Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Empty Suit Upstages Himself

Puts His Column on Autopilot

The New York Times Public Editor, Barney Calame, after a grand total of three times in print, devotes an entire Sunday column today to reader letters. It is easily the very best column produced on his watch. But if I were Calame, I wouldn't be too proud of that. What makes it good is that he didn't write it.

Basically, Calame put his increasingly pathetic column on autopilot, while he goes back to sleep on the divan. Though all of the letters raised serious questions that deserve answers, none are forthcoming from Calame. He thus transformed "reader participation" into a hollow "letting off steam" exercise. (By contrast, his predecessor resorted to this form of padding after nine sometimes provocative columns -- and always commented on the letters.)

Every biased and inept journalist loves reader letters. They are a thousand times better than the Public Editor roasting your tootsies. That's why the distant rumble you heard this morning was from Times editors breathing a sigh of relief. They're off the hook for another week.

It's really pretty disgraceful. One reader wrote in as follows:

"In the final paragraph of 'When an Explanation Doesn't Explain Enough' (July 17), you refer to 'the mistaken perceptions of some readers.' Were they really mistaken? It seems to me that your explanation of this situation confirms the suspicion of 'an unusual number of readers' that 'a Times editor had tried to put words in the mouth of the reserve Army officer, Capt. Phillip Carter, without his consent.' After all, isn't that exactly what happened?"
Good question. In fact, the same point was raised by the National Review's Stephen Spruiell in his media blog. So what about it? Any response?

You'd think he'd say something like, "no, this isn't what happened," or "yes, you have a point." You know. Dialogue with the readers you are supposed to "represent." Nope, silence -- even though his column on that day was patently illogical.

So it goes throughout this week's column -- sharp questions, silent contempt from the Empty Suit. As he says on his cobweb-covered website, "if a reply is appropriate, you will hear from us shortly." No reply appropriate today! The Great Oz had spoken, and he sayeth no more.

The purpose of a public editor is to represent the public, not to shill for management and then silently shrug when readers point out that he has goofed up. But make no mistake about it. Calame is doing precisely the job that the Times management wants. Or to be more precise -- not doing the job. He hasn't even bothered to use his "web journal" since June.

As I explained in a recent item, Calame told us from the gitgo that he views himself as a technocrat who provides nuts-and-bolts explanations of "process." Which is ducky-- if you are among the 1% of readers who give a damn about "process." But if you are among the 99% of readers who care about substance, you are out of luck. A reader addressed that today:

"Explaining how [an editorial goof] happened is helpful, but I believe readers are entitled to know more," says one of the letters.

True, but you're not going to know more -- not from an empty suit and management shill who is a parody of a public editor.