Monday, October 24, 2005

New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame Goes Too Far

When my daughter, Kathy, was eight years old and accompanied me, as she often did on my Olympic assignment, to the Lake Placid Winter Games in 1980, a London Times reporter asked her if she would care to write an article for them.

Kathy would, and did. It ran in the London Times under the title, "Reporters Are Too Nosy."

The same thing can be said of the second New York Times public editor, Byron Calame. He recently succeeded the first NYT public editor, Daniel Okrent, who used to write his columns with restraint and in doing so performed useful service.

Calame is not so restrained. He writes in a familiar way about the NYT publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and the executive editor, Bill Keller, not hesitating to directly contradict them. HIs conclusions are more strident than Okrent's, and this Sunday, he came very close to saying that embattled Times reporter Judy Miller should be fired. The esact way he put it was, "It seems to me that whatever the limits put on her, the problems facing her inside and outside the newsroom will make it difficult for her to return to the paper as a reporter."

I'm afraid that Calame, not for the first time, is the tail wagging the dog. He is emerging as a kind of grand inquisitor, with more presumption than fits even such a position.

In suggesting Miller would have trouble inside the newsroom if she returned, he is acting as a bully. It is poisonous in any organization to encourage infighting within the staff, and, it seems to me, Calame is suggesting it.

There have been many negatives in the entire history of the CIA news leak scandal, including abridgement of the First Amendment, rapacious power grabs by the federal judge, Thomas Hogan, the assault against the press use of confidential sources to uncover wrongdoing in the government, and finally the feeding frenzy against a principled reporter, Judy Miller.

But all of these breaches would be compounded if great newspapers like the New York Times were to start distrusting their investigative reporters, and if editors and publishers were to start grilling their staff on every point of their stories as well as their methods of reporting, unless there is very good reason to do so.

Certainly, it is correct for reporters to be questioned. But if the questioning goes so far as to generate an atmosphere of distrust within the newsroom, it's going to be increasingly difficult for newspapers to function.

Now comes Calame with yet another indictment of Miller. I think he would have been more judicious had he let Sulzberger and Keller take care of this controversy for the moment and written later, after he had a chance to acquire more insight. I suspect there will be a second point of view about all this, that after being jailed for 85 days, Miller is being hounded for ideological reasons and that many of the attacks against her are undustified.

Unlike Okrent, Calame seems to want to be the big man at the Times. He is behaving like the special prosecutor, and if that habitually becomes his role, I think it's going to harm the Times considerably.

The L.A. Times doesn't have a public editor yet. It should be in no hurry to acquire one, or, if it decides it needs one, let's hope it hires an Okrent, not a Calame.


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