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.”
Admittedly, Stanley is not the most impartial judge of Calame’s tenure. In September, Calame wrote an exceptionally critical article that took Stanley to task for a piece she’d done right after Hurricane Katrina in which she described Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera as having “nudged” an Air Force rescue worker out of the way “so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety.” Rivera had disputed the characterization, saying he had not nudged the rescue worker, and Calame bristled when Times higher-ups reviewed the tape themselves, found no evidence of physical coercion and still declined to run a correction.
But while Stanley’s opinion of the public editor might be colored by her experience with him, it is hardly unique among people at the Times. In conversations with nearly a dozen Times employees, not one disputed the central claim of Shafer’s Slate column, which was that Calame operates more like a traffic cop than a serious detective. In fact, the kindest thing anyone really had to say about the public editor was that he was “a nice enough fellow.”
Three Times reporters, speaking anonymously, invoked the metaphor of the “forest” and the “trees” as a way of saying Calame was dogged about identifying minor journalistic infractions, but largely failed to pick up on the bigger issues of what has gone on (and what has gone wrong) at the Times. While the reporters said Calame is well-intentioned, they complained he lacks a sense of scale; that he’s given too much space to petty controversies, while larger issues get ignored.
A business desk employee preferred the metaphor of the mosquito, someone who bites, but never seriously wounds. “He squandered a big opportunity,” the employee said.
Slightly more tactfully, veteran Times reporter Steve Weisman invoked the symbol of the baseball umpire: “He seems to think of his job as being someone who calls balls and strikes, rather than trying to understand the institution culturally or sociologically the way Dan did.”
Weisman was referring to Dan Okrent, who preceded Calame and held the job for two years, which is the length of tenure for the Times ombudsmanship. And as many sources pointed out, Okrent was a tough act to follow. Though his columns often angered people at the Times as well (there were some big disagreements with Times executive editor Bill Keller), he focused on large and sometimes divisive topics, particularly with regards to complaints that the paper is too liberal (from neoconservatives) and that it was too conservative (from the political left.) And he had no problem doing a splashy piece that took real aim at the paper, and slapping it down with wit and humor.
“I fear that Calame has the temperament of a judge, not a prosecutor, and the public editor needs to be both,” said Ken Auletta, The New Yorker’s media writer, and a longtime Times observer. An example of this, Auletta said, was a Times piece about wiretapping by the Bush administration without a warrant, which the paper acknowledged had been held for a year at the request of White House officials. Calame had sought comment from Keller and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. on their reasoning for making the agreement. When the two stonewalled him, Calame lashed out, but Auletta thought he should have gone further.
“He should have gone into the newsroom,” said Auletta. “There were other people who knew what that story was, and I wished that he had risked being offensive to dig into that story.”
Similarly, Weisman wondered why Calame hadn’t done a column about the Stephen Colbert speech at the White House Correspondents dinner, in which the comedian skewered the President with a cavalcade of jokes about his falling approval ratings and his handling of foreign policy. The Times largely ignored the speech (as had the Washington Post), leading to a flood of vituperative letters from people on the far left who claimed it was another example of the paper pandering to the Bush administration.
“It was one of the biggest attacks I’d seen in a long time, and I defend the Times,” said Weisman. “[But] it just seemed like something he might want to write about.”
Calame, however, doesn’t seem interested in addressing the criticism of his tenure. An e-mail sent to him last week asking him to comment on Shafer’s column received the following response: “Thank you for checking with me. I don’t have any comment on Mr. Shafer’s column.”