Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why the New York Times Needs to be Held Accountable

Former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan discusses why we need local journalism and why the major newspapers should be carefully watched over and criticized by the public.

Margaret Sullivan is one of the country’s most astute media critics. During her time as Public Editor of the New York Times (essentially an ombudsman), Sullivan became widely respected for her willingness to call out the paper’s lapses, often to the considerable consternation of her Times colleagues. Sullivan criticized the paper’s reliance on anonymous government sources, its practice of allowing sources to approve their own quotes, its previous deference to the Bush administration’s “national security” justifications for suppressing a story, its failure to adequately cover the Panama Papers, Chelsea Manning’s trial, and the Flint Water Crisis, and even the paper’s habit of reporting nonexistent style trends as if they were real things (e.g., the supposed hip comeback of the monocle). Sullivan also spent much of her career in local journalism, serving as the managing editor of the Buffalo News. Her book Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy is about the destruction of local newspapers and its consequences for the country. Her new memoir Newsroom Confidential discusses both her time running a city paper and her time as an in-house critic of The New York Times.

Margaret Sullivan recently joined editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs podcast to discuss why local news matters, why holding the media accountable is crucial to maintaining public trust in it, and how she tried to keep the New York Times trustworthy during her time there. Sadly, with the Times having eliminated the position Sullivan held, the paper is no longer conducting the same level of public self-scrutiny, which is unlikely to help it in the mission to rebuild public trust. This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Nathan J. Robinson

You have seen local journalism from the inside through your many years at the Buffalo News, and you write a lot about the collapse of local journalism in this country. I think a lot of people now know about this on a broad level. They know that newspapers have closed in their town, and they’ve seen reports of newsroom staff being cut. But because it’s hard to see an absence, I think it is difficult for people to really grasp what they’re losing. Help us to understand what happens as a result of the loss of local journalism.

Margaret Sullivan

I’ll give you an example of something that did happen and ask you to imagine what would be the case if it hadn’t happened. In 2009 in Buffalo, when I was the editor, there was a horrible plane crash. It was a Colgan Air commercial flight, the kind of flight we get on every day. It was flying from Newark, New Jersey to Buffalo, New York, and the plane went into a stall. And it never came out of the stall. It crashed into a house in suburban Buffalo. And 50 people died: the pilot, the crew, and everybody on board. The people on board included a cantor, a human rights activist, professors, dads, just regular people flying from one place to another. The national media, of course, paid attention to this for a couple of days. And then they went away. Because that’s what happens.

But what happened in Buffalo was that two reporters dug in—our Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski and our Albany State House bureau chief Tom Precious. They dug into what happened for months and months. And ultimately, laws were changed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) changed the rules so that pilots could not be as overtired, so that pilots were trained better, so that all the things that caused this plane crash would not happen again. And it made a huge difference. In the decades before the reform of the law, some 1,800 people died in commercial plane crashes. In the 10 years after the law was changed, one person died. (And that one was not because of pilot error. It was because a window exploded on the plane.) So this was a case of local journalism doing its job extremely well. 

So now let’s fast-forward to Buffalo. I’m still very proud of the Buffalo News. It’s still a great newspaper. However, it no longer has a working State House bureau person. That guy retired and hasn’t been replaced. And the Washington bureau guy is working only part-time because he’s gone on to be a professor. The newsroom staff I inherited, which was 200 people, is down to about 75. So you can imagine that you really would find it very hard to send two people off for months and months to do something that ultimately would save thousands of lives. That’s an example of local journalism doing its job extremely well. It would be difficult for that to happen now.

Robinson

That’s an example of a big story, a special project. We can see that with a well-endowed staff, you can send people off to work on something for months. But what about the kind of day-to-day work of a local newspaper? The small stuff?

