Interview: NYT's Public Editor on Bias in Coverage, Political Endorsements & Digital Challenges

Margaret Sullivan on being a representative of the readers, the ethics in journalism in the era of digital media and more.

Margaret Sullivan. Credit: Derek Gee / Buffalo News

Margaret Sullivan. Credit: Derek Gee / Buffalo News

New York: In the nearly four years that Margaret Sullivan has worked as the New York Times’s public editor, she periodically raised tough questions on ethics in journalism that pertain not just to the Times, but resonate in newsrooms world over.

Sullivan’s critical commentary shines the spotlight on what drives key newsroom decisions at a time when new platforms are radically reshaping how stories are told and read. She takes pride in seeing herself as being a “representative of readers” rather than an “apologist for the Times”.

In May, Sullivan will join The Washington Post as its media columnist. In his note to the newspaper’s staff announcing her move, NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said Sullivan “ushered the position into a new age”.

Weeks before signing off at the Times, Sullivan spoke to Meera Srinivasan in New York in an interview for The Wire.

You are about to complete your stint at the New York Times. It is a job that you badly wanted and worked hard to get. Now that you’ve had it for four years, what does it feel like? What did you learn?

I feel as though it has been an incredible privilege. That is the main feeling I have. And it has been very growth-producing for me, personally and journalistically. It has been a great opportunity to be here at the New York Times, which is such a great publication with such a storied history, a lot of journalistic talent and a lot of exciting things happening at all times.

It has also happened at a very interesting time in journalism because the digital transformation is really in full swing now. I have said this before, but I really do feel this is true, that when I came here in 2012 I felt as though I was coming to a newspaper. It felt very familiar to me after a career in newspapers – the front page meetings, the sports people and culture people. It was bigger, but it was essentially the same.

And now I feel as though the Times is really a digital media company, not so much a newspaper. Of course it puts out a great newspaper, but it is much more than that with the strides that it is making in virtual reality, in its express team, social media and reader engagement – all of that is very new and very, very interesting.

So it has been a great perch for seeing what’s happening in journalism.

What has it been like to be part of this interesting transition? There tends to be a lot of pressure when a traditionally print publication transitions or expands to digital platforms.

I don’t know if it is the most interesting phase because we are still in the midst of it. I think the only thing you can say about it is that it is happening, and that the pace of change is actually getting faster. But the move away from making print the focal point to making online and now mobile the focal point is a massive change. It can’t be overestimated. It is not like the old way, but it is really fun in a lot of ways. It is very exciting.

I have a blog post on the desk right now. When I push the button, which I am going to do in an hour, anyone in the world can read that.

I have had a lot of difficult days and experiences during this job. It has been very uncomfortable many times because I have tried to never be an apologist for the Times, but rather to be quite challenging. I have always felt like the biggest insult anyone could make of me was that I was an apologist for the paper. That’s not my role. My role is to be an independent outsider who represents the reader. So I have tried to stay very close to that.

But as you see, I sit in an office at the Times and I have a helper who is a Times employee and my copy editor, who is working on my post right now, is a Times employee. So you are both an insider and an outsider. And it can be very stressful. There is a lot of inherent tension in that role.

It is funny, now that I am moving on to this new position at the Washington Post people keep saying to me: “Oh, that’s going to be fun.” And I think to myself, “Wow, what a concept,” because this really has not been fun. It has been very interesting and I am very happy that I got a chance to do it. I am very glad that I was so direct at trying to get here, it was worthwhile. I would not change that.  But overall, I cannot say that it was fun.

In my previous job, as the editor of a newspaper [The Buffalo News], in tough times that was also very stressful. So when people say “Oh that will be fun” it seems very foreign.

The demands of digital media today, whether it is the web or mobile, put a very different kind of pressure on reporters and editors. Do you think that impacts the rigour that is associated with sound print journalism that newspapers like the Times are known for?

