When the news broke that the New York Times had killed off its public editor, I emailed Dean Baquet, the paper’s editor, to congratulate him — no newspaper editor enjoys a professional, staff gadfly — and to try to get him on my podcast, NewsFeed With @BuzzFeedBen. (This is the way we live now.)
Baquet didn’t bite, but I was able to lure on the most successful of the Times public editors, Margaret Sullivan, to talk about the tradition and what, in her view, is lost by ending it.
Sullivan did not arrive in the public editor’s throne (over by the obituary section) a true believer. She was the editor of the Buffalo News in 2003 when the Times, in the wake of a now-forgotten scandal, decided to create the role of an ombudsman. Her publisher suggested the News follow suit.
She reacted with “horror,” she told me. “I talked him out of it.”
She had, in my view, a point. In this Twitter age, we who work in news these days are fortunate (and I mean this sincerely) to have multitudes who will do the job of criticizing us for free. On Twitter. Not always in the politest terms, but still, some of us appreciate the efforts — good faith and bad — to catch us in errors and keep us honest.
What’s more, the in-house critic’s role is inevitably compromised: If you criticize your employer, the criticism takes on undue weight because even the New York Times public editor is hitting the paper. If you back your employer, well, that’s hardly surprising.
And yet, despite the structural problems and the competition from angry people on Twitter, Sullivan did indisputably strong work: She found ways to take the questions being raised online to the paper’s decision-makers, and to force them to respond. Her successor, Liz Spayd, elevated a different set of questions, ones that many inside and outside the paper saw basically as driven by bad faith trolls, not fair-minded critics, and ultimately gave the Times a pretext to end a troublesome role.
She and I talked about that, and what will be lost, on the NewsFeed podcast this week. And I asked her whether she felt that the Times executive editors she worked with, Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet, and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, had been looking for an excuse to kill off her role.
“Certainly not Arthur,” she said.
Read the full transcript of the conversation below, and subscribe to listen.
I think something your fans on Twitter don't necessarily know about you is that you've spent most of your career at The Buffalo News. You know, at a great metro daily. And I think I either read or heard recently that at some point in the course of running that place that your publisher tried to persuade you to have an ombudsman, public editor, sort of thing.
Margaret Sullivan: That's true. I actually wrote a little bit about this on Facebook. So my publisher, who died this past year, and so therefore I guess can't be libeled, did bring up the day, I guess it must've been, it was certainly after the Times had started its public editor, so that must've been the impetus for that. And he thought, "Well this could be a cool and good thing for the paper." And I dissuaded him on the grounds that, first of all, I don't think any editor of anything really wants a public editor or an ombudsman.
What was your immediate reaction to the idea?
MS: Horror, I would say. So, anyway, I talked him out of it, on the grounds that I was very responsive. I mean this is somewhat disingenuous, I suppose, because the grounds on which I talked him out of it don't really address the issue, but I told him the truth, which was that I was an extremely responsive editor-in-chief. That I answered my mail, I was out in the community a lot, it wasn't hard to get a hold of me. And so there wasn't this sort of monolithic thing that people would have to, you know, break through in order to get to me.
If there was Twitter back then, you would've been responding to everybody in Buffalo who was mad at about the paper not having been delivered in the snow.
MS: Exactly right. And you know, I think he was just really floating it, but I did talk him out of it, and I was happy to have done so.
And you then, in 2014, became the public editor of the New York Times.
MS: 2012. I was there for almost four years, which made me, and now I can say this for sure, the longest serving of the public editors. Most of them have been for two years. Clark Hoyt was there for three, but I was there for almost four. So, that's a record, I guess, of some sort.
And I think you are widely seen as the most successful of the public editors in terms of really engaging the broader media conversation, rather than serving as kind of a letterbox for the New York Times. And this past week, the New York Times announced that they were cutting, they were eliminating the public editor job. But I think this is actually probably something you and I disagree on. Because I thought you did great media writing when you were at the Times, and it obviously took you into this new gig, writing about the media all the time. When you were at the Times, I thought, "Why does she write about the New York Times all the time. There's other stuff happening." And now I'm glad you're not.
And, I think my own view of this, is that we don't actually have to pay people to criticize us. They'll do it for free. And it's a great service they provide. And I think this does seem to where the New York Times is ending the public editor role, and they've probably come around to that view, too, that they don't need to pay people to attack them. And I wonder how you felt about the announcement that it's ending, and whether you ultimately wound up thinking it was a useful, a thing worth having in a news institution, to have that sort of in-house critic.
MS: I felt like, especially at the Times, which is so large and is so influential and is one of a kind, really, I think that I served a purpose. I hope so. I think I did. Not only in, kind of, it's not just about answering reader mail. That's, that's really not, in my mind, what it was about. But rather, looking at what was happening and seeing what sort of, the hot issue of the day was, at the Times, which could have been an obit that everyone was freaking out over, because it was seen as sexist.
As I recall, you were seated in the obituary section.
MS: At first I was. I had a couple of different seats at the Times, but my first desk was in the obit section, and so then it was really awkward—I mean, of course, the whole job is incredibly awkward. You're there, in the newsroom, you're being paid by the paper, and you're there to cast a critical eye. And so you're kind of this weird inside-outside person, and there's a lot of weird tension in it. And arguably a conflict of interest built into it. The way I approached the job was, was I cover, sort of like a beat, I felt like I was covering the New York Times in a way, but more like as a columnist, because I would have opinion about it. But certainly a lot of reporting.
So, but then, you know, my paycheck was from the New York Times. So, it's a very weird thing.
And I assume they seated you in the obituary section with the assumption that you'd never wind up writing about the obituary section?
MS: I think the reason I was there was that it was also the place where the standards editor, Phil Corbett, and other standards editor, a guy named Greg Brock, who is in charge of all the corrections, they were sitting there, so I think they thought that was sort of a natural place to put me.
I don't know if this is true at the Times, but I feel like in the newspaper's tradition obits are where you get exiled to when you've done something terrible.
MS: Well at the Times it's actually, you know, there's an art form. Certainly someone like Margalit Fox is just, you know, a fantastic writer, and I'm quite sure she wouldn't want to do anything else. But I guess it does have that sense of Siberia.
In any case, in your first couple of months, you managed to take a shot at the obit section.
MS: Well I couldn't help it, because there was this obit of a woman whose name was Yvonne Brill and she was a, she was a rocket scientist actually, and the obit started off praising her ability to make a mean beef stroganoff. Which, you know, was meant to be a sort of a set-up for the fact that she was a rocket scientist, but actually ended up reading as kind of sexist, and people certainly reacted to it that way. And when you think about, would you ever write an obit of a man who was a rocket scientist by talking about how good he was at grilling barbecue in the backyard, I don't, I kind of doubt it?
And so, there's a fair amount of controversy right now about the fact that the Times has cancelled this job, and do wonder what you see as the value that that position has, as opposed to me taking a shot at the New York Times, or the New York Review of Books or the Blaze or whoever, writing some critical essay about the New York Times.
MS: Well, there are two things. One is that you tend to get the attention of the top editors and really the top people at the Times in general, also on the business side. The public editor has a kind of authority because you've been appointed by the institution to do it. So it's hard to ignore. You're also in the building, and that makes you hard to ignore. So I think that while you might, there could be lots of criticism of something, and you just, it would be easy to say: "Well, of course, there's always criticism of us, we're the New York Times, so we're going to ignore that," it's very hard to ignore the public editor.
And so, that's always true, kind of an offshoot of that, is that when you're seeking comment, you will get it. It's a very, very rare case in which you wouldn't. So while you or the Huffington Post media writer or Dylan Byers might call and be seeking comment and might get a statement from the Times or even get through to Dean Baquet, the editor, who might speak to them, you can't be sure of that. And the public editor can kind of go back it and really bear down on something in a very persistent way.
Did you get the sense when you were there that Jill Abramson, that Dean Baquet, that Arthur Sulzburger were looking for an excuse to kill you off?
MS: Well, certainly not Arthur. I think that Arthur Sulzburger really believed in the role and really valued it and really liked it, and it was easier for him to feel that way, because it's the editors and the top editor in particular who is being questioned more and being second guessed more. So I did not feel, I did not feel that either Jill or Dean were looking for an excuse to get rid of the role, but I think, I did feel like they had more mixed feelings about it than Arthur did.
And your successor, Liz Spayd, and I'm not suggesting you necessarily want to dive deep into this, but took a lot of heat for I think, you know, for what to me looked like, was sort of a, you did a very good job of diving into the Internet conversation and taking the legitimate and interesting criticisms from Twitter, from things people on the left or the right had written, taking them to the Times leadership.
Dan Okrent, he was the first, he did a famous piece about whether the times is a liberal newspaper that responded to pretty good-faith criticism of the Times, in a sort of open-hearted, good-faithed way. And I think the criticism of your successor in a way was that she was engaging with people who were really just messing with you, were just messing with times, rather in good faith, and I do feel like, because I respond to a lot of people on Twitter everyday, and like mixing it up in these conversations, but I feel like the challenge is often finding that line between people who are actually trying to engage you on the substance, and people who just sort of consider themselves at war with you, and they're going to use whatever comes to hand to fling at you, and will constantly change their position as the conversation shifts. And so I guess, I wonder, how you navigate these really genuine, kind of treacherous waters, thought about which criticisms are legitimate, because in a way, what an institutional critique does is elevate some criticisms as ones that are worth responding to.
MS: You know, I don't think there was any science to it, but some of it would be kind of critical mass. If something reached, you know, the level where it seemed like there is a lot in the inbox, there was a lot on Twitter, I was hearing about it, it was coming at me from all side and possibly internally too, then you know, I would want to take it up, and I'd want to take it up fast, you know, not for a column next week but on that very day.
So I just did it by feel, and it's kind of, it's almost a news judgment. Well, I think it is actually a news judgment. So, you know, and of course you make mistakes when you do that, and I know that I, I did at times, you know, possibly elevate some things or go too heavy with things that were kind of the dust-up du jour, and that maybe, in the long run didn't merit it, but I think for the most part, there was this kind of sense that—there was no question in my mind when certain things would come up. Like, oh, I'm going to be dealing with this today. And you would know very quickly. It would tend to start on Twitter, and but then it would build and, and by the time maybe I got into the office or something, there would be just a lot and I would just try to do it.
And I did have probably too much, but a sort of a sense of urgency about the timing, and wanting to respond in the moment. And you can make mistakes when you do that. There were a couple of times that I regret that I didn't follow my own rules about always talking to—sometimes I would write sort of a hot take, very rarely, but my general—
Is there one you regret in particular?
MS: Yeah. I don't know if I can reconstruct it very well. There was a piece, a sort of a dust-up about Gay Talese. He had spoken at this symposium or something and talked about. Boy, I'm really having trouble.
He had said something about women and the media that was—
MS: That's right. It had upset people externally and it had upset people at the Times. And while I'm not sorry about what I said, which was critical of the way the Times then wrote this sort of, very sympathetic style piece about him, but I didn't follow my usual rule which was to at least talk to the people in Styles and say, "Why did you do this?" I wrote it more as a critical hot take. And you know, it would've been better to do it the other way. But I almost always, I had a formula, which is: I would take the criticism. I would usually quote from the criticism. Then I would go to whoever was involved, get their comment, and then I would I would quote all of this and usually sort of block quote it in some way. These were not my columns, but my blog posts, and then I would say at the end: here's my take. And if you didn't have a take, you just laid it out like, "Here's the problem" I thought that that was, I came to realize that was a sort of a sellout, that you did need to reach some kind of a conclusion, and make a judgement.