Sullivan

One of the things that happens [with cutbacks to local journalism] is that you just don’t have the staff to send people to every town board meeting. And so the town board meetings in all these different suburbs of Buffalo, or wherever you may be, go unwatched. So what happens is that the corruption of public officials can occur without a watchdog press being there to keep it in line. I remember interviewing the publisher of the Youngstown, Ohio paper, which went out of business—great name, The Vindicator—and I remember talking to him, and it had been a family paper, and he was very sad about it. And he remembered that at one time, they were well-staffed enough so that they could send a reporter or a stringer or a freelancer to every town board meeting in a three-county area. And he said, “The public officials knew we were there, and it kept them in line.” And he felt very sad that that would no longer be the case. And it hadn’t really been the case in a while because the paper had been shrinking. A lot of this is gradual. It’s not just “Okay, The Vindicator‘s gone.” It’s that The Vindicator, which used to have 100 people, is now down to 20. And you just can’t do the job anymore.

Robinson

You are someone who holds the somewhat “old school” view that the job of the journalist is to hold the powerful accountable. But you are also someone who believes that someone’s got to watch the watchman. And you write in your memoir that even though you got into journalism inspired by the Woodward and Bernstein idea of the crusading journalist, you’ve also spent your life partly as a critic of the press. You write about how even at the Buffalo News, there are mistakes that the paper makes, and there needs to be accountability and oversight from the community and from the readership, or else you don’t have a trustworthy press.

Sullivan

That’s right. The past 10 years of my life I’ve spent as a media critic, in essence. Part of it wasn’t called “media critic,” I was the “public editor” at the New York Times. It’s a very weird job that doesn’t exist anymore, but basically an ombudsman or reader representative, so that you had the fun time of being inside the newsroom and criticizing your colleagues in the very pages, or on the very website, of the paper. So not a wonderful way to get party invitations. And then when I went to the Washington Post, I was in fact a media critic. So I do think that the press needs to have some accountability. And one of the things that has helped that somewhat is the democratizing effect of social media. Anybody can go on Twitter, lots of people can start criticizing a particular story or a line of coverage, and it can build into something that gets some attention. I think that the idea has come into vogue—but I mean this in a positive way—that the press should not take unequal things down the middle, this idea of “both sides” saying such things, such as treating pro-democracy candidates and anti-democracy candidates exactly the same. It’s been an effort that’s taken place in part on social media to say, “This is disgusting. This shouldn’t happen. It’s actually doing harm.” The problem with that is that the leadership of news organizations go out of their way to ignore what’s happening on Twitter and not to think about it. So I think it’s come to greater attention. I’m not sure it has made a whole lot of difference, because the actual decision-makers tend to ignore it.

Robinson

I think you are the only person I’ve ever spoken to who has worked for a major newspaper who has defended the constructive role of people yelling at journalists on Twitter.

Sullivan

I think it’s good! I’ve been one of them. So I approve of it. When the Times got rid of its public editor job, the public relations explanation for it was, “Well, there’s so much criticism out there, including on Twitter, that will take care of the role of the public editor.” Which is absurd, of course, because the public editor was able to go to the decision-makers and say, “What’s up?” and “Why did you do this? And can you explain it?” and actually get an answer out of them. That doesn’t happen too much on Twitter.

Robinson

I have to ask you more about this “public editor” position. As you say, it has now been abolished at the New York Times. But it was a very odd kind of position for a paper to put in place. You were  independent, and your job was to critique the paper itself.

Sullivan

Right. Exactly. It wasn’t solitary. The Washington Post had an ombudsman for years. National Public Radio has one now. And they tend to call them “ombudsman,” but the Times has to be different, of course, and call it something else. So they called it the “public editor,” which was not really a good way to describe it. What did that even mean? You were editing the public or something? I really wasn’t “editing” at all. The idea was that you were for the public, as opposed to the rest of the paper. You know, I think it was a good thing. I will say that the Times did it right. They—well, they hired good people, I can say that. And they left me alone. They paid me and left me alone. And basically, my nominal boss was Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher. And he never once said, “Gee, I really wish you wouldn’t write about that.” In fact, if I wrote a tough column, he would be likely to stop down at my office and say, “That was a good one.” He appreciated the fact that it was holding the paper accountable.

