On Sunday, the New York Times’ public editor, Barney Calame, came out swinging, revealing that the newspaper’s management, in the persons of executive editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, had refused to answer a variety of his questions about the Times’ handling of its now-notorious expose about the National Security Agency spying on U.S. residents without court-approved warrants. Calame wrote that last week he submitted to Keller and Sulzberger 28 unanswered questions about the story — most notable among them, one presumes, why did the Times hold the story for more than a year, and why did it then reverse course and print the story, over the objections of the White House? (At the end of the column, he informs readers that the number of his unanswered questions is now 35, not 28.)
It was a startling and toughly worded demonstration of the public editor of the nation’s most important newspaper calling his bosses to task and finding them wanting. (Calame called Keller’s terse explanation of the delay and then the decision to print “woefully inadequate.”)
Predictably, the blogosphere was all over it, and opinions ranged from the proposition that Calame was too hard on Keller to the opposite suggestion that Calame was too soft on Keller.
Michelle Malkin wavers between her usual brand of right-wing snarkery — referring to the original article as the “infamous Chicken Little opus” — and actually posing a good question. “Hey, speaking of transparency,” she wrote, “why doesn’t Mr. Calame publish his 35 questions so the rest of us can see what his bosses refuse to answer?”
But just as we began to hope that there might be some common ground between us and Malkin, she goes and gets mad at the Times for, well, essentially writing a fair article. She points to this Sunday’s follow-up piece by the Times’s Eric Lichtblau and James Risen about a high-ranking Justice Department official who refused to sign off on parts of the spy program. For reasons unknown to us, she calls the article “nefarious spin,” and decides that the piece is somehow anti-Bush. (In Michelle Land, stories are judged by whether they comfort the president or discomfit him, not by whether they hold any water.) It’s a stretch on her part, given that, in her own words, the reporters correctly reported that the president “went to extraordinary lengths to seek the DOJ’s approval, suspended parts of the program to address civil liberties concerns, subjected the program to more stringent NSA requirements, and submitted to an audit that is not known to have found any instances of documented abuses.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan finds Calame’s concerns over transparency a “weak” reed to stand on, declaring that “I find the notion that this somehow undermines national security a little odd. Do we really think al Qaeda members previously believed all their calls to the U.S. were free from any surveillance?”
He also thinks the Times practiced some good journalism in the NSA story, writing, “I don’t get it. This is a real story, highlighting arguably illegal activity by the president, breaking with precedent and creating a warrant-free license to listen to Americans’ phone conversations, with no independent vetting at all. The NYT waits a year to get its facts right and its sources firm. The editors confer with the president himself, adjust the story to remove anything that might seriously jeopardize sources or intelligence, and then publish. What the hell is wrong with any of that? It seems just the right balance.”
Jay Rosen looks at comments Bill Keller made in 2003 concerning the ombudsman position at the paper, and notes Keller’s observation that “the internal role [of a public editor] is, if anything, more important than the external role.” Meaning the public editor, acting on behalf of readers, ought to be able to influence the workings of the paper, and not just criticize it. Rosen concludes. “I guess we’ll see if Calame’s advocacy is effective and carries any weight, but it’s clear that Keller thought it should in 2003.”