I would not say it is affecting the rigour, I would say it is affecting the practices. I do not think that the practices have quite caught up with the traditional standards of the Times. For example, today I am writing about how when stories get edited, and in the process they get put online, editors at times feel the need to make changes and do so without notifying readers.

You would not think of doing that at an earlier time. If you were going to do another story you would have to wait until the next day’s print edition. One of the editors with whom I spoke just called it the “blessing and curse of real-time capability,” which I thought was very well put. It is great, and also brings problems. I think there is a real push and pull there.

The New York Times, and every respectable newspaper, has always felt it is more important to get it right than to get it first. Everyone would still say that but there are nevertheless these pressures to keep up with an ever-faster pace of competition online and you don’t want to be three or four hours behind the curve.

Recently, when Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, died the Times was making sure that he had, in fact, passed away and it was not just a rumour. The Times was one of the latest, if not the latest, major news organisation to report Scalia’s death. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said to me there was something about the sourcing that he was not comfortable with and that is one where you cannot walk back, you cannot recover from that. If The New York Times were to put out on its push alerts that a Supreme Court justice had died when he hadn’t, it would have never lived it down. Using what might seem to be undue caution is probably a good idea.

In one of your recent columns, you have taken a very strong position on anonymous sources – something you have been writing on consistently. Do you think reporters are resorting to anonymous sources more often than they did earlier?

No, I think it is a long time practice. Whenever I talk or write about this I try to make it clear that I do not see it as a black and white issue. I am not in favour of stomping out anonymous sources or banning them. I think many great stories require people to keep their identities private and confidential.

But, there is such a thing as the overuse of anonymous sources – particularly when government officials are allowed to say things in the press without any accountability or when people are quoted in ways that are self-serving or serve their organisation. That, I think, can reflect a certain kind of laxness and lack of rigour that should be guarded against.

Could you talk a little bit about the culture of endorsements here? Many newspapers in the US endorse a candidate in elections. The Times has endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. In India this rarely ever happens.

It is a long time practice for newspapers to do this [here]. The way that the Times would describe it or my old newspaper would, is “We have the opportunity to sit down with the candidates, ask them questions, get to know them and make some judgments. So it is a service to the reader to do that – use our ability to get under the surface and then reflect that in a recommendation to our readers about who to vote for.” I think that is true and it can be useful.

Sometimes readers resent it because they feel “I just want you to be a neutral news source. I just want you to tell me the news. Don’t wear your politics on your sleeve”. To that, the New York Times would say: “Well, we are not wearing our politics on our sleeves. That is the editorial side, the news side is something very different”.

But I do not think most readers are likely to make that distinction.

It is very interesting that you say that. In this culture of editorial endorsements isn’t there a risk of that position impacting news judgment, subtly if not explicitly? There is a view – you too had tweeted the Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel’s piece on ‘The media malpractice that’s hurting everyone but Trump’ – that the mainstream media’s coverage of presidential candidates has not been fair or balanced. What is your view?

I don’t think that the endorsement influences the news coverage. But what I do think is that at a place like the New York Times or many others papers – you have likeminded people on both sides of the editorial-news divide. So everyone understands that ‘That’s the New York Times, they have a lot of people there who think about politics in a similar way and you see who they endorsed, they are for Hillary’, the reader might think how can that not creep into news judgment. Well, I don’t think it does in an overt way, but I think these readers have a point.

The head office of the New York Times in Manhattan. Credit: Devyn Caldwell/Flickr CC 2.0

The head office of the New York Times in Manhattan. Credit: Devyn Caldwell/Flickr CC 2.0

In your opinion have newspapers here, including the Times, been balanced in their coverage? You have commented on the paper covering more of the “horse race” than of “issues”.

I think the Times has certainly given incredible resources to covering the campaign. There are many readers who object to the amount of coverage the newspaper has given to Clinton. It is true that there has been a great deal of Clinton coverage, more than you can imagine. I did a count at one point comparing the coverage – just on the Democratic side – of Sanders to Clinton. Sanders got a fraction of that. Some of that is a news judgment. The Times has made a news judgment that Clinton is probably going to be the nominee, therefore is deserving of more scrutiny and more coverage, but those who favour Sanders would say “You are not even giving him a chance. How does he stand a chance if you don’t treat him equally?” So I would not say the coverage has been equal. In fact, I would say it has been unequal. But I think there is a reasonable rationale for that.

