Hats off to Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ public editor, who is apparently the real deal. This week Sullivan showed her commitment to her mission as an ombudsman for the newspaper of record, appointed in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal, by highlighting an egregious conflict of interest in some of its coverage.
In so doing, she called attention to an embarrassing mistake (or worse) by her employer, but performed an important service for her true constituents -- the readers.
On Thursday, Sullivan wrote a post in her blog, the “Public Editor’s Journal,” questioning an article recently published in T, the NYT style magazine, titled “The Transformers,” after an unnamed reader flagged it for her. The article is a fairly standard breathless-tech piece profiling five technology entrepreneurs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.
Sullivan points out that the article was written by someone who is not a NYT staffer, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen -- and further notes that this particular writer is married to tech investor Marc Andreessen, who happens to hold a big stake in Airbnb. Even worse, nowhere in the article do Arrillaga-Andreessen or the NYT’s editors disclose this obvious connection.
The NYT public editor doesn’t pull any punches in her blog post, throwing a bit of shade on the quality of the content as she also questions its integrity: “Since the article reads as uncritical P.R. for the company, should readers have not been informed of this connection?” Zap!
Sullivan goes on to state that the conflict of interest was so clear that even a clear disclosure would have been insufficient: “A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one.”
After Sullivan’s blog post, the NYT appended a disclosure to the online version of the article and has also published an editors’ note in print. (As a side note, this kind of incident also highlights one of the big shortcomings of print -- the difficulty of getting relevant corrections and clarifications in front of the same eyeballs that saw the original story.)
While something of a tempest in a teapot by the standards of journalistic screw-ups, it clearly wasn’t the NYT’s finest moment in editorial terms. Either no one realized the connection (as T editor Deborah Needleman asserts), indicating a lack of basic knowledge of the sector, or someone realized it and let it slip, perhaps aware they would be doing a favor for some very wealthy, well-connected people.
Whatever happened, it’s heartening to see that Sullivan takes her job so seriously and is willing to rake her colleagues over the coals when appropriate -- and that the NYT gives her the independence and latitude to do it.