The self-undermining public editor

Margaret Sullivan (right) will replace Arthur Brisbane at the 'Times.' ()
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Since the Times' new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, began the job last month, she's received praise from all quarters for her initial handling of the delicate position.

I've held out, despite being impressed with the improvement Sullivan has managed in the role so far over her predecessor in a very short time, because I don't think the whole question of how effective that role can be is determined by the quality of the person in the role. It's also the structure of the organization around her.

Most of the praise has been warranted so far. She's more prolific and more public; she seems reasonable about balancing what's fair to her colleagues at the Times and what she owes her readers.

But the person in this role, I have always thought, must view him or herself fundamentally as a reporter. That means following all the reporting rules when you're writing a story. The fact that at the end of the blog post or column it is your prerogative, and sometimes your obligation, to make some kind of recommendation only increases this responsibility.

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The current matter concerns writer Andrew Goldman. (Disclosure: I'm friendly with him and overlapped with him for about a year at The New York Observer in 2000.)

Goldman writes the "Talk" column at the back of The New York Times Magazine. Goldman took a light ribbing over the weekend from writer Jennifer Weiner about his most recent installment, in which he asked the actress Tippi Hedren a pretty sensitive question: Did she ever consider sleeping with Alfred Hitchcock?

Keep in mind that the star of The Birds has spoken publicly about sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. The new HBO movie, The Girl, depicts it all. Goldman is asking whether, when Hitchcock attempted to blackmail her into having sex, threatened to destroy her career if she didn't, and stalked her, she ever thought of giving in. She answers quickly that she did not.

Jennifer Weiner's tweet was a legitimate critique: Was an interviewer for the Times Magazine really asking an actress whether she slept her way to the top?

But it wasn't contextual and it wasn't really accurate. And what's more, we should remember that the whole template for this column, the whole reason the magazine's editor Hugo Lindgren maintained the franchise and put a terrier of an interviewer like Goldman in the position to write it each week, was to push hard on story subjects on issues they're writing, acting, talking publicly about or being gossiped about.

Goldman's responses were childish; I strongly suspect nobody else was there for him to run them by, who might have told him to get away from his smartphone. And it got worse and worse. (He later apologized to Weiner.)

But what we are really talking about is the Twitter behavior of a freelance columnist for the Times Magazine.

Sullivan suggests Goldman was lucky not to be fired, and reproduces the questions she asked and the answers she received from Goldman's editor, and even interviewed his interlocutors on Twitter about their reactions to Goldman's original column and his behavior on Twitter.

As she told Joe Pompeo earlier today, though, she did not contact Goldman himself. In her column, Sullivan seems to take Goldman's career rather lightly.

While we all know that regular columnists for the Times, whether on contract or on staff, live from that work, it is only the institutional view from the Times that would characterize such writers, doubtless selected by the magazine's editor with care, as "easily replaceable freelancers," as Sullivan did in her column last night.

And the institutional view is precisely the one the public editor of the Times must not take.

Upon taking the job, Sullivan introduced herself as situated "between the readers and the writers," and commented on the paradox of her position:

I am both of The Times’s newsroom and apart from it. I sit in its midst, working alongside the top-shelf reporters and editors here. Yet by definition, I must remain independent of the operation, because the public editor’s job is to serve as an in-house critic as well as the readers’ advocate in matters of journalistic integrity.

One of the ways she sees navigating that paradox is to report from inside the Times building, the way a reporter would; not the way an Internal Affairs Bureau cop would.

"I see my job largely as one of reporting and writing," she wrote.

But as we have often seen, the Times is not a monolithic institution. It is difficult to imagine what we might have learned from the Jayson Blair affair if Blair had not been interviewed himself. Those interviews exposed weaknesses in the Times' hiring and editorial processes, and exposed a pressurized newsroom culture that ultimately had to be overhauled.

From that point of view, interviewing the writer in this instance was pretty essential for any "reporter" on the case. Doubly so for a reporter who is in a position to publicly call into question the editor's decision not to fire him or her.

Sullivan told Pompeo she didn't have time to be interviewed about this today; she also sent Joe an email she sent to Goldman (after her post was already published). In it she characterized her story subject's boss as "the appropriate person for her to solicit a response from." He is, she wrote, "the editor of The Times magazine ... who is responsible for all of its content, including freelance contributions."

Thank God the reporters covering Jayson Blair and Jonah Lehrer knew better.