The willingness and capacity to criticize oneself is less a measure of greatness than of credibility, and nowhere is this more true than in the fractured world of media today.
It’s surprising then that a frank final column from The New York Times’s outgoing public editor, Arthur Brisbane, should elicit such a strong response. If in “Success and Risk as The Times Transforms” Brisbane focuses on the Times itself, his astute comments are instructive for many other liberal-minded news outlets that for various and mostly avoidable reasons look a little wobbly in the new media landscape.
All newspapers make mistakes. When The New York Times allows a second-rate professor from Staten Island to spout off anti-Israeli screed on the most specious and delusional grounds imaginable, it’s pretty close to reckless. When Haaretz publishes an unflattering photograph of the Israeli Prime Minister for the sole apparent purpose of holding it up for ridicule, it’s pretty lame at best (by definition, no individual ever looks their best in a group photo).
But the Times pieces delves deeper by holding up a mirror to the entire organization, and that alone is something that could teach much to the Haaretzes and Israel Hayoms of the world. The piece is a quick read, but some of the essential remarks in this context are:
“The company’s survival mantra calls for expansion in the international, video, social and mobile spheres. What is so exceptional and surprising to me, a career veteran of long wars between newspapers’ business and newsroom camps, is how thoroughly The Times’s newsroom appears to have bought in to this strategy.”
He goes on to mention the “froth that surrounds social media.”
What he’s driving at is that all the technology in the world is no substitute for good reporting. In America, which still has world’s best and freest media, good reporting means objective reporting.
But what about that presumed objectivity – is it always there? Maybe not. Brisbane writes that he believes the NYT 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.”
Furthermore, he adds:
”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.”
There you go. Too much love – it’s a bad thing. You don’t overwater your rosebushes, and you don’t hew to one political orientation so obsessively and so tightly that you lose sight of the other, unless you want to watch your rose petals drift off to flower heaven and unless you want to seriously discredit your (for lack of a better word) cause.
The column concludes by citing a poll that found the newspaper’s “believability rating” has dropped to the point where it’s almost the mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating, and about that Brisbane asks,
“Can that be good?”
The insinuation is, probably not. But by simply asking the question so publicly, he shores up the credibility of the NYT. And stepping outside the box is for any media enterprise a step in the direction of greatness.
Poking fun at a dorky-looking PM, on the other hand, is the stuff of The Onion or college newspapers in the Midwest that don’t have better do to. Haaretz and a few other newspapers in the Middle East have much, much better to do. Don’t they?