Ed Driscoll

Does Spock Wear a Mullet or a Crewcut in this Mirror Universe?

Scott Rosenberg, the co-creater of Salon, that liberal redoubt, asks at PBS, “Why Can’t Journalists Handle Public Criticism?”

If you’re an athlete, you’re used to it. If you’re an artist, critics will regularly take you down. If you are in government, the pundits and now the bloggers will show no mercy. If you’re in business, the market will punish you.

In all these cases, the seasoned professional learns to deal with it. But over and over today, we encounter the sorry spectacle of distinguished reporters losing it when their work is publicly attacked — or columnists sneering at the feedback they get in poorly moderated web comments.

Clark Hoyt recently concluded his tenure as the New York Times’ “public editor” (a.k.a. ombudsman) with a farewell column that described the reactions of Times journalists to his work. It seems the process of being critiqued in public in their own paper continues to be alienating and dispiriting to them. Journalists typically, and rightly, see themselves as bearers of public accountability — holding the feet of government officials, business leaders and other public figures to the fire of their inquiries. Yet, remarkably, a surprising number of journalists still find it hard to accept being held to account themselves.

One passage in Hoyt’s column jumped out at me as a fascinating window onto the psyche of the working journalist today:

Times journalists have been astonishingly candid, even when facing painful questions any of us would want to duck. Of course, journalists don’t relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else. A writer shaken by a conclusion I was reaching told me, if you say that, I’ll have to kill myself. I said, no, you won’t. Well, the writer said, I’ll have to go in the hospital. I wrote what I intended, with no ill consequences for anyone’s health.

“If you say that, I’ll have to kill myself”? Even in jest, the line suggests a thinness of skin entirely inappropriate to any public figure. “Journalists don’t relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else,” according to Hoyt. Yet the work of journalists so often involves criticizing others in public that it is something they must expect in return. Surely they, of all professionals, ought to be able to take what they readily dish out.

Of course, as one of the ancient cathedrals of what passes for liberalism today, it doesn’t help matters that the Times’ newsroom is trapped in multiple time warps, leaving the paper and its staffers in their own mirror universe:

  • They long for the days of the Lou Grant-era, when boring big city papers and three TV networks had a monopoly on the news and could push facts through the Playdough Fun Factory with impunity.
  • They view blogging through a prism of about half a decade ago: “Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas,” the Times’ James Risen was recently quoted as saying. Of course, when bloggers do break stories, they’re typically ignored or denigrated by the Gray Lady.

And it goes without saying that the Times’ man in the White House holds all of these positions, and to borrow Rosenberg’s phrase above, is equally thin-skinned himself.  As former ombudsman Daniel Okrent noted in 2004, when he wrote, “Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is”, much of the Times’ century-old worldview is shared by many of those living inside the borough of Manhattan. But when faced with criticism, the Gray Lady should make an effort to be more tolerant of the diversity of opinion that exists just beyond the Hudson river.