Sure, you mentioned news judgment. It is the editor’s prerogative. But in the case of a newspaper like the Times that has a great legacy, some of its readers may base their decisions on what it says. In that sense, isn’t the paper also playing a prescriptive role?

That is true. I am always aware of this. The Times, because of its position in this sort of media firmament, has great influence. For one thing, it is this incredible platform. A lot of people see it. It also influences how other media outlets handle things. So there is a tremendous responsibility there, and I think that responsibility is taken very seriously. But with the political coverage, I do think the coverage of Clinton has been excessive.

All big media houses that seek to function independently have some pressure points around them. What are the sources of pressure for The Times? Does much of the pressure come from advertisers? Or from politicians? 

Right now the biggest pressure point is that the business model has disintegrated and is being reinvented, but not easily. I think everyone is aware that print advertising has collapsed, not entirely but certainly substantially. The Times has done an admirable job of getting digital subscriptions. It does not fully make up the difference, though.

Everyone thought digital advertising will fill in the gap, it hasn’t fully filled in the gap. When you think of advertising on mobile that is even less, so people talk about print dollars, digital dimes and mobile pennies for advertising. I have not done the math, but that gives you a sense of how difficult it is. Even now something like 70% of the New York Times’s revenue comes from print – either print advertising or print subscriptions. It is a very big hole to fill.

You said you are very conscious about not being an apologist for the Times and that you see yourself as a representative of the readers. Based on your experience as public editor, particularly during this print-to-digital transition, what do you think readers want today?

I can make some general statements about what they want. Many of these people are subscribers – they are paying for the privilege of reading the New York Times. They really want it to have the highest standards of accuracy and fairness. Any hint of bias – whether it is in the coverage of the Middle East or whether it is in politics – is something they really object to.

Another issue that has come to the fore in recent years is this question of false equivalency – when you say “Well, some people say this and some people say that” and just leave it at that. Readers really object to that. On certain subjects, for example climate change, they would like their news source to say “In fact, here is the established truth”. So, the more the paper can do that, the happier the readers are.

What about coverage of the Middle East? Could you elaborate on how coverage plays out?

Certainly. The coverage of Israel and the Palestinians is one of the things that people complain the most about to the public editor. It is a very difficult issue because people see it very much from their point of view and there is not a lot of middle ground.

It seems as though no matter what the New York Times writes there will be complaints about bias. The minute you start correcting for bias on one side, people on the other side would accuse of you of bias. It is a really tough question and comes up in almost every story, because people have such a historical reason for viewing the coverage in a particular way. There is really no win. So the best the Times can do is to try and provide context, to be as straightforward as possible and get out of the way and let the events tell the story – but that is very challenging.

I have decided not to try to write about every single issue that came up with the Middle East. Sometime in 2014, I wrote a big piece on the Middle East where I tried to take a thorough look at it because I did not want to be coming back to it all the time. Every time you write about it, you just get bombarded by people on one side or the other with very, very strong feelings. I made some observations and recommendations. I did the best I could with it. It seemed to go over reasonably well.

You have seen the Times as a reader of news, followed it as another newspaper’s editor and now as its public editor. What in your opinion are the paper’s biggest strengths and where could it do better?

The strong points certainly have to do with the journalistic talent that is here and the very large staff – the Times has a newsroom staff of more than 1,300 and that is extremely large, almost without comparison. People spend their careers trying to get to the New York Times and so it is able to pick some of the best people. So the depth and the quality of the talent here is very, very high and that tends to make for some great journalism.

I think what concerns me is that sometimes the Times is self-satisfied. And because it occupies this exalted position it tends to be defensive of that and not always open to “Well, how could we do it better?” or “Maybe this critic or reader, blogger or public editor, maybe, they are right about this” – that is a relatively rare thing to hear. What you tend to hear is “This is why we did it this way and this is correct”. So there is a sense of “It is right because we did it”. I don’t think that is the best approach in such a difficult media environment, it probably played better years ago and less well now. It is the flip side of excellence, you know. The coin has excellence on one side and self-satisfaction on the other.

You’ve been teaching students of journalism at Columbia and City University New York. What do you tell them? You once observed that journalists today need a variety of skills like making videos and editing in order to meet the demands of the industry, but you also encourage them to have a specialisation. What is it that they should retain from older practices?

I think the values of old-fashioned journalism still hold sway. You are trying to get as close to the truth as you can for your readers; trying to do that without being influenced by any outside forces. So the Times has this expression ‘without fear or favour’. I think that says a lot.

It is the idea of staying close to your values and serving the citizens of this country, or now, of this world by providing really important, crucial information and to do it with a great sense of integrity and independence. The core stays the same. And the skills of whether you are blogging or tweeting or making a video or maybe using a virtual reality camera, that is all process. I don’t think that it goes to the heart of what I hope young journalists are thinking about.

I wrote this strange little blog post about a year ago – it was called ‘Everything I know about journalism in 395 words’. I did it because I was going to teach the last class that I thought I was going to teach at Columbia – at least for the time being – and I was thinking before I went over there, “what would I like these students to really know?”

I made some notes, went into class and told them: “I am probably not going to teach here anymore so here are a few things that I learned” and I just spouted them and they took it in. I came in the next day and thought I should write a little blog post about this and I did, it probably was one of the most popular, most seen and most circulated things I ever wrote. It was just small things – it cautioned people to be careful on Twitter, to understand that you can make a career-killing mistake because you are publishing to the world, to do important work, to do work that really matters – so everything from don’t screw up on Twitter to do important, meaningful journalism. You know, I don’t think there was anything too profound there but people seemed to like it.

What do you plan to do in your columns for the Post when you take up that role?

I have a long list of story and column ideas that I am eager to get to but in a way it is an outgrowth of what I am doing here because I think that the things that interest me about journalism and the role of the press – I’ll be able to continue to write about them but just not using the lens of the New York Times’s readers.

I think it will be freeing to get outside that – like right now if I am interested in writing about the First Amendment and privacy I have to find a way to do it within the confines of the New York Times but I think it will be much more wide open in my new role. I am really interested in the way the digital transformation has changed our culture and our society. I don’t want to write about them in some sort of boring white paper-ish way but rather in a way that speaks to how it affects people and their lives. Like this conflict between Apple and the FBI. Everybody has an iPhone now, what’s going on matters to so many people. I think there are some interesting, bigger issues that I could get at.

You have proactively chosen certain themes even in your role as the Times’s public editor. You dug up a 2005 report in the context of Edward Snowden, right?

Yes, that was interesting to do. I know that there were people at the Times who would have preferred that I not look back like that. Well there was a reason to look at it because of Snowden. I have tried to find the current reason to look at a bigger topic. In that case the subject of when do you hold back a story at the government’s request – that is a tough decision to make. I thought that the Times waited too long to publish that story – 13 months. Thirteen months, that is a long time with an election in between.

And the Times‘s readers. Is there anything you’d like to say about them?

I must say that I have been extremely impressed by the high intelligence and the passion of the New York Times reader. When I read the comments on stories, I see that they really add a lot to the stories that they comment on. It is almost like another news source to see what the readers bring to the table – their knowledge, their prosecutorial vision of how a story should have been written or edited, they are not always right but they are often very interesting. It is a very smart, passionate readership that I have actually learned a lot from. And they make you very careful too. You cannot make mistakes, they will jump all over you. I found that out on Twitter as well.

As a result, you have to be very open to ‘fessing up and acknowledging and fixing your errors as quickly as possible. That is the only way to survive. It really is.

Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2015-16.