Arthur S Brisbane has been the Public Editor (what some newspapers would call an ombudsman; what his predecessor called the chief of the internal affairs division) at the New York Times since 2010. His background is what one would expect for the Mutual Admiration Society of the Grey Lady: graduate of Harvard, reporter and columnist for the Kansas City Times/Star and eventually its editor and publisher, assistant city editor and national reporter for the Washington Post, and an executive at Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Considering the amount of time that I pay serious attention to the Weltanshauung of the New York Times (that being rarely), he has seemed to be an appropriate choice and attentive to his mission – anyone who had to cover the corruption of Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry should be jaded enough to detect the noisome whiff of blinkered pretension.
Mr Brisbane announced his retuirement yesterday, saying that he is completing his “term” (after two years, though he was appointed for three – no matter, that’s not the point of this post) in his column “Success and Risk as The Times Transforms”. The key word is ‘transforms’, and he dedicates the first half of the article with how thoroughly the staff at the Times is handling the Information Revolution and its effect on newsprint journalism and, of course, themselves with “all the news that’s fit to print”.
He then begins a shift to the reason that I find his column so interesting, after a transition that starts to spell out the paper’s short-comings:
The Times is hardly transparent. A reader still has to work very hard to find any Times policies online (though some are tucked away there), and there is still no place where Times editors speak on the issues. As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average).
He continues in this vein and becomes surprisingly candid, yet still within the bounds of New York Liberal propriety, by conceding the bias of the paper:
I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds – a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.
When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism – for lack of a better term – that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.
As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.
His comments drew a quick rebuke from Jill Abrahamson, the executive editor, speaking to Politico:
In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane's sweeping conclusions.
I agree with another past public editor, Dan Okrent, and my predecessor as executive editor, Bill Keller, that in covering some social and cultural issues, the Times sometimes reflects its urban and cosmopolitan base. But I also often quote, including in talks with Mr. Brisbane, another executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, who wanted to be remembered for keeping 'the paper straight.' That's essential.
Mr Brisbane declined to respond and lets his column stand, and for good measure. This exchange reminds me of the words of G K Chesterton in The Secret People:
*****They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
Update: It isn’t often that I scoop the Wall Street Journal (second item), but James Taranto adds a fillip to the story by looking a bit deeper into Abrahamson’s support of Dan Okent’s opinion:
Here’s what Dan Okrent wrote, in his 2004 valedictory column, titled ‘Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?’:
Of course it is. . . .
I'll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall (I want to watch the campaign coverage before I conclude anything), but for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.
Is that any different from Brisbane’s point? If anything, Okent’s criticism was harsher.