Tower of Babble

A Times critic reviews the new Times Building for the Times. Cause for concern?

Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times’s architecture critic, found himself in a tricky position recently: he had to review his own home. Or, rather, his own company’s new home: the long-awaited, much-ballyhooed Times Building—a few city blocks away from the old Times building, but worlds away in nearly every other sense.

Ouroussoff begins that review, published in today’s Times, with a frank admission: “Writing about your employer’s new building is a tricky task. If I love it, the reader will suspect that I’m currying favor with the man who signs my checks. If I hate it, I’m just flaunting my independence.”

While Ouroussoff considers that quandary from a personal perspective, Editor & Publisher today gives it treatment from a professional one. “Was it right for the Times to have its own critic review its own new building?” asks E&P’s Joe Strupp. He consults Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride and Times public editor Clark Hoyt to reach his conclusion:

McBride: “I think the reviewer was upfront about being in a strange situation. He figured out a way to do it that provided the audience with the transparency they needed.”
Hoyt: “My attitude toward it was that he did exactly the right thing by starting off stating what a box he was in. The review turned out to be a fairly balanced review. It is an awkward situation for anyone to be in.”
Strupp: “In the end, the critic offers a straightforward balance, it appears….”

So: the Ouroussoff piece is fine. No conflict of interest here, folks!

I agree; Ouroussoff’s review-leading acknowledgment is really all we need to pass the transparency test. But some critics made the issue one not just of ‘transparency,’ but of ‘balance’: the review “turned out to be fairly balanced,” Hoyt notes. In the end, “Ouroussoff is not above finding fault with the structure,” Strupp concludes. He “offers straightforward balance.”

Which begs the question: what if he didn’t? What if Ouroussoff’s review had been filled only with praise—not because the critic was pandering to “the man who signs my checks,” but because that was his honest assessment of the building? Would the ethical conclusions have been the same?

This isn’t pure reportage, after all—it’s criticism. Balance is beside the point. And what makes Ouroussoff’s review so effective, ultimately, is the perspective he brings to it specifically as a member of the Times’s staff:

One of the joys of working in an ambitious new building is that you can watch its personality develop. From week to week, you see more and more lone figures chatting on cellphones in the small glass offices with their feet atop a table. And even my grumpiest colleagues now concede that a little sunlight and fresh air are not a bad thing.

Ouroussoff, sure, gives us the requisite talk of the architectural tropes that translate, through metaphor, to the professional world of the newsroom—transparency, ascendancy, and all that—that one would expect in such a review. But what makes it shine are the details Ouroussoff gives about a person (himself) meeting and melding with a physical space—which is, in the end, what architecture is all about.

It’s fair to ask the conflict-of-interest question about Ouroussoff’s review; asking more than that, though, is going too far. When it comes to his new workplace, the critic can have his take. And write it, too.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.