively, it means very little. As practiced by the public editor, it often means even less. In a typical column, Calame (and before him Okrent) considers a complaint from outside the Times. Then he phones up someone on the masthead for comment. And finally he weighs both sets of remarks and commits (sometimes quite timidly) to one side. This was the procedure with columns on page-one photography and on coverage of CIA renditions, among others. It's not so much an exchange of opinions as a collage of them.

All this in pursuit of "readers' trust." But where does it lead? Among the strangest misapprehensions of the public editor is the belief that quoting from reader mail in a column is a superior form of responsiveness to printing the correspondence in the letters page. There is probably some small thrill in reading Okrent or Calame concur with your disappointment, or satisfied indignation in reading one of them refute you. But, more often than not, the experience is followed by nothing more than the public editor's tame and sonorous expression of hope that the Times might at some point in the future improve. Columns have considered reader mail on the Times's coverage of topics ranging from Howard Dean to pre-Katrina New Orleans. Most recently, Calame seems to have been made aware of the lack of roll-call votes through reader mail, which he quotes approvingly at length. After bringing the deficit to the attention of several noncommittal Times staffers, he concludes that "[e]ven if space is horribly tight," important roll-call votes should appear in the paper. And that should link to that information as well. But no promises.

The New York Times and its public editor have an obligation to be honest and forthright with readers. Transparency, though, is a concept that promises much more than this and delivers much less. Exulting in the admission of meaningless procedural details and faults, as the public editor has mostly done, is hardly an improvement over total institutional silence. These are phantom penances for never-there sins--the illusion of public accountability, if not the real thing. A truer act of responsibility--and a more difficult one--would be an acknowledgment of authority. The Times is still the most important newspaper in the country and it doesn't need to solicit comments on everything that goes in (or stays out of) the paper. Perhaps a little courage would serve the Times's public better than a public editor.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.