Monday, May 23, 2005

New Times Ombudsman Does His Job

This is a surprising turn of events: the New York Times's public editor actually doing the public's business.

Byron Calame begins his stint as the New York Times's new ombudsman today. But he posted to his predecessor's web journal on Friday because of an issue he felt had particular urgency to readers:
My name is Byron Calame and I'm the new public editor. While Daniel Okrent doesn't formally put the title in my hands until Monday, the flood of reader e-mail criticizing The Times's coverage of the so-called Downing Street Memo has moved me to lease some space in his Web Journal a few days ahead of schedule.
He breaks down the coverage of the story:

The Times's coverage of the once-secret memo started alertly with a May 2 article by Alan Cowell that laid out its contents in the context of the possible impact on the May 5 British election. But the news coverage languished until this morning when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today — and left critics of the paper's news columns to suspect the worst about its motives. (On the Op-Ed page last Monday, Paul Krugman did cite the memo high up in his column.)

My checks find no [evidence of] censorship or undue outside pressures. Rather, it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue — their authenticity undisputed — probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers.

He even asked the Washington Bureau Chief of the Times, Phil Taubman, to justify his decision not to cover it in depth until Friday. His response is not surprising, nor is it implausible; it ranges from:
Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street meeting did not seem like a bolt from the blue

to...

As I read the minutes, they described the impressions of the head of MI6, who had recently returned from Washington, where he had met with George Tenet. It is mighty suggestive that Lord Dearlove, the chief of MI6, came home with the impression, or interpretation, that 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.' However, that's several steps removed from evidence that such was the case.

Am I comforted by Mr. Taubman's responses? Not really. What I am comforted by is that there's finally someone at the Times who's actually going to call him out on such decisions on my behalf. The hope of course is that this process will actually impact the Times's coverage in the future. Thank you Mr. Calame for, well, doing your job. It's a great start.

His closing:

So Times readers finally have the Washington Bureau's take on the Downing Street Memo to go with the alert coverage on the minutes the foreign desk provided back on May 2. Overall, it's better than the readers of most other newspapers got. It's just unfortunate that today's Washington perspective, much of it based on reporting that could have been done days ago, didn't land in readers' hands sooner.
So go ahead and contact him with any complaints or complimets about the Times. That was he's there for:

• E-mail: public@nytimes.com
• Phone: (212) 556-7652
• Address:
Public EditorThe New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036-3959

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