Last Thursday, The New York Times revealed that Clark Hoyt, 64, was becoming its third public editor. Hoyt won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his coverage of presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton’s history of depression and shock treatment therapy, and until recently was the Washington editor of Knight Ridder newspapers, where he oversaw some of the first articles in the U.S. that questioned the Bush administration’s case for going to war in Iraq. He spoke with WWD.
WWD: The public editor is a notoriously thankless job. Did anyone say you were crazy to take it?
Clark Hoyt: Yes, of course. But it’s also an opportunity to have a positive influence on the most important news organization in the United States.
WWD: One thing your predecessor, Barney Calame, left untouched — quite intentionally — were the opinion pages. Will you take the same approach?
C.H.: No. I don’t think anything in the paper is off-limits and I would explicitly include the opinion pages. It wouldn’t be appropriate to argue with editorial positions of the Times, but if opinion pieces are based on suppositions that are not factual, or if there are tonal issues, it’s fair game.
WWD: Times executive editor Bill Keller said he hired you partially because of Knight Ridder’s prewar coverage of Iraq. In retrospect, why do you think so few other news organizations showed skepticism?
C.H.: All I can say is that, at the time, we were focused on what we were doing. And we were certainly aware that we were often alone and wondered where the Times and The Washington Post were. But why they made the decisions they made and went down the roads they went down, I don’t know.
WWD: Oh, come on. Surely you have a theory.
C.H.: I can’t read their minds. But I think it’s fair to ask whether they were skeptical enough and whether there’s a tradition of leaning too much on official sources in exchange for entrée at the very highest levels.
This story first appeared in the May 8, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Given that so few people questioned the administration, what do you think when you hear about there being a “liberal bias” in the media?
C.H.: Republicans talk about a liberal bias and people on the left talk about how corporate media is controlled by conservatives. I think that when we do our jobs properly, we are skeptical of people in authority and we are constantly questioning the positions of those in power. When those people are conservative, they think we’re being liberal, and when a Democratic administration is in power, you hear about a vast right-wing conspiracy.
WWD: Until recently, the Justice Department was by and large hands off about reporters and their sources. Now, it appears all bets are off. How do you think this will affect investigative reporting?
C.H.: I think it’s a serious problem and I believe in a federal shield law.
WWD: Should this law shield people who may be commiting a crime by divulging a CIA officer’s identity to a reporter from The New York Times?
C.H.: Well, no underlying crime has ever been established [in the Valerie Plame case], and no one has ever been charged. But there’s a serious question as to whether Judith Miller couldn’t have avoided jail by working out the same arrangement that was reportedly offered to her and that other journalists in Washington accepted.
WWD: With advertising in decline across the newspaper business, the Times is facing the wrath of its shareholders. In his last column, Calame said that how the Times deals with this will determine the quality of the journalism produced. Do you think the role of an ombudsman will need to include the publisher and the business side of the newspaper?
C.H.: To the degree that it impacts the newsroom, that could become a source of interest [to me]. I certainly think the public editor has to look broadly at how the Times manages to thrive in a world in which people are getting their news in different ways, where the revenue base is changing. To be unaware of that is unrealistic.
WWD: So you will pay attention to Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s leadership?
C.H.: Yes. Whether I write about it or not depends on a whole lot of things.
WWD: What does that mean?
C.H.: It means I don’t know.