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TERENCE SMITH: This week has seen two important milestones at The New York Times.
Veteran journalist Bill Keller took over as executive editor, replacing Howell Raines who resigned June 5, in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal.
And yesterday, a review board, known as the Siegal committee, released a detailed and unflinching report on the Blair episode and on the news room shortcomings that allowed it to happen.
Among the committee’s recommendations for improving The Times, the appointment of a public editor, or ombudsman, a position meant to encourage public access to the paper and accountability within the newsroom. In its 152 years, The New York Times has never had such a position.
Here to discuss that recommendation, the Siegal committee report, and its implications for newspapers generally are Joann Byrd, who was one of three non-Times staff members on the Siegal committee. She has served as editor of the editorial page at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and as ombudsman for The Washington Post. And Susan Tifft, a journalism professor at Duke University and the co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind The New York Times.
Welcome to you both.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, having written your book about The New York Times, what’s your reaction to the changes that they have instituted now in the wake of this Jayson Blair scandal and related problems — and especially the appointment of a public editor?
SUSAN TIFFT, Duke University: Well, I welcome it. I think it’s a stunning change for The New York Times for two reasons.
One is that it signals that The New York Times is finally entering the modern era. You know, there is… the first ombudsman in this country was in 1967 and it’s only been 36 years to get The Times to catch up to that. But I think also what it does is, more importantly, is that it signals that The New York Times has taken this assault on its credibility, the Jayson Blair scandal, very, very seriously and is trying to do something very serious to address it.
TERENCE SMITH: Joann Byrd, you were a member of the 28-member Siegal committee. What can you tell us about the process that you went through and the outcome?
JOANN BYRD, Former Ombudsman, The Washington Post: Thank you. I was a member, and the three outside people met with 25 people inside The Times, and we had very frank and open discussions. The committee, led by the three outside people, interviewed all the people who had had an encounter with Jayson Blair, his supervisors, et cetera.
And our goal was to find out what happened in that case and then to make recommendations for how to see that that didn’t happen again or anything like it. It was all very remarkably thorough and candid, and the people we worked with were very devoted to getting it right.
It was a joy to be working with them.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, in a memo to the staff yesterday, Bill Keller said the committee that Joann was on had concluded that the Blair fiasco was made possible in part by a climate of, “isolation, intimidation, favoritism, and unrelenting pressure on the staff by the top editors.”
That sounds like a pretty damning indictment of Howell Raines and his deputy.
SUSAN TIFFT: Well, I think it was. I mean, in some places the report, I think, was very harsh, but I think it also was not directed entirely just at Howell Raines, the former executive editor.
I think what was really remarkable about the report was that it was really trying to get at a sort of systemic culture of the newsroom of The New York Times.
You know, we often talk about how ugly it is when you see sausage being made. I think what this report was trying to get at was really getting down there in the weeds — to sort of mix my metaphors here — and really try to see, you know, what was going wrong and trying at every level to fix it.
So I don’t think they were trying to affix the blame just on Howell Raines, although clearly in the Jayson Blair affair, it was the hierarchical management style that he fostered that was in part to blame for it.
TERENCE SMITH: Joann Byrd, you have served as ombudsman as a public editor. Tell us how it works and how you think it will work at The New York Times.
JOANN BYRD: There are many varieties of public editor and structures that are different.
I think one thing that they all have in common, and will certainly be the case at The New York Times, is that there will be always someone at the paper who has a fairly high rank who will listen, who will hear from the public about what they think of the paper. It’s also a place where people who find mistakes can call to complain about those, to point out the errors and that sort of thing. It’s a very visible person who is available all the time to people who want to complain.
The variety of public editor positions or readers’ representatives ranges from people who serve long terms to people who serve short terms, and who write a column or don’t write a column, write on occasion or don’t write at all.
So there’s a whole variety, but what they all are is a tool of accountability. The Siegal committee was looking for a way to be conspicuously accountable, and there’s simply no more conspicuous accountability than an ombudsman or public editor.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, how well is that going to work at The New York Times?
You know its culture. You know the newsroom has resisted that sort of arbiter of its performance for many years. How is it going to work?
SUSAN TIFFT: Well, I think it’s probably going to be very, very different. It’s going to be a sort of sea change in the culture of The New York Times.
You know, I mean The New York Times has resisted for a long time having this kind of ombudsman, and they also effectively killed the National News Council which was kinds of an arbiter of journalistic integrity in the 1970s and basically kind of killed it because it didn’t participate. So they’ve resisted this kind of thing for a long time.
They’ve always thought of themselves in a way as though they were on Mount Olympus and basically were signaling to their readers, listen, trust us, you know, you can trust us to be accurate, to be fair, to be balanced.
And, in fairness, of course, The New York Times really was and still is the gold standard for those kinds of things.
But I think with this new ombudsman, it’s going to be a real change in culture. But I’m not so sure that those in the newsroom are going to, necessarily, as they get used to it, think of it as a bad thing.
I mean, one of the things that happened with this Jayson Blair situation was that people who were quoted by Jayson Blair, but who never actually were interviewed by him, never contacted the paper. And in part why? Because they didn’t know where to go. I think as Joann says, it’s a way to have one-stop shopping, a place for readers to go and make their complaints known and hopefully to get them fixed.
TERENCE SMITH: Joann Byrd, what’s going to be the result of this and the impact and the reverberations on newspapers generally in this country?
Do you think there are lessons that they will or perhaps already have drawn from it? Do you think that there will be an explosion now of public editors or ombudsmen in papers around the country?
JOANN BYRD: I’m not certain we’ll have an explosion of ombudsmen. The report that we submitted covered a lot of territory that newspapers around the country have been examining themselves in recent time, since the Jayson Blair scandal broke.
I know that there have been lots of meetings in lots of newsrooms that have talked about all of the things that were exposed by the scandal at The New York Times, and so newspapers have been looking at their policies on crediting and their policies on bylines and datelines and those sorts of things.
I think the fact that The New York Times — which has not wanted an ombudsman for a very long time — now has chosen to do so, will probably ask other newspapers to begin reexamining their own ideas about whether an ombudsman is a good idea for them.
The fact that The New York Times has said it’s going to be a good idea in their news department may get some other papers to consider it. But there’s been a pretty steady number of ombudsmen or public editors at newspapers for a long time. It’s not been a growth industry, I must say.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Tifft, just very briefly. What about the role of the Sulzberger family in all of this? Was their hand felt, can you tell us briefly?
SUSAN TIFFT: I don’t know personally, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. The Sulzbergers feel about The New York Times as though it’s their jewel.
That’s the way they talk about it. And they know that at the end of the day, what a newspaper has to sell is its credibility. Anything that damages the credibility of The New York Times is going to get their attention.
They don’t want The New York Times to be on late night comic talk shows. They want it to be the gold standard now and forever.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly. All right. Susan Tifft, Joann Byrd, thank you both very much.