Robinson

Well, I want to discuss some of the ways in which you were able to do that in your four years in the position. You were independent and had been given a mission by the paper to hold its coverage accountable. So let’s talk about some of the major issues with the paper that you addressed in your time there.

Sullivan

One of the things that I (and all the public editors before me) took on was the overuse of anonymous sources. The Times had, like many other news organizations, but perhaps more than the others, run into trouble, and had done a disservice to the public when they did the coverage of supposed weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. And when that story, which was based on anonymous sources, proved to be false, the Times instituted a policy in which anonymous sources would be used only as a last resort. That was actually a written policy. And then I would be reading the paper and I would think, “Well, there are a lot of last resorts today.” There are three stories on the front page and four inside that use anonymous sources. So it must be a big day for last resorts! But that would be the case all the time. And so they weren’t really following their own good policy.

Then, while I was there, there were a couple of bad mistakes that happened in stories that hung on a single anonymous source, or anonymous sources generally. And I pointed this out, in not too tactful a way, in my blog posts or columns. And the Times did end up tightening up those rules, so that if a story were going to be based on an anonymous source, the top editor of the paper—whether that was Dean Baquet, or now Joseph Kahn, or one of his very top deputies, like maybe two other people—would have to read it and sign off on it before it appeared. And so that was a good reform, I thought.

Robinson

But in the book you note that it’s still an imperfect reform. Two years after you left, the Times had yet another major scandal based on using a source that collapsed. This is the “Caliphate” scandal.

Sullivan

Yes, absolutely. Well, and that was a podcast, of course. It did give way too much credence to a single source who turned out to be basically a faker. It was an embarrassment and a disservice. And you’re right, and I think one of the things that happened there was that because it was a podcast, somehow it wasn’t held to the same standards as stories in the paper.

Robinson

Oftentimes the criticism of anonymous sources, however, is that the practice has allowed government sources specifically to feed whatever the government line is to the press without having to be held accountable or speak under their own names. Could you elaborate on the problem with anonymous sources? Obviously, there’s the Iraq disaster. But what is the general critique of allowing government sources to speak anonymously?

Sullivan

The worst of it has to do with allowing top federal government sources—like White House sources, or Department of Homeland Security sources, or Pentagon sources—to manipulate by floating ideas out there, by putting things out into the public sphere that look like a scoop for the paper. But if they turn out to be not true, or partially true, or maybe just self-serving, there was never any accountability. There was never any way to go back and say, “Oh, this person gave us the wrong information.” It gives cover. It gives too much power to the sources themselves. And it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship in which the reporter gets a source, looks like an insider—”Here’s my hot tip that I got”—and the source of the information gets to float this stuff out there without ever being held accountable. It’s bad practice.

This sounds a little contradictory, but it’s important to say: some great journalism and some necessary journalism has been based on confidential sources. There are some things you simply can’t get on the record. But often, what you can do is take that tip, take that information and go report it out. You’re not just quoting some guy in the Pentagon, but you take the tip and see if the situation is true. And I’ve also found in my reporting career that many times you can insist on a name—if you say, “Well, I’m sorry, but my editors will not allow me,” (you can always blame your editor, right?) “My editor, evil person, will not allow me to take this information and give you cover.” People talk to the press for a reason. And so what often happens is people will say, “Well, maybe you can quote me,” or “let me think about that,” and they come back and put it on the record. It’s too easy to give people cover. And it’s a very bad practice to let people say something critical about an individual or even institution, to slam someone anonymously. I mean, that should just be outlawed.

Robinson

Well, when you first hear that “Deep Throat” was the Watergate source, “Deep Throat” doesn’t sound like the most reliable source in the world. But I guess newspapers just have to be careful, because if you screw up and you print some lie attributed to someone anonymous, you really erode public confidence in future stories.

