The Media Today

Public editors are disappearing. Do readers care?

May 11, 2018

After ESPN decided this week to discontinue its public editor position, I called up Jim Brady, the last person to serve in that role for the network. Brady, whose term ended in March, called the move “unfortunate,” but he also raised a point I’ve been thinking about since our conversation. “I’d love to sit here and say the public is outraged by this, but I don’t know if they feel that at all,” Brady told me.

A public editor, as the name implies, is supposed to be the representative of the reader in a newsroom. At a time when trust in “the media” is a concern for every outlet, the elimination of those representatives has sparked consternation among many who are concerned about organizational transparency and accountability. At the same time, it’s fair to question how much those outside the industry actually care about having an independent voice in the halls of power when there are plenty of online critics ready and willing to vociferously challenge missteps.

Announcing ESPN’s decision, Kevin Merida, chair of the organization’s editorial board and editor in chief of The Undefeated, noted that “in recent years, both The Washington Post and The New York Times eliminated their Ombudsman role in recognition that the position had outlived its usefulness, largely because of the rise of real-time feedback of all kinds.” The argument, essentially, that Twitter is a replacement for a public editor might make sense financially, but at least one journalist who has held the position isn’t buying it. “There may be legitimate reasons to cut a public editor’s position, but the oft-cited ‘rise of social media’ isn’t one of them,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, who served as the Times’s public editor from 2012 to 2016. “A Twitter mob is not an independent internal watchdog with the authority to get answers, thoughtfully analyze them, and present them to the public.”

RELATED: ESPN’s final public editor on the ‘unfortunate’ decision to eliminate the position

While Twitter mobs can provide useful feedback and pressure outlets to produce answers, they don’t have access to decision makers, nor the authority to critically examine a newsroom from within and speak beneath the masthead of the publication itself. Does that matter to the public at large? It’s hard to say. Certainly there have been moments in the past year when a piece in The New York Times seemed to beg for a public editor column (the paper’s Reader Center has been a pale replacement for that role). But there are plenty of thoughtful, well-sourced critics of the Times, the Post, ESPN, and other outlets who can provide analysis. And, as Brady noted to me, those inclined to distrust the media probably don’t draw a distinction between public editors and the journalists at outlets they cover.

ESPN’s decision leaves PBS and NPR as the only two major outlets that still employ independent internal critics. The greater audience might not view the vanishing of the position as a great loss, but journalists and editors do listen to what public editors and ombudsmen say, and their words can impact newsroom decisions. In that sense, Brady said, “even if the public doesn’t automatically see the value in the position, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on the role of public editors, at ESPN and beyond.

  • Why now?: Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder criticized ESPN’s elimination of the position, writing, “Surely there’s still a place for a public editor at ESPN. Bristol is still the worldwide leader in sports, still one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world, and still facing more scrutiny for their practices and procedures than ever before.”


Other notable stories

  • Thanks to a series of scoops about Stormy Daniels, The Wall Street Journal is back in the game, writes The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi. The Journal, and specifically Editor in Chief Gerard Baker, have faced criticism for a perceived soft approach to the Trump administration, especially as the Post and New York Times have broken story after story. But Farhi writes that the work of Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld in pursuing the Stormy Daniels story has “gone a long way toward restoring some of The Wall Street Journal’s tarnished luster.
  • For CJR, Kevin Lerner profiles (MORE), a journalism magazine from the 1970s that sought to break up the ossified culture of the elite media. “From 1971 to 1978, the magazine pushed issues of newsroom management, diversity of staffing, treatment of women, and reluctance to challenge government or corporations, as well as the corporatization of news itself,” Lerner writes.
  • Fox Business Network’s Charles Payne apologized after a guest on his show smeared Senator John McCain with a false claim about McCain’s time in captivity during the Vietnam War. Payne said he was listening to instructions from the control room in his earpiece, and didn’t hear what his guest, former Fox military analyst and and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, said. “I regret I did not catch this remark, as it should have been challenged,” Payne wrote.
  • The Pulitzer Prize Board has authorized an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against recently elected chairman Junot Díaz. The author stepped down as chairman on Thursday, but remains on the board.
  • The Washington Post’s Carol Morello, one of two reporters to accompany Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his trip to North Korea that resulted in the release of three American captives, offers a peek behind the scenes of the journey. “We were called in last Friday afternoon and told to get a new passport with a special permission stamped on one page authorizing a one-time-only visit to a geographically restricted country, a description that fits only North Korea, where the State Department has a travel ban for U.S. citizens,” Morello writes. “We were instructed to pack a small bag and be ready to depart on a moment’s notice, whenever it might come. And we were ordered to tell no one about it in advance.”
  • Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released thousands of Facebook ads purchased by Russian agents around the 2016 presidential election. “The main impression one gets from reading through some of the 3,519 files is just how innocuous most of them were,” CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes. “Could they have swayed people during the election? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to see how.”

ICYMI: The real perils of Trump’s numbing ‘fake news’ routine

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.