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SundayReview|News Narratives for 2012


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News Narratives for 2012

The Public Editor


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AS public editor, I begin the New Year with a growing appreciation for the challenge The New York Times faces in maintaining its leadership in American journalism. I want to revisit five issues here, all requiring keen judgment on the part of the paper.

The presidential campaign: For Times journalists and their peers elsewhere, this quadrennial event is an adrenaline rush that requires sober oversight by senior editors to ensure that balance, fairness and accuracy survive the scramble to compete.

In a Dec. 4 column, I wrote about journalists’ reflex to impose their own narrative on a race, a dynamic that can eclipse what candidates are actually saying. Well, as last week’s Iowa caucuses demonstrated, the Republican nomination contest steadfastly resists any coherent narrative.

Early in the campaign, The Times decided to remain low key in its coverage of Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. Their strong showings on Tuesday, following the serial derailments of other contenders, showed just how hard it is for the paper to read the plotline of this contest.


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In its coverage of Tuesday’s results, The Times moved quickly to set a new narrative: New Hampshire might not be so important now (a premise that undercuts Mitt Romney, who hopes New Hampshire is important); this will be a long campaign (Mr. Romney, hoping to lock things down in January, is dinged again); Rick Santorum is the new rising star (or, I wonder, is he the next whack-a-mole victim?).

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The premises of the emerging Times narrative are defensible, to be sure, but the nomination battle so far is teaching journalists a lesson: Be humble, because nobody knows what comes next.

The Times’s coverage of itself: I said at the top that maintaining leadership in American journalism is a challenge for The Times. Part of that challenge is the exceptional volume and frequency of campaign coverage by newer competitors like Politico.

There is a rising tide of well-financed news organizations that, like The Times, are competing not only for readers but for advertisers in the digital arena. One of those is Reuters, which in late December reported on the lucrative exit package for Janet L. Robinson, the Times Company’s departing chief executive.

Reuters said that Ms. Robinson would get not only a $4.5 million consulting fee, which The Times had previously reported, but would also be eligible to receive $10.9 million in pension benefits.

To its credit, The Times did report that before Ms. Robinson’s exit was announced, the Times chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., had called a meeting with her in which he “raised the issue of installing a different type of leadership at the company” — information that seemed to indicate she was being forced out.

Photo Credit Earl Wilson/The New York Times

A recent spate of news about the company, however, dictates a more in-depth effort to report on how economics and competition are affecting The Times. In addition to the sudden departure of its C.E.O., the latter half of the year saw the company paying back its $250 million debt to Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican magnate; the retirement at 56 of its top digital strategist, Martin A. Nisenholtz; the $143 million sale of its regional newspaper group; and a sharp 25 percent increase in the retail price of the Monday-Saturday paper.

But what really makes reporting on itself imperative is that The Times so aggressively covers its peers. For example, in a Dec. 13 story on the departure of The Los Angeles Times’s editor, Russ Stanton, The Times paraphrased anonymous sources saying that Mr. Stanton “did not have reporters’ best interests in mind.” Mr. Stanton angrily disputed this and told me he thought it simply wrong to allow anonymous sources to levy such an attack.


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Bruce Headlam, the editor who heads the New York Times media desk, said the paper accurately reflected the sentiment in the Los Angeles newsroom. “At least 10 current and former employees told her this,” he said, referring to the reporter, Amy Chozick, and added, “We also obeyed our own rules about negative anonymous quotes — we didn’t use them. But that doesn’t preclude us from summarizing what we were hearing.”

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My view is that, in most newsrooms, it is not hard to find staffers willing to criticize the boss anonymously. It is important to hold the line against publishing such anonymous attacks.

The European debt crisis: Last August, I said the paper’s hefty investment in the Wall Street-centric DealBook blog would have been better allocated to covering the devastating developments in the euro zone. To give credit (no pun intended) where it is due, the paper went all out to cover the crisis as it crescendoed in November and December.

In a Dec. 21 story, The Times reported that the European Central Bank’s decision to pump $640 billion into banks could be a “turning point.” In a separate column, Floyd Norris predicted the central bank’s action “may be enough to stem the European crisis for at least a few years, and go a long way to recapitalizing banks in the process.”

Larry Ingrassia, the business editor, promises more “analytical pieces about where things are headed,” and I applaud that.

Natural gas: I wrote a couple of critical pieces in July about The Times’s “Drilling Down” series, but as 2012 unfolds I see a problem with the newspaper’s broader coverage of shale gas, which is becoming a major energy and environment story line.

The paper writes about shale gas on the business desk, the national desk and the metro desk. In some articles, the emphasis is on the huge economic potential; in others, the focus is on the environmental threat posed by the drilling process known as fracking. The coverage seems fragmented and at times contradictory. What’s the big picture?

Dean Baquet, the managing editor, told me The Times “could probably better coordinate on the issue” in 2012 and should have an editor to “make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing.”

Drone wars and beyond: Kudos to The Times here. I urged the paper last year to press the Obama administration to reveal the legal rationale for targeted drone attacks, particularly in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen killed in Yemen.

On Dec. 20, the newspaper sued to force the Justice Department to disclose its reasoning. This was a worthy step, demonstrating Times leadership and the indispensable role of a free press. And it comes at a time when technology is simultaneously transforming the secret conduct of war, not to mention the landscape where The Times must compete to survive.

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