Sullivan

That’s right. And, you know, there was one point during the Watergate coverage in which the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, got a story wrong. And please don’t ask me to reconstruct it exactly. But, if you want to know, go watch All the President’s Men, the great movie. But they did mess up. There was this misunderstanding with their source. And it really did cut into the credibility of that coverage for quite a while. And the paper stood behind it even though it was wrong. And it was directionally right but in detail wrong. And so, yes, you’re absolutely right. When something is false, or not quite true, it calls everything else into question.

Robinson

On the topic of deference to the federal government, you write in the book that one of the pieces of work you’re proudest of from your time as public editor, and one that made some difficulty with your colleagues, was when you actually went back to try to re-examine how the Times sat on the Bush wiretapping story for a while on the request of the federal government.

Sullivan

Right. So this didn’t occur during my time there. But what had happened was that Edward Snowden had brought forth this huge story and did not give it to the New York Times. He gave it to the Washington Post and to the Guardian because he didn’t trust the New York Times to actually publish it. Why didn’t he trust the New York Times to publish it? Because years before, the Times had, at the request of the federal government, held a story for 13 months about the warrantless wiretapping practices of the Bush administration. And so it seemed germane to go back and look at that. And I tried to examine why that happened. And was that actually the right thing? And could it have changed the course of history? Did it get George W. Bush reelected? I don’t think it did. I don’t think it was that big a factor.

But it is true that the editor of the paper, then Jill Abramson, was unhappy with me when she found out that I was going to do this. Her idea of the public editor’s job was to examine what was in today’s paper, not what was in the paper 10 years ago. She really argued that it wasn’t a good idea. But she didn’t have the authority to stop me. And it was very unpleasant, but I went ahead and did it, anyway. I mean, once the editor starts telling you that you can’t do it, … I had no choice, I had to run it. It was an interesting piece. And I was happy with it and everything. But it didn’t change the world; it didn’t really embarrass anyone too much. And I think it was completely fine to do. Looking back on it, I can  see her point, which is that it opens the door to, “Okay, the public editor’s now going to look at stories from 20 years ago,” or maybe look back at the coverage of civil rights in the ‘60s or something. There are papers and other institutions that have gone back in recent years since George Floyd’s murder and the protests to look back at their coverage of communities of color and of race.

Robinson

The Times now also does obituaries for people who they should have done obituaries for the first time around and didn’t.

Sullivan

A lot of them are women because they didn’t do a lot of obituaries of women.

Robinson

Speaking of obituaries of women, in your memoir you write about that very weird obituary of a woman who was a rocket scientist. As the public editor, you were able to find these—well, not subtle, because it was immediately pointed out that this was sexist, but kind of small-scale—things where a headline or a way of framing a story is offensive or contains some kind of buried assumptions.

Sullivan

It’s useful—and I found this also as a media critic at the Washington Post—to take something small and treat it in an in-depth way. It can be very telling. It can be more telling than trying to take a huge sweeping look at something. So you take a look at this one obituary of a woman rocket scientist and how the lede of it had to do with how she made a mean beef Stroganoff and was a great cook. It’s like, wait, you were actually writing about her because she’s a scientist, not because she’s a good cook. And it can open it up in a way that is very engaging. And it tells a larger story through a narrow lens.

Robinson

You write in the book about the Times‘ subsequent elimination of the public editor position. You write more with a tone of sadness than with anger. But certainly when I see it, I experience something more on the anger side. When we’re talking about the kinds of things that you do in that role, finding things ranging from implicit sexism in the paper to things like relying on unreliable anonymous sources without a good policy, to sitting on stories at the request of the government, and then you think, once again, about the absence: what doesn’t happen, what don’t we see if there’s nobody in a position to critique the paper from the inside and try and reform bad practices?

Sullivan

I understand very, very well why they wanted to get rid of that position. And I like to fess up to something when I talk about it. I was the top editor in Buffalo when the Times started its public editor position around 2003. And there had been a scandal at the Times about this rogue reporter Jayson Blair who was plagiarizing and fabricating. And that was the immediate reason at the time to set this thing up. So when that happened, my publisher, my boss in Buffalo, came to me and said, “Hey, Margaret, you know, it would be cool if we had an ombudsman here at the Buffalo News.” And I said, “You know, Stan, I don’t think that’s necessary. I’m out in the community a lot. I’m very responsive to readers, I answer all my mail.” I did not want somebody looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me every second. As the public editor, you’re like the shadow executive editor or something, in a way.

