Q&A with Clark Hoyt
BRIAN LAMB, HOST, CSPAN: Clark Hoyt, can you remember the moment that the idea of you beginning the ombudsman of the ”New York Times” came to you?
CLARK HOYT, FORMER OMBUDSMAN, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it came to me in a phone call, Brian. I was on my way to being a professor for a semester at Davidson College in North Carolina, and I got a phone call from an editor at the ”New York Times” asking me if I might be interested in being if someone were to call me and ask me if I were interested in being public editor or ombudsman at ”The Times,” how would I respond. And I said, well, that’s I’d be interested in talking about that, and that’s the way it began.
LAMB: Why would you be interested at that time? What were your thoughts?
HOYT: Well, being an ombudsman is a difficult but intriguing job. It was to me before I had one, and the ”New York Times” is kind of the pinnacle of the newspaper profession, I believe, and so I thought it was an unusual opportunity, and I was definitely interested in it.
LAMB: What happened next?
HOYT: What happened next is there were a couple of phone calls about it, and then my wife and I were literally in an airport waiting lounge on our way to a vacation, and I got a call on my cell phone saying could you please come to New York and talk more seriously about it, and right after that vacation I did. And then the job was offered to me, and I took it.
LAMB: So what about the job once you got and by the way, who talked to you the most about what was required?
HOYT: Bill Keller, the executive editor, talked to the me the most.
LAMB: And what about what he told you that he wanted intrigued you?
HOYT: Well, that’s one of the interesting things about this job. There is no written description for it. Each I’m the third public editor of ”The Times.” Each of us has approached it in a different way, just as I’m sure my successor, Arthur Brisbane, will approach it in you know a different way, and all Bill Keller asked was that I help ”The Times” uphold its own high standards for journalism, and there was really no other description. I signed the most interesting contract you can imagine with the ”New York Times.” I had no boss. I did not report to Bill Keller. I did not report to Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, or Andy Rosenthal, the editorial page editor. I had complete independence to look into anything I chose to look into. I could not be fired unless I simply sat down and failed to perform in any way or unless I violated the written ethics policies of the ”New York Times.” Otherwise, I was there in a completely independent fashion, able to poke my nose in whatever I chose to poke it into.
LAMB: I read your column almost every Sunday. How many words did you write, and did they have to publish what you wrote?
HOYT: They did have to publish what I wrote. I my columns were about 1,100 words long each. I originally tried to hold them to 800 words, but you know a journalist and word length. It crept up until we I kept it at 1,100 words.
LAMB: And I know this is private, but once they said we want you to do this, at some point, somebody said here’s what we’re going to pay you. When you saw the amount of money they were going to pay you, and if the outside world knew what that was, would they say, ”Wow. That’s what I expect,” or, ”My God. He’s doing this for nothing.”
HOYT: You know I don’t know how the outside world would react to that because I really don’t. I don’t know what people would expect. The pay was fair. I was satisfied with it. It was not a tremendously luxurious amount for me because my wife is an editor at ”USA Today,” which is, as you know headquartered here in the Washington area. Our home is here, and so I commuted regularly to New York. I would go up to New York on Monday morning on Amtrak and come home on Wednesday night, and all of the expenses associated with that came out of my compensation from ”The Times.”
LAMB: You’re not there anymore at all.
HOYT: No. In fact, part of the contract was I could not have written for the ”New York Times” or worked for it in any way before I became public editor, and I cannot work for it or write for it in any way now that I am finished being public editor. The purpose behind that is to make sure that a former staffer isn’t trying to even the scores in some ways and to make sure that once in the job of public editor someone isn’t angling for some future post.
LAMB: Where would you put the ”New York Times” in American journalism if you if you ranked I know you had how many years did you work for ”Knight Ridder?”
HOYT: I worked for ”Knight Ridder” for 38 years, and I am very proud of that company. It no longer exists. As you know it was sold in 2006 to the McClatchy Company, which kept some of ”Knight Ridder’s” papers and sold and immediately resold others. I think the journalistic standards of ”Knight Ridder” were extremely high, second to none, and I was very proud of my career there.
But the ”New York Times” occupies a special place in American journalism and has for decades, partly because of the investment that the company has made over many, many years and high-quality journalism, partly simply because of the fact that it is the ”New York Times” located in New York, the media center of this country, and I think I said a moment ago that it’s the pinnacle, and it really is.
