Because The New York Times Never Does Anything Controversial, Bill Keller Thinks It Probably Doesn't Need A Public Editor

Scoop from the New York Observer: Apparently the New York Times is deciding whether to eliminate the public editor position, first installed following the Jayson Blair plagiarism-and-making-front-page-news-up-out-of-his-head scandal. Executive editor Bill Keller told the Observer's Michael Calderone that the position might be eliminated after the current public editor, Byron Calame (aka "Barney") completes his term in May 2007.

Keller, who created the position as first order of business when he took over from Howell Raines in 2003, raised the idea of axing it at an in-house Q&A in December. Keller told Calderone that "some of my colleagues believe the greater accessibility afforded by features like 'Talk to the Newsroom' has diminished the need for an autonomous ombudsman, or at least has opened the way for a somewhat different definition of the job."

Oh, really? As Calderone points out, "Talk To The Newsroom" is done by NYT editors, about their section. Some, like Keller's entry (to his credit) are pages and pages long. Others, like TV editor Steven Redicliffe, are much shorter. How are the questions selected? Does every question get answered? Who decides? I know the answer to number two, because I submitted a question to Redicliffe during his stint, asking if Redicliffe was aware of Alessandra Stanley's reputation in the blogosphere for making obvious errors and what measures, if any, had been implemented to address those errors. The question was not selected for response, and this was the most detailed analysis Redicliffe offered about Stanley: "Alessandra Stanley, our senior television critic, has written about everything from Web episodes of "The Office" to the instant availability of campaign commercials on the Internet." Did Redicliffe have to answer my question? Of course not. I don't even know if it reached him. But this example highlights the built-in dangers of consigning Ombudsman-like duties to editors with a vested interest in making their sections look good.

But here's a even better reason to keep the Public Editor position safe: "When Mr. Calame wrote a piece on The Times' National Security Administration wiretapping story, he did not receive responses to questions from either Mr. Keller or Mr. Sulzberger." And another: "A source with knowledge of the relationship between Mr. Keller and Mr. Calame characterized it as 'a really bad relationship.'" These two statements suggest that section editors aren't the only ones with a vested interest here.

Keller is the top editor at what is arguably the nation's top paper, the self-styled Paper of Record. With huge, lightning-rod stories like NSA spying and SWIFT bank records making major waves across the country and at the highest levels and criticism coming in from all sides, the NYT can't afford to lose it's Public Editor; the office is meant to keep the NYT honest, a constant reminder of who it is supposed to be serving and to whom it is accountable. Even more important during, in Keller's words, "a period when the credibility of the media generally has been under assault," the NYT must appear to be accountable. Getting rid of the Public Editor position ain't that.