However, I would note that Buffalo is one thing, and the New York Times is another. And the more powerful a media organization is, the more important some kind of oversight or accountability is. But I agree with your reading that I say it more in sadness than in anger. I think it was inevitable. And I know it’s not going to change. It’s never coming back. And I also think that you are giving incredible power to one person, and then you have absolutely no recourse. If you start interfering with their work, that goes to the very heart of their independence. So you have to have the right person for the job. And if you don’t, it’s a real problem.

Robinson

I do want to get to a couple of the other issues that you raised about Times coverage over the course of your time there. Could you talk about the practice of quote approval that you discuss in the book?

Sullivan

Sure. So this happened very soon after I started at the Times. There was a front page story in the Times itself that revealed that reporters at the Times, but at many news organizations, were actually having to get on the record quotes from officials, whether in business or in politics, approved by a public relations person before they could be used in the paper. So you would do your interview, and then you would write down the quotes you wanted to use, send them to this public relations person, and they would say, “Okay, you can use this one,” “alright, you can use this one,” or “Well, we’d actually like to change the wording on this or that.” And to me, that seemed like an absolutely outrageous practice. And other people thought so, too.

And I wrote about it right away. And I think the Times recognized that it was a terrible practice. And now that it had been put out in the public, they were already trying to move toward fixing it. But I was able to put public pressure on it. And they ended up changing it quickly. Whenever they made a reform that I recommended, they would never ever, ever say, “This is coming about because the public editor pointed it out.” That was complete anathema to them. And that was fine. I didn’t expect that. I could see the causation, but it was never going to be recognized. But I could still feel pretty good about it.

Robinson

“Coincidentally, we’ve just decided to change our policies right now.”

Sullivan

I think the phrase is “in the wake of.” It has nothing to do with it, it just happened afterwards.

Robinson

I want to ask you about something that you mention in the book but don’t elaborate on. I’m curious for a little more about it. You discuss the firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times. And one of the things you say about that firing is that she was resistant to a plan for bringing the New York Times into the digital era. But one of the components of that plan that you say she was resistant to was breaking down the wall between advertising and content, or editorial. And I wondered if you could say a little more about that “wall” and what it looks like when that wall is permeated at a paper.

Sullivan

Well, traditionally, at respectable news organizations, there has always been a separation between the business side and the editorial side. And that’s so that the business interests don’t start entering into your stories, so that you don’t have some car dealer saying you can’t write about the way we’re selling cars or threaten to pull advertising out of the paper. You don’t want that. So you actually never let the advertising people even go down to the newsroom. That’s the old way. But that explains the practice of keeping them separate. And I actually want to say that I think Jill Abramson was moving ahead pretty strongly on making the paper more digital, and she had done a lot that was good. And she did resist the idea of the business side and the editorial side working hand in hand. She thought that there should be a strong, strong separation. And that was not in the plan.

The business side really wanted to have—I think they recognized that there needed to be some rules around it and some separation—but they wanted to be in the same meetings, dealing with the same strategies, a kind of cooperation. And I think that was something that she resisted, and the brass wanted someone who they could work with better on that as they would see it.

Robinson

Do you think that has now happened more at the New York Times? And is there a negative effect from that?

Sullivan

I think one of the reasons that the Times has been so successful—and more successful than certainly than any other newspaper, and most media organizations at all—is that they have come up with these things that aren’t really journalism but that get people hooked on the paper. For example, you might be familiar with Wordle, which is a word puzzle that people get addicted to. Or the cooking app, which people can get with their Times subscription if it’s at a higher level. Those kinds of things have really worked for the Times. So they haven’t just been a great journalism organization. They’ve also broadened things out.