LAMB: As you know more than anybody, or as much as anybody, there are people watching and saying you are full of baloney.
HOYT: Oh, of course.
LAMB: They hate the ”New York Times.”
LAMB: Talk shows across America everyday excoriate the ”New York Times” for being anything from socialist to communist to whatever, and it’s you know they probably say you are too.
HOYT: I’m sure they do. I certainly received my share of mail like that. They also excoriate the ”New York Times” for being a tool of capitalism, a captive of corporate journalism, a defender of the right-wing status quo. It isn’t only accused of being a left-wing newspaper. It’s being accused of whatever a particular reader or person with an axe to grind from whatever vantage point they’re coming from, if the ”New York Times” does not comfort them, it is subject to attack, and the fact of the matter is the ”New York Times” does not consistently comfort anyone. That’s not what its job is, and it does not.
LAMB: Who owns it?
HOYT: It is it’s a publicly traded company, but it has two classes of stock so that the Sulzberger family, the Ochs Sulzberger family, which has controlled it since the late 19th Century, remains in control of the company.
LAMB: I don’t have the quote in front of me, but you quoted Arthur Sulzberger Jr. I think it’s a junior saying
HOYT: It is.
you something about you’re dumber than you look. You know what was that quote, and what was that meeting like?
HOYT: You know that was really a joke more than anything else, but I always I have remembered it and laughed about it. On my first day at the ”New York Times” on in the old building on West 43rd Street, I was taken up to his office and ushered into an anteroom of the office to meet him on my first day there. I had met him before, but this was to be formally greeted. And he sat down opposite me, and he slapped his hands down on both of his knees, and he looked at me and he said, ”So you’re here. You must be dumber than you look,” his point being that the public editor is a person who is going to take it from all sides, as we were just discussing from the outside, and is going to take it from inside as well. And there’s always a certain gallows humor about why would anybody want to put themselves in that position.
LAMB: Where is hometown originally?
HOYT: Well, I was raised in a military family, so hometown is I was born in Providence, Rhode Island. My father was stationed at Quonset Point Naval Air Station. He was then sent on an aircraft carrier to the Pacific for the duration of World War II, and we lived in succession in Los Gatos, California, Philadelphia after the war, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, New York, Key West, and the family finally settled after he retired in Miami, Florida.
LAMB: Is there any particular moment where journalism jumped up in front of you?
HOYT: Well, journalism jumped up at me when I was 9 years old, and we lived in a neighborhood in Honolulu called Mullolalop (ph), and my brother my older brother and I founded the Mullolalop Snoop (ph), our little neighborhood newspaper, and it was extremely high-tech. It was paper you get a master and then put it on a gelatin and then made copies of the gel. And we circulated it to the 9 or 10 houses that were in our immediate neighborhood, and it had such riveting news as whose dog was dumping on whose yard.
LAMB: What college did you go to? Nice segue.
HOYT: I went to Columbia.
LAMB: Why did you pick Columbia, and where were your parents before Columbia? Where did they live?
HOYT: They lived in Key West at that time, and I chose Columbia because it was in New York, and I confess I was a I was an OK student, but I wasn’t a great student, but the truth is I majored in New York.
LAMB: What do you mean by that?
HOYT: Well, I just I love New York, and I took advantage of everything there was there. This is the 1960’s, and the invasion of foreign films. I went to everything musical I could find, from jazz in the village to standing room at the Metropolitan Opera, and I had a great a great time there.
LAMB: Let me reach a little bit on something and see where you come down on this. If you talk to people your age and mine, we’re about the same age, in the journalism business, is it reaching a bit to say their hearts are broken about what’s happened to institutions like the ”New York Times,” not the ”The Times” at this very moment, but the institution of journalism, which it happens at ”News Week” or ”US News” and where we all all of these publications. I just hear it time and time again, and I wonder if you feel it.
HOYT: Yes, I hear that a lot, and I think there are two ways to look at what’s happening right now. You can look at it and lament the passing of some great institutions, great newspapers that are being hollowed out in the face of tremendous economic pressures created by the by technology, and you can have your heart broken and say there go the good old days. You know I choose to look at it a bit differently. I think that I lament some of it, and I worry about some of the standards and maintaining journalistic integrity as we move from one media world to another. But I think, in many ways, this is an extremely exciting time. The entire world of news and information is being reinvented. I don’t think we know yet what the successful business models are. We don’t know yet entirely what the platforms are all going to look like. But this is an extremely exciting time.
