The top brass at the New York Times must be ecstatically happy about their
new ombudsman. Far from making use of his privileged position to speak truth
to power, Byron (Barney) Calame seems to think that his job is to defend New
York Times stories to the paper’s readers. Insofar as he does anything at all,
that is: Calame has published precious little in his first three months on the
Last year I noticed that
Daniel Okrent, the first public editor, pretty much gave up on his web journal
after a while. His replacement, Calame, made his first web
journal posting on May 24, and has only put up two substantive entries of
his own since then. Both are milquetoast in tone, and the most
recent one, on August 5, is atrocious.
Calame here puts his $0.02 into the debate
over a controversial "Modern Love" column
from mid-July, in which freelance journalist Helaine Olen fires her nanny after
quite convincingly, on that very blog – but Calame refuses to link to
that response. Instead, he simply prints an email from Bart Calendar of Brooklyn,
and thenceforth essentially addresses his entry to Mr Calendar and people like
him, rather than to the really aggrieved party – the nanny/blogger in
The first thing worth noting is that Calame’s entry fails the first rule of
transparency. Calame prints Calendar’s email, and the response from Trip Gabriel
of the New York Times, but nowhere links to the nanny’s own refutation: we get
the impression that we’re eavesdropping on an internal conversation without
really knowing what the substantive allegations are.
Secondly, Calame’s considered conclusion, after weighing all the evidence,
is that… "first-person columns by outside contributors put a special
burden on the editors at The Times". He also adds that "the process
followed by the editors demonstrated as much care about fairness, privacy and
accuracy as was possible." (My emphasis.)
In other words, Calame completely sidesteps the central question – whether
the column was, actually, fair and accurate, and if not, whether the New York
Times should have published it. Instead, he reatreats into process, and decides
that the unnamed Sunday Styles editor in charge of the piece should not be blamed
for any problems with the column.
But what about the author? After all, the New York Times published her. But
it seems that since she’s a freelancer and not a staffer, Calame is not interested
in asking whether she violated any tenets of fairness and accuracy. This is
just plain stupid: readers of the New York Times should not be expected to know
whether a certain column is penned by a staff member or a freelancer, and the
public editor should treat both types of writer equally.
In fact, it’s pretty clear that both Olen and her editor screwed up on this
piece. There’s even a glaring factual error in what is essentially the column’s
Looking at archived entries one afternoon, I read her reactions to an argument
my husband and I had when she was in the house. "I heard a couple fighting
within the confines of couples therapy-speak," she wrote. "I wanted
to say, smack him, bite her."
It went on like that for three ghastly pages.
Three pages? Wow, that’s a really long blog entry attacking her employers.
No wonder the nanny was fired, right?
Wrong. In fact, the entry
is only 362 words long – compared to the 1,700 words of Olen’s column.
If the nanny’s entry was three pages, then Olen’s piece is over 14 "ghastly
And what’s more, the entry isn’t really about Olen at all – it’s basically
a reworking of themes from Sylvia Plath, presented in a manner reminiscent of
Jeanette Winterson or Shelley Jackson. Olen totally distorted the nature of
the blog, and her editor, who also read the blog, was complicit in that.
When it comes to journalistic storms in teacups, everybody has a different
opinion, and I don’t fault Calame for coming down in a different place than
I do when it comes to this particular column. I do, however, fault Calame for
consistently weaselly behaviour. His failure to address the question of whether
Olen’s column was fair and accurate is symptomatic: he has not yet criticised
the Times in any strong terms.
On June 29, he faulted the newspaper for not fully disclosing its ties to Bruce
Ratner, but called it "an unusual lapse," and made sure to point out
that "Mr. Ratner’s project with The Times was mentioned almost every time
he had a substantive role in an article." On May 24, he said that the Times
might have reported on the Downing Street Memo earlier than it did, but that
ultimately what it did was understandable and was "better than the readers
of most other newspapers got".
As for his printed column, which gets many more readers than the web journal,
so far he’s made it into print four times. In the first he simply introduced
himself and blathered on about how he intended to do his job. In the second,
he defended a Times article about the CIA. In the third, he devoted an entire
column to the extremely recondite question of how to caption photos and illustrations.
And in the fourth, he cleared up negative conceptions of the Times which were
raised by an earlier correction.
Thus far, then, both online and offline, Calame has had not a single substantive
criticism to make about the reporting in the New York Times. I simply can’t
believe that any reader of the Times – let alone one who’s paid
to look for errors and mistakes – could possibly be as blasé about
the newspaper’s weak points as Calame appears to be.
There was no Calame column today: despite the fact that he’s meant to appear
every other week, we’ve now gone three weeks without his byline appearing in
the paper. But I can tell you what probably would have appeared if there had
been a column:
"Some readers have complained about Story X. Here’s one such complaint.
I put that complaint to the editor in charge of Story X, and she said something
which I’m going to quote at length. You see? It’s perfectly understandable how
Story X made it into the newspaper. So those of you who ascribe nefarious motives
to the Times are wrong. Love, Barney."
What a wuss.