I don’t know of instances in which those additions or that practice has hurt the journalism at the Times. It seems to be working okay. Now, maybe I just don’t know about it because there’s no public editor there to excavate it. But I would probably have heard about it. And if that’s happening, I think they’ve actually dodged the bullet on that, and they’ve pretty much done things in a good way that does respect the boundaries and still manages to make lots and lots of money.

Robinson

I want to ask you about another issue that you discuss in the book, which is the paradox of the 2016 Hillary Clinton coverage. There were complaints from the left that Hillary Clinton was covered too positively by the New York Times and that Bernie Sanders was covered too negatively during the primary, and that the Times elevated Hillary and gave her a coronation as the president-in-waiting. And then there were complaints from the Clinton campaign that she was covered too harshly because of the focus on the emails. In the book, you try to explain that there is truth in both of these, and you try to explain the paradox of the Times‘ Hillary coverage.

Sullivan

I thought about it a lot while I was there, and then afterwards, because I left the Times in 2016 before the election. And so then I had a little more distance on it. And what I came up with, and I really think this is true, is that there was this idea that she was going to be the president. No way she wasn’t going to be president. She was going to be the Democratic nominee, and then she was going to be elected.

And so I think that, because that was the mindset, they wanted to then scrub her background—meaning investigate and really scrutinize every aspect of what she was doing. After all, she was going to be the president. And so the coverage of her emails was way over the top. It was a story, but it wasn’t a story that should have dominated the campaign the way it did. And if you’ve ever seen those graphics that show different words that are emblematic or that came up the most in the different campaigns, Trump’s words were like “president, immigration, crime,” all that stuff. Hillary’s is “email.” Her email practices while she was secretary of state became the dominant story. And it was way overplayed.

And then there was this horrible thing that happened at the very end. Eight days before the election, FBI Director James Comey reopened the FBI investigation, and the Times basically gave the front page over to that story. And it was devastating, not because everybody reads the New York Times, but because the New York Times is so influential in the media sphere that all other news organizations often take their cues from the Times. So it was very tough. It could have been a deciding factor, one of several deciding factors, in whether she was elected. Anyway, I thought they went way too far with it. And the reason that they did was that they had decided—whether this was spoken or just understood—that she was going to be the president. And so we better be tough on her.

Robinson

There was even some crazy headline in the Times saying something like, “Trump says [this revelation] will change everything.”

Sullivan

Yes. That was a front page headline, like eight days before the election.

Robinson

Related to this, I think there is a certain mindset one could have at the New York Times, which says: “Well, if the Bernie Sanders people are upset with us, and the Hillary Clinton people are upset with us, and the Trump people hate us, we must be doing something right.” And you’re very critical of this way of thinking. What, in your view, does fairness and objectivity look like? You cite one of the early public editors, Daniel Okrent, who had this saying that “the pursuit of balance can create imbalance, because sometimes something is true.” You talk a lot about that in your book.

Sullivan

It’s absurd to say, “Oh, the right and the left are mad at us. So we must be doing something right.” It’s just wrong. So, I think that what journalists should be doing is pursuing the truth. And they should be trying to present what is true in an engaging, fair, accurate, and impartial way. And in a way that’s not tied to a candidate, or a party, or even an ideology. If that’s what you want to call “objectivity,” great, call it objectivity. If you don’t like the word objectivity because it makes you angry and it makes you think that objectivity belongs to white men in suits from the 1950s, then don’t use the word. I think we all want the same thing, which is that we want a news media that does its job and does it fairly and does it accurately and does it in pursuit of the truth.

Robinson

Well, there’s a lot more I would love to discuss with you from your book, which contains a lot of discussion about how journalists can fight to save democracy, which is really important. You have lots of suggestions as to what pro-democracy journalism looks like. Also, there’s wonderful stuff in the book like your time exposing the New York Times’ practice of making up imaginary fashion trends, like the revival of the monocle that was supposedly happening with hipsters. It’s delightful. But in order to get those stories, people will just have to pick up Newsroom Confidential. Thank you for talking to me.

Sullivan

Thanks. This was a really fun conversation, and I appreciate it.

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