LAMB: Back in 2006, on May 16, you gave a speech, and the report on it from a James Homan from the Knight Ridder, a Knight Ridder lecture that you gave.
HOYT: At Stanford University?
LAMB: Yes. Clark Hoyt, the Washington D.C. bureau chief of ”Knight Ridder” newspaper chain, painted a dim picture of the state of American journalism during his talk last night, asserting that the mainstream media must be vigilant to remain relevant in the increasingly competitive industry of information, and since that speech, there’s no more ”Knight Ridder.”
HOYT: Oh, that’s true. Dim is his word. I’m not sure I would use that word myself.
LAMB: Before we jump, though, ”Knight Ridder” owned give us the major papers they owned.
HOYT: ”Knight Ridder” owned 32 daily newspapers in the United States; the ”Philadelphia Inquirer” in Pennsylvania, the ”Miami Harold” in Florida, the ”Charlotte Observer” in North Carolina, the ”Kansas City Star” in Missouri, ”San Jose Mercury News” in California, the ”Detroit Free Press,” and I’m leaving many, many out. The company really had a footprint across the country of daily newspapers.
LAMB: So not dim, and you know what is going on in these communities? Let’s take Washington D.C. They’ve lost 200,000 subscribers as the market
HOYT: It is it is absolutely challenging and difficult for newspapers, and I gave that speech in 2006 immediately after the demise of my company. I probably was in a in a gloomier mood than I am today. It is it’s painful to see newsroom jobs go away. There are thousands fewer journalists today in this country than there were. I think that’s a problem. Right here in Washington D.C., there are there are hundreds fewer journalists keeping tabs on what is happening in our Federal Government, and I think that’s a serious problem.
But I think that all of these open up our opportunities. There are there are ways to create new channels of information, new ways of delivering it, new ways to pay for it, and it’s a it’s a bubbling ferment right now of invention. There is several years ago, something called ”ProPublica” did not exist. ”ProPublica” won a Pulitzer Price this year and was a finalist for another. This is a nonprofit newsroom that does not own heavy presses or camera equipment or anything else, but partners with others all across the country, other kinds of media, from television networks to the ”New York Times” to the ”Washington Post” and provides high-quality investigative reporting.
LAMB: Stop there for a second. Run by Paul Steiger, who used to run the ”Wall Street Journal,” funded by Marion and Herb Sandler of California, who were a Golden West banking operation, heavy into the Democratic Party. Why would they give $10 million a year to this enterprise?
HOYT: Well, the Sandlers believe in journalism, among other things, and they and the leadership of ”ProPublica” are, in fact, embarked on an effort to expand the funding base so that it is not dependent upon anyone. You mentioned that they’re active democrats, which is true, but I defy you if you read the output of ”ProPublica” to identify a partisan agenda in it.
LAMB: So why do so many conservatives look at the ”New York Times” and say you know and that’s where the fusshing started it’s a liberal newspaper, because I know you dealt with it probably about everyday.
HOYT: I think there are a number of reasons for it. First of all, the ”New York Times” on its editorial and op-ed news pages is unabashedly a liberal newspaper. It takes it takes liberal editorial stands. Its line up of regular columnists is overwhelmingly liberal, and even its one reliably conservative columnist David Brooks is a bit of an iconoclast, who doesn’t easily fit any category. Ross Douthat, who is being looks to me as though he’s being developed as another conservative columnist, is also a thinker who does not immediately fall into easy classification. But I think that the impact of the editorial and op-ed pages tends to spread and create an aura that can spread over the rest of the paper.
Then I think it is also true the ”New York Times” is published in New York, where more than half of its readership is in the New York Metropolitan or Tristate area. It is a national newspaper, but it’s certainly based in, and its mindset, I would say, comes out of out of that world. And it is socially more liberal than other parts of the country, for sure. On the weddings pages, there are same-sex couples marriages and unions that are that are placed right next to heterosexual marriages and have been for a number of years. The paper doesn’t give serious credence to creationism or intelligent design, and I think that there is a view of the world that some on what I would call the right or far right don’t even share before you even get to questions of partisan politics.
LAMB: You said in one of your columns, and it may be in your last column, that it is not within Fox News of the left. What did you mean by that?
