Barney Calame, the toothless ombudsman

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

reading her blog. The nanny responded,

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

nut graf:

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

pages" long.

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Barney Calame, the toothless ombudsman

  1. Bart Calendar says:

    The weird thing is that Calame did not print my letter to him that broke down what was wrong with that “Modern Love” article. Instead he printed my much shorter letter (that got a form letter response) to the Modern Love editor.

    Bart Calendar

  2. MemeFirst says:

    Barney Calame asks the important questions

    The toothless ombudsman strikes again: What had The Times’s news columns provided over the past decade to help its readers understand the New Orleans levee system?…

Comments are closed.