What I feel like is, in some sense, kind of the animating force behind a lot of the columns you wrote, a lot of the questions, a lot of the criticism, you know not just of the Times but of most journalistic institutions in America that do real reporting which used to be, "You're biased. You're liberal." Now is, "You are fake news." But is basically conservative attack on the establishment media, that's obviously been going for years and years. Did you make a judgment on that in the end? Are we fake news?
MS: You know, that, for one thing, so it's only been a little over a year since I left, but that phrase was not in the conversation I was hearing even a year ago. And of course there was a conservative criticism of the Times, but it was nothing like it is now, and not just the criticism of the Times, but of all sort of establishment or traditional or independent or however you want to put it, press, including BuzzFeed. It hadn't reached the level that it's at now.
But the criticism that the Times, this is sort of, in a way, it's the core of Fox News' approach, it's an abiding criticism of the media, and I wonder if that, if you like, if you wound up sort of reaching a sense of what your answer to that question was.
MS: Yeah, I did, and I would be asked, you know, because of Dan's Okrent's famous column, which may have even had the headline, "Is The Times A Liberal Newspaper?" and then he answered it, right away: of course it is. You know, because of that, people would ask me that question too, and want to engage on that, and I think I pretty much adopted and accepted Jill Abramson's answer to that which was, "We're an urban, cosmopolitan newspaper in a very blue city, in a blue state, and it is those things." I don't think that it's news columns, news coverage, I think they make a huge effort not to be partisan there, certainly until recently at least, the editorial page has leaned pretty far left, but, I mean, I didn't find it to be as fascinating a subject as all that. I think we know what the New York Times is.
Yeah, but I do feel like the thing that folks who worry about that who don't work at newspapers or news organizations don't think about that much is that we just spend most of our time thinking about how to get a story, not how to influence the political debate.
MS: There is a kind of, you know when people talk about the separation between, oh there's a wall between the editorial the newsroom, and that's true, and it's not as if people are conspiring, like, "Oh you're going to write this story and we're going to editorialize on it and it'll all be a big, wonderful, liberal package." There isn't that. But it is true that you tend to get many of the same people at a big, important newspaper like the Times, and they often will have similar points of view. And so, in that sense, there is a similarity.
Do you think that the Times getting rid of the public editor, in a meaningful way, is going to dent the credibility of the paper or the media at a moment where we're all pretty much under assault?
MS: I mean it is worrisome in that sense. I do understand why they want to get rid of it, or have gotten rid of it. But I think it comes at kind of a bad time because the paper is under assault. But are most people aware of—I mean, I didn't find there was tremendous awareness of what the public editor was, or that there even was one.
You're now a columnist at the Washington Post, from where you're talking to me right now, in some I guess probably dimly lit little studio. That's where I am in New York.
And you wrote recently about women in journalism, and listed a number of women in senior roles in major news organizations including our publisher Dao Win, and I think diversity broadly, making sure that you have representation in senior newsroom roles, is something I think everybody in this business thinks about quite a bit now. We certainly do.
It did make me wonder about how different that conversation was, whether people were thinking about it the same way, when you're a woman running a major newsroom through, through the 90s.
MS: I wasn't doing it in the 90s, but um.
Oh god, the 2000s, gosh.
MS: Yes, no, that's okay. I was the first woman to edit that paper, I had been told at one point when I was an ambitious sub-editor of some sort, there will never be a woman editor here, so forget it. I don't know who said that, but somebody on the staff. That was an evaluation. And when I was named an editor, of the top, so the Buffalo News at that time was like, I don't know, maybe the 50th largest newspaper in the country of something like 1400.
So you know, pretty big in that sense. Um, but of the top 100 papers, there were, when I was named editor, there were 13 women editors. And I don't think that's changed much, or gotten a whole lot bigger. And, but now there are many organizations that aren't newspapers that are big media companies, and what I found on that day that you're referring to, when I did a piece about women at the very, my cutoff was, these are women at the very top of news organizations, so that you know, they weren't the second in command. They would be the first in their area. And what I found out was, I learned an important life lesson, which is: Never make a list.
