Exit interview: Brisbane says New York Times Public Editor job is ‘not a conversation’

Arthur Brisbane’s New York Times email address has been shut off, and he sounds pretty happy about it.

“I’m trying to decompress,” he told me two days after his stint as the fourth public editor of The New York Times came to an end. “…Yesterday and today are the first two working days that I haven’t had to worry about the e-mail queue and what’s coming in and what’s in the paper, and you know what? I am enjoying it.”

Brisbane spent two years as the Public Editor whose inbox, voicemail and to a lesser extent Twitter account were the designated targets for concerns and complaints about Times journalism. Perhaps he can be forgiven for enjoying the sudden silence of being the former public editor of The New York Times.

(Disclosure: I was on an initial list of candidates to replace Brisbane. The paper hired former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan as its fifth Public Editor.)

The ‘Truth Vigilante’ post

A few months before he left the job, I asked Brisbane to do an exit interview. He agreed, but said it would have to wait until he was out of the position. He also made it clear that the last thing he wanted to do was rehash specific columns and opinions.

But of course we talked about his infamous “truth vigilante” blog post and his final column, which said, “Across the paper’s many departments … so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.”

Not surprisingly, Brisbane cited the vigilante post when asked which of his columns and blog posts would likely be most remembered. He didn’t seem happy about it.

“For better or worse, it’s probably the goddamn fact checking thing,” he said.

Brisbane is still trying to grapple with why it elicited such a strong reaction.

“Understanding the underlying reasons why the response was so strong is not one of my strong points,” he said. “I have a theory on it, but I’m not entirely sure. I think the headline is provocative. ‘Truth Vigilante’ is a provocative phrase, but frankly when I wrote the headline, you know, I was doing what a lot of headline writers do: capture the idea, get the reader’s attention. And it was a catchy phrase. I still think that people read the phrase in multiple ways; it’s one of these things you look at, it’s like a Rorschach … people see different things in that phrase.”

Brisbane doesn’t view that post as a mistake. I asked him to name something he regretted or got wrong, and he said he occasionally committed errors of fact. But he didn’t point to an opinion or piece of writing that he wishes he could take back.

“I don’t really have, I don’t really look back and say, ‘Well, shit, you know that was a fundamental mistake,’ ” he said. “I mean, to the extent that there are shortcomings that one might identify in my term, I don’t think there are shortcomings of my strategy, my tactics. They might be shortcomings that one would identify in my mindset, reporting skills, whatever … You bring your best to the job, you do the best you can, and you know, I’m satisfied when I look back.”

‘It’s not a conversation’

Overall, Brisbane said the position was challenging. One area where he said he struggled was incorporating social media into his work.

“It’s an alien realm for me,” he said. “I didn’t dive into it whole hog, as pretty much everybody who is a media commentator has observed. I understand that my successor is going to do that more in-depth, and I wish her best.”

He said he focused his attention on identifying specific complaints of merit and examining those, rather than doing quick hits on topics of the day, or collecting the reaction from social media and elsewhere.

“I preferred the paradigm that says there’s an article, there’s a complaint, and there’s a point of view that I’m going to arrive at and express, and that is the process,” he said.  “It’s not a conversation. I can fully appreciate that one might say it is a conversation, and it goes on and on and on. That’s fine if somebody wants to take that approach. It’s not the approach I took.”

His preference was to avoid the rapid fire approach of curating reaction and offering quick-hit opinions online.

“There’s a view — and I understand it — that because digital media has sped up the pace of publication, that therefore every topic needs to be addressed at a rapid pace,” he said. “I preferred not to be pressured by the increased frequency of digital reporting. I preferred not to be pressured by that to arrive at a point of view before I was ready. I frankly thought that the schedule of the print column with the option to publish something on the blog was well suited to taking the time, getting to a comfort point, saying my piece and moving on.”

Brisbane anticipated the amount of scrutiny his work would attract. But one thing he didn’t foresee was how quickly he would have to get up to speed on a wide variety of topics in order to be able to write about them.

“There’s a temptation to see the job as one that focuses on journalistic controversies, and to fail to recognize something that actually comes before that and is very sensitive and very hard,” he said. “That is, before you get to the question of the journalistic controversy you have to understand what the heck people are talking about…. You certainly have to study the issue, sort of to master the facts of a particular story.”

Basically, Brisbane said, “when you wade into something as a public editor you best not wade in as an ignoramus.” So he approached the position as a reporting job.

“I wasn’t shy to reach out to other journalists whose opinions I thought carried weight,” he said. “And you know it’s just like any other article, you’ve got space of 1,100 words for the print column, and so you have to sort of do triage on what’s most important and try to construct it … I wanted the pieces to be lively enough to engage readers well in print and online, so the writing was important to me.”

The newsroom relationship

Brisbane recognized that telecommuting was a challenge in this job. He continued to be based in his home in Massachusetts and would spend two or more days a week in New York at the Times.

“I think it’s a disadvantage to have to commute such a distance,” he said. “I think it’s an advantage to be in the newsroom. That’s based on kind of a gut feeling.”

Times journalists were for the most part cooperative and responsive when he reached out, according to Brisbane. He rarely had to push to get a response to an inquiry from his office.

“I felt that the Times staff members that I interacted with certainly accepted the [Public Editor] position, functioned as though it existed by right, and were overall, in terms of their willingness to respond and interact with me, very constructive,” he said.

As a news organization, he said that “in the relative scheme of things [the Times is] excellent.”

One qualifier on that assessment was what he highlighted in his farewell column. Brisbane wrote of the “political and cultural progressivism” that pervades the Times, and in his view plays a role in how it delivers coverage.

“I think I made in my final comment an effort to identify two things that I think I wish the paper was alert to,” he said. “I don’t really want to kind of rehash them, but I do think that those things operate as qualifiers on my rating of excellent.”

What’s next

New Public Editor Margaret Sullivan is now charged with evaluating coverage and responding to complains and concerns. Brisbane said they briefly met in person before he departed, but declined to detail what they talked about. He also said he will follow the practice of his predecessors and not comment on how his successor does the job.

“My sense of it is that after you have done the job, you appreciate that it’s a challenging and difficult job, and that there will be plenty of adversaries out there for the Public Editor,” he said. “It just seems inhumane to add to the list of adversaries by making one’s own comment. So, yeah, I get that completely and I will not be adding to the list of adversaries for the new Public Editor.”

Brisbane said his plan is to decompress for a period, and then get back to writing. He didn’t share specific plans, but it’s unlikely we’ll see him launch a blog.

“No, no I don’t think so,” he said. “On the one hand, I do admire people who do that … There are people who publish blogs that I think have every bit the same deliberative, thoughtful quality that the traditional print medium tend to establish. So it can be done very well, but it’s probably not something that I’m going to do. Whatever I do create, I am going to try to move beyond the frame of daily journalism.”

I told him that’s a shame, as he’d probably get lots of attention if he launched the Truth Vigilante blog.

“I would have to fulfill the promise of the phrase,” he said, laughing. “Who knows, in the right hand, The Truth Vigilante might be a pretty good trademark.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hamer/1654932749 John Hamer

    I met Art Brisbane (and Craig Silverman) at the ONO (Organization of News Ombudsmen) conference in Montreal last year. This is an excellent and revealing interview. QUESTION: Why are there so few fulltime public editors, reader representatives and
    news ombudsmen in the United States anymore? The Washington News Council (http://wanewscouncil.org) in Seattle functions as an “outside ombudsman” for the media in our state. To quote Brisbane: “I preferred the paradigm that says there’s an article, there’s a complaint, and there’s a point of view that I’m going to arrive at and express, and that is the process.” That’s EXACTLY what the WNC does when we hear a complaint in one of our open public hearings. You can watch our most recent one (“Leschi School Community vs. KIRO 7 TV”) on our website. IMHO, We actually have MORE credibility than ombudsmen because we’re not on any media organization’s payroll, plus ours is the view of a diverse and fair-minded committee, not just one individual. At our last two hearings, we invited the audience to vote and later the public to vote online. What’s wrong with that? However, we’re now the only news council left in the U.S. There should be more — and if the media want to regain public trust, they’d actively support the concept. What are they afraid of? Transparency? Accountability? Openness? Isn’t that what they demand of everyone else?

  • Clayton Burns

    The idea that a serious problem at The NYT is a progressive trend is absurd. Despite its strengths, The NYT often does not have the goods. That is the issue that the new Public Editor should focus on. Anyone carefully tracing the training of the CIA in “Class 11,” the fortunes of the Marine Corps University, and West Point academics should be able to see that the systems of intelligence in the US are biased towards backwards cognition. After its painful prevarication, the White House admitted that the Libya attack was terrorism. But no reporter, including at The NYT, was ready to perform the most elementary analysis of the cognitive background.
    NYT: Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts
    Key intelligence operatives and contractors were among the personnel
    pulled from Benghazi after the assault.
    Guardian: Mark Thompson set to deliver series of lectures at Oxford University …
    13 Sep 2012 – Mark Thompson, You are allowed to respond to comments and to ask questions. The Marine Corps University instructor was Mark Moyar.

  • Clayton Burns

    It would be hard to find a better example of insensitivity to language. Why not “Truther Vigilante?”
    ‘Truth Vigilante’
    a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly: a self-appointed doer of justice
    of, relating to, or using a summary proceeding

  • http://downpuppy.blogspot.com/ Downpuppy

    Brisbane always seemed a bit dim in his columns, but this interview really clears up any doubt.