Monday, July 18, 2005

More on the Calame-ity

The Empty Suit: We Were Warned!

The National Review's Stephen Spruiell today has an excellent follow-up to my "Empty Suit" series on Barney Calame, the New York Times' train wreck of a public editor. It seems that my last item failed to describe how Calame, who is proving to be a management shill disguising as an "independent ombudsman," fouled up his column yesterday.

The July 17 column described how the Times committed a production error that put words in the mouth of an op-ed page contributor. However, in making excuses for the Times, Calame skirted the central issue -- which was that the production error was an indication of anti-Bush bias.

Calame blew off the observation of many readers who saw bias in the added language, trivializing their valid concerns. Said Spruiell:

"Calame does not explain the tone of the inserted language — only the process of how the editors made it up, the author vehemently objected, and yet it got into print anyway. Missing is why the editors inserted the particular phrases that they did." He further notes that Calame's column reduced "a rather serious foul-up to a minor production goof."

Good observations. Re "process": In Calame's inaugural column back on June 5 -- it seems more recent because he has done so little -- he promised to focus on process. He said,
A bit more of a nitty-gritty newspaperman, I hope to raise the blinds at The Times in some new ways to allow readers to get a clearer view inside the newsroom process. Greater transparency, I believe, can help you as readers better understand the news judgments that shape each day's paper -- and hold The Times's news staff more accountable.
Think about it for a second. Is Calame trying to fulfill a genuine reader need, or is this just a lot of (albeit skillful -- I didn't notice it) bureaucratic doubletalk.

Do you really want to "get a clearer view of the newsroom process"? Is that what is needed here? As a matter of fact, it isn't.

When the Times screws up, people don't say, "Gee, that's interesting. Can you explain how did that happen?" No. They want the Public Editor to say, in the pages of the Times,"The Times screwed up. It doesn't matter how it happened. I shouldn't happen again." That is the purpose of a public editor or ombudsman, after all.

You've got to hand it to Calame. He laid things out skillfullky. Calame didn't come out and say that he was not going to hold the Times accountable when it screws up. But by emphasizing side issues of "transparency," he revamped his job description to skirt the core issues of political bias and poor journalism.

Bottom line: Calame told us that he was going to act as a kind of semi-retired assistant managing editor who makes reader complaints "go away" -- basically his old job at the Wall Street Journal. He promised to be an empty suit, and he is carrying out his promise.

UPDATE: As originally posted, this entry referred to the errant July 17 column as the "July 3" column. Please forward all complaints to my own personal "empty suit" ombudsman, who will send you back a cordial automated response.