Clark Hoyt filed his last column as the New York Times's Public Editor: "A Final Report From Internal Affairs," praising the cooperation of Times reporters and editors during his term and fending off accusations that the paper is a "liberal rag." Hoyt admitted the editorial page and columnists are liberal and that the paper "shares the prevailing sensibilities of the city and region where it is published," but denied the Times was "really the Fox News of the left," citing scandalous scoops that hurt prominent Northeastern Democrats like New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
Hoyt was the paper's third public editor in an experiment that had its roots in the Jayson Blair catastrophe.
In retrospect, the paper's first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, was probably the toughest critic of the paper's reporting. Okrent famously asked the rhetorical question in a July 2004 column: "Is the Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is."
His successor Barney Calame was far too much a corporate yes-man; he initially defended the paper's exposure a U.S. terrorist surveillance program involving international bank transfers, though he later recanted. Hoyt was somewhere in the middle, and perhaps the least predictable when it came to which controversies he considered worth writing about.
Each of my predecessors, Daniel Okrent and Byron Calame, faced some degree of resistance from the newsroom, and I do not think anyone thought it would go down easy for me. On my first day on the job, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, sat opposite me in a little room off his office, clapped his hands on his knees and said with a laugh: "Well, you're here. You must be dumber than you look."
But my reception by the newsroom turned out to be accepting and unfailingly professional, in large part, I believe, because Okrent and Calame persevered, established the position and made it matter. Times journalists have been astonishingly candid, even when facing painful questions any of us would want to duck. Of course, journalists don't relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else. A writer shaken by a conclusion I was reaching told me, if you say that, I'll have to kill myself. I said, no, you won't. Well, the writer said, I'll have to go in the hospital. I wrote what I intended, with no ill consequences for anyone's health.
For all of my three years, I heard versions of Kevin Keller's accusation: The Times is a "liberal rag," pursuing a partisan agenda in its news columns. There is no question that the editorial page is liberal and the regular columnists on the Op-Ed page are heavily weighted in that direction. There is also no question that The Times, though a national newspaper, shares the prevailing sensibilities of the city and region where it is published. It does not take creationism or intelligent design as serious alternatives to the theory of evolution. It prints the marriages and commitment ceremonies of same-sex couples. It covers art and cultural events out on the edge.
Hoyt next defended his paper's balance by focusing on the Times breaking political scandals against Democrats in its backyard. While not quite denying the paper's liberal slant, Hoyt said the Times was definitely not the Fox News of the left.
But if The Times were really the Fox News of the left, how could you explain the investigative reporting that brought down Eliot Spitzer, New York's Democratic governor; derailed the election campaign of his Democratic successor, David Paterson; got Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in ethics trouble; and exposed the falsehoods that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, another Democrat, was telling about his service record in the Vietnam era?
Of course, as the Times is always reminding us, the Republican Party has been decimated in the Northeast in recent years, meaning the region is dominated by Democrats, meaning most political scandals will involve Democrats.
Hoyt also announced a new public editor from outside the paper would be named soon.