Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Empty Suit Watch: Barney Pads and Shills

The Suit: Whew! Another week over!

Today the Empty Suit, New York Times spokesman (a/k/a "public editor") Barney Calame, devotes the first half of his column to a serious problem at the Times -- how the paper covers itself. In his usual padded, fill-up-the-column-without-saying-anything prose, Barney makes a good point: "the difficulty of covering yourself can shortchange readers."

Barney's suggestion? The Times, he says, should supplement its coverage of stories involving itself by linking to other news sources on the Times website. As if readers with web access don't know how to use Google and are too brainless to find coverage better than the Times's.

What makes this whole thing even sillier is that the real problem is, of course, Calame himself. It is the job of a public editor to backstop coverage of the Times, particularly when one of those frequent Times scandals arise. Instead, Barney functions as a management shill, as he did by piling on Judith Miller, when he does not simply ignore issues of bias, accuracy and ethics that come up every day.

The rest of the padded, padded, padded column is filled out by a leisurely discussion of one of the most obvious examples of anti-Bush bias recently -- a front-page photo array on Nov. 21 of President Bush walking into a locked door. Funny, huh? There were, of course, complaints. "All these reader complaints and suspicions spurred me to explore how the decision was made to run the photo sequence on the front page," says Barney.

Of course. Process! Barney loves to write about process, because that turns over the podium to the self-serving excuses of Times editors. And Barney, of course, swallowed those excuses whole. I'll be coming to that. But first let's briefly explore what a real newspaper ombudsman would have done.

Barney didn't have to indict managment. All he had to say was that this photo spread was excessively large, whatever the excuses offered, and feeds perceptions that the Times is anti-Bush.

Instead Barney acts in full management-shill mode, sides with the editors in kneejerk fashion and blames Bush, saying that Bush's two seconds of joking about it justified the Times turning over a good portion of its front page to embarassing the president. The "president hamming it up," Barney concluded, "validates the news judgment of Times editors that the scene was basically amusing rather than snide, and appropriate for the front page."

Are you surprised? Remember: They don't call him a "parody of a public editor" for nothing.

UPDATE: As blogger Norman Oder points out in his comment below, the Times's coverage of its real estate deals is a whole lot worse than Barney here says it is. That's our Barney!

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