I just said, I know this won't be inclusive, but here are 10, or here are 12, or whatever I said, of women who are the top of news organizations. And I quickly was being bombarded from the outside, with, you forgot this person, the head of Yahoo!, the editor of Time Magazine, all of whom were totally, who did belong on the list and I modified it quickly.
You know, so there are, there actually are a lot. And, and it's come a long way.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about was about another column you wrote, which was about Julian Assange. And I think there's a lot of question around if he emerges into the daylight at some point, will he be arrested, is the US going to charge him, what will they charge him with?
And then like, is this something that reporters should be worried about? And I guess the first question is like: Is he a journalist?
MS: Well, he's a publisher, so I think he's not a journalist in the sense that we usually think of somebody out reporting a story and weighing different points of view and putting something together, but he is certainly a publisher, and, and I think people should be very, very concerned about it because he's not well liked among many journalists. People think that in some cases he's been reckless, or they don't like his personality, that sort of thing.
But if in fact, he is successfully prosecuted under the Espionage Act, as a publisher, it will make it a whole lot easier when the government decides to prosecute the next journalist, the next publisher, it's a way to go at it, that, if they in fact do, because he's holed up in the embassy, but if they ever are able to do it, it might lay the groundwork for something we might find more alarming.
What do you mean?
MS: What do I mean about more alarming?
MS: Well, I think once you've got, let's say you successfully prosecute and perhaps jail Julian Assange, then, you know the next time that a major news organization, the Times, the Post, BuzzFeed, CNN, whoever it may be, publishes leaked, classified information, now there's a track record of putting not just a leaker in jail, but now, the publisher.
Do you think it matters, because I've certainly been involved and I think there are a lot of conversations right now among reporters and in groups that sort of think about this stuff, about what to do if and when he's charged, do you think it matters what he is charged with, the details matter? Or do you think just, whether it's espionage, whether it's connected to the Russian interference in the election versus whether it's a pure kind of charge, basically whether it's purely rooted in republishing classified information, or do you just think any attempt to go after him is essentially the thin end of the wedge?
MS: I do think it'll be the thin end of the wedge. I mean it's hard to, you know, I find it kind of hard to judge in advance, but I think that anything that happens with him should worry us, and we should treat it that way before, during, and while it's happening. If it happens. Now, he, the charges against him in Sweden have been dropped or modified greatly, and so, I mean, is he going to live the rest of his life in that embassy? It's a very weird situation.
It is a weird situation. And I guess the last question I want to ask you in that regard is, I mean, the Trump Administration, I mean there's sort of a narrative, and there's obviously a lot of rhetoric of a Trump Administration war on the press. They talk about libel laws, he attack the media every day, also his staff have proved the greatest friends of the White House Press Corps there have ever been, leaked constantly. He obviously lives almost entirely through the media, consumes it constantly, shares our work, in various contexts on social media. And has in various ways, struggled to get his hands on the levers of government to do anything. But I mean there's been this real rhetorical assault on the media, accompanied by a kind of media obsession that I've never really seen. And, I think no substantive action, unless I'm missing something.
MS: Well, it's early.
Well, it's June.
MS: We're only what? Four or five months into this Administration. And when you see all these different things, whether it's a reporter getting roughed up or jailed briefly, nevertheless, arrested for asking questions, or whatever it may be, I think those things are an indirect result of this rhetoric.
And, you know, we also know through a leak, that he asked then-FBI Director Jim Comey, "Wouldn't it be a great idea to jail some journalists, Jim?" Yeah, it's just talk at this point, and maybe nothing will ever come of it, but I think it's extremely troubling and worrisome.
Thank you for coming on, Margaret.
MS: You're welcome, Ben.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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