By  on May 17, 2006

NEW YORK — The incumbent New York Times ombudsman — or "public editor," as the paper of record prefers to call him — has found himself the object of exactly the kind of criticism ombudsmen are expected to dish out.

Byron "Barney" Calame is accused — by members of the Times staff, and an increasing number of media critics — of lacking basic news judgment, not being able to see the forest for the trees and missing the context of it all. The charges are a fairly unusual and serious rap against an ombudsman, whose breed is accustomed to internal cross-criticism but rarely for alleged sins so elemental.

Since taking the job in May 2005, Calame has written occasionally about the Times' weapons of mass destruction coverage and taken on the use of anonymous sourcing at the paper. But more often than not, his columns have addressed specific articles and whether corners were cut, whether the facts were as tightly pinned down as they should have been, and whether the paper used deceptive means to prove a point. All valid concerns of an ombudsman, of course.

There was an entire column given to the issue of a Times Magazine story about torture that used "staged" images by the famed photographer Andres Serrano. (Calame argued the Times should have made it clear the pictures were artistic renderings.) In another column, he wrote about Deal Book, the Times' business blog that provides links to other news outlets. (He argued the Times should run corrections when stories it linked to turn out to be inaccurate.)

None of this has earned him high marks with Slate Magazine's press critic, Jack Shafer, who wrote a searing attack on Calame on the Web site last Wednesday that was headlined "The Public Editor as Duffer: The Dreadful Barney Calame." And as it happens, there are no plaudits coming from New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, either. Stanley compares him with the Clintons' tormentor in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

"The problem with him," she said to WWD, "is that [Calame is] like Kenneth Starr. He doesn't know when to step back and ask what any of it means. And unlike Kenneth Starr, what he's writing about isn't a presidency. It's spelling and ellipses and semicolons."

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