HOYT: What I meant by it is that I think Fox News, whatever its proto stations, is designed to appeal to and comfort a cohort with a certain political point of view, a conservative point of view.
LAMB: Is that good or bad?
HOYT: It just is. I watch Fox News from time to time, and I’m always fascinated watching it by its view of the world compared to the view of the world that you see and other media outlets that I would not consider partisan. The stories they choose to highlight, the way that they’re described, and I’m not even getting to O’Reilly or some of the unabashedly opinionated parts of Fox News. I do not believe the ”New York Times” is anywhere close to that.
LAMB: But they would say conservatives would say, well, you went to Columbia, and you yourself may be a liberal, and you like New York City and you think that the ”New York Times” is the where it all begins and ends. But we, wherever we are, we like Fox because they look at the world differently and they’re journalists themselves. Are we are we healthier because of them or less healthy, and how much do people in New York blame Fox for all the evils of bad journalism?
HOYT: I don’t know the answer to the last part. Are we healthier because of it? I would say this. You and I are roughly the same age, and we grew up in a very different media world. There were two, maybe you would count three, national news magazines. There were three broadcast networks, and Uncle Walter, Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America, who nightly told us what the news was and hoped to shape that to a great extent. There were two national newspapers. The ”New York Times” in many ways wasn’t even national at that point, but it was the most influential newspaper, and then the ”Wall Street Journal.” And it was a very different world from today. There was no such thing as Cable News. There was there are now five broadcast networks, depending on how you count them. ”USA Today” exists and didn’t exist in that news mix. ”Time,” ”Newsweek,” ”US News” or I’m struggling, and at least one of them may not exist in the long run. ”Life Magazine,” one set of circulation in the millions no longer exists. The media world is quite different. There are many, many more voices today. In many respects, I think that’s healthy, but the one thing the danger for any society is if you don’t have some sort of core of shared facts and values, I think ultimately there’s a great danger for the society, and I and I do worry about that.
LAMB: In this speech you said well, the writer said, ”Hoyt defended the use of anonymous sources as a necessary evil, adding that the news business has worked hard to minimize their use,” and I can I’ve got some stuff on here you ended up writing at the ”New York Times.” What did you find at the ”New York Times” about anonymous sources, and how do you feel about that today?
HOYT: I would defend the use of anonymous sources in certain circumstances, and I think that they are necessary. They were necessary, for example, the ”New York Times” won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago for a story that revealed the Bush Administration’s extralegal system of eavesdropping on American citizens, electronic eavesdropping. Now, I know many people regarded that story as virtually traitorous. I believe it was an important story, and it led to a lot of change and reform. That story could not have been written without anonymous sources. However and I probably wrote about this subject as public editor of ”The Times” more than any other I think the ”New York Times” uses far too many of them. They are used too frivolously, too cavalierly, and I heard from readers consistently upset about it, and the journalists kind of think that this is a sort of journalism conversation, that people in some journalistic ivory tower don’t believe in anonymous sources and are arguing some theory about it. I can tell you readers don’t like them. They don’t trust them. They wonder if they’re made up. They wonder what axes they’re grinding. They wonder what’s going on here that it is being hidden behind a curtain from me. And when a newspaper uses an anonymous source in an article about the dιcor of apartment building lobbies in New York City or in a fashion review in which a person anonymously says some designer’s clothes look unwearable, this is ridiculous and really needs to be stamped out, because when they’re needed, they should be rare, they should be exceptional, they should be necessary and their necessity should be clear to readers.
LAMB: Speaking of sources, there’s a story in your life you won a Pulitzer once.
HOYT: I did.
LAMB: And I came across a column written by a former ”Detroit Free Press” person I’m sure you know. I’ll find it here in a minute, but the story had to do with Tommy and how that story came about in the first place. Give us the overview.
HOYT: In 1972, George McGovern was nominated as the democratic presidential nominee in Miami Beach, and he chose as his running mate a relatively unknown senator from Missouri named Tom Eagleton. I was a junior reporter for what was then ”Knight Newspapers” covering the convention, and as the junior-most person on the on the team, I was assigned. Everyone else was going on vacation right after the convention. It was a different world then. It wasn’t nonstop campaigning. We had the convention, and then things sort of stopped until the fall.
I was assigned to go to Missouri and write a profile of Tom Eagleton, Tom who. While I was in the airplane on the way to St. Louis, his hometown, unknown to the anonymous caller telephoned the ”Detroit Free Press” