Sullivan says goodbye to Buffalo News to become NYT ombud

Buffalo News | Commentary | The Washington Post

Margaret Sullivan starts as public editor of The New York Times this weekend.  Her goodbye column for The Buffalo News, where she was editor, has many stories of journalistic derring-do -- the time she budged an obdurate mayor with a mocked-up front page skewering him, for instance -- as well as boasting about how The News still has a Washington bureau and a political cartoonist. Sullivan believes in government accountability, the importance of arts journalism to local coverage and investigative reporting, all of which suggests she's taking a heck of a toolkit to her new desk. What's an ombudsman if not a shadow editor, anyway?

Another tool -- Sullivan's iPhone:

Personally, I regularly have done live online chats with readers and I started my SulliView blog last January. Through the help of some of the tech-savvy reporters on the staff, I've even learned to shoot video on my iPhone and post it to YouTube and onto my blog. I will carry these skills with me to my new position at the New York Times, where the public editor role will include blogging as well as writing a traditional print column.

Outgoing ombudsman Arthur Brisbane's goodbye column is still reverberating, in particular his claim that subjects like Occupy and gay marriage are "overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects" at The Times.

"The paper’s bias on cultural issues always been more profound than its bias on other issues," Seth Mandel writes in Commentary. He singles out one "puff piece" about an Occupy camp as an example of the former.

So how did the Times reporter covering the Occupy summer camp, Alan Feuer, tackle the ridiculous notion that these people should be allowed near children? He didn’t. Any possible danger to the children goes unmentioned, but the reporter did find time for some levity, joking about how there was a “lack of sufficiently radical activities,” such as, Feuer suggests, “shoot-the-banker archery.”

Arthur Brisbane probably didn’t find jokes about murdering bankers nearly as funny as Feuer or his editors at the Times did, so this type of coverage likely inspired Brisbane to express his discomfort with treating violent radicals as earnest goofballs.

Erik Wemple looked at more examples of The Times' Occupy coverage. The paper ran more than 800 articles on the subject between September and the end of November 2011, he says, highlighting a few that puncture Brisbane's thesis somewhat.

Documenting media bias is difficult work. It requires going through, in this case, hundreds upon hundreds of stories, flagging instances of attitude and possible slant, weighing the mass and comparing it all against the work of other publications. Brisbane apparently didn’t have the time or appetite for such work in the case of the paper’s Occupy coverage. So he threw out another lazy and unsupported allegation of media bias. In doing so, he joins a large group.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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