By: Joe Strupp
Public Editor Byron Calame of The New York Times said he was not concerned that the lack of cooperation he received from Executive Editor Bill Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in his attempt to probe the newspaper’s actions in the domestic spying case would affect his ability to do his job in the future.
But he hinted that he can best pursue an issue within the newspaper by being in touch with those editors most connected to the issue, and he appeared miffed that he did not get such help in this case, as he detailed in this past Sunday’s Public Editor column.
Calame would not comment when asked if he was surprised that the editor and publisher would not cooperate: “There wasn’t any cooperation in this case and I made my best effort. If they are not commenting I think it is good to tell readers that.”
He told E&P he could still do his job despite the stonewalling, but appeared frustrated by it. “I believe last week’s column shows the public editor can function in the absence of cooperation in some cases,” he said. “I am going to keep doing it one day at a time. I can’t worry about it if I am able to put something on the Web or in the Sunday New York Times that is going to help people understand.”
Calame’s comments followed his Sunday column, in which he addressed the recent Times report that President Bush authorized eavesdropping on citizens without court orders. The paper’s Dec. 16 story on the issue drew scrutiny after it was revealed that editors held off running the story for more than a year, and further attention when Newsweek reported that Bush had met with Keller and Sulzberger in early December in an effort to stop them from running the story — a detail the Times never disclosed.
In his column, Calame revealed that both Keller and Sulzberger declined to speak with him about the issue, noting that they ignored a list of 28 questions that Calame had sent them. “Despite this stonewalling, my objectives today are to assess the flawed handling of the original explanation of the article’s path into print, and to offer a few thoughts on some factors that could have affected the timing of the article,” he wrote Sunday.
Calame then went on to criticize the paper’s handling of the story, explaining that “If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the omitted sensitive information (about the Bush meeting) would assure readers that great caution had been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated.”
Neither Keller nor Sulzberger returned calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Later on Tuesday, Calame updated his column at his online Web Journal.
“Numerous readers,” he wrote, “have asked that I publish the questions that I have prepared for Mr. Keller. I have no present intention to publish them, for several reasons. First, the fundamental concerns I have are raised in the column. Second, the questions are just that — questions designed to elicit information for me to evaluate and decide what is important and worth conveying to readers. The whole list of questions was cited in the column to illustrate the wholesale rejection of the queries; the answers are what is relevant when it comes to individual questions.
“Third, some of the 35 questions have never been presented to Mr. Keller; it wouldn’t be fair or appropriate to go public with them when he hasn’t had a chance to respond.”
He also revealed that emails from many readers “have inquired about my thoughts on a possible link between the timing of the article and the recent election in Iraq or the congressional debate on the Patriot Act. To fit the column into the allotted space, I had to cut a paragraph that addressed those two points.
“For those who are interested, here is that paragraph: ‘Despite the complaints of administration supporters, I’m prepared to accept Mr. Keller’s statement that the timing of the eavesdropping exclusive wasn’t a Times effort to detract from upbeat assessments of the Iraqi elections or to stir emotions in advance of the congressional debate on the Patriot Act.'”
Calame told E&P he did not plan to pursue Keller or Sulzberger on the eavesdropping subject again or write about it again at this point.
The public editor, who serves under a two-year contract that runs out in June 2007, said he had never received such a lack of cooperation from Sulzberger and Keller in the past, adding that past responses “haven’t always been everything that a public editor wants, but they have answered.” He described his position as operating “with total independence” adding that “I don’t think in terms of cooperation. I think in terms of looking at the process from an isolated position outside the newsroom.”
When asked if he believed future stonewalling by editors might hurt his ability to cover an issue, he said, “it depends on the subject.” He also would not say what course he might take if Keller and Sulzberger continued to decline to cooperate in the future. “I will cross that bridge when I come to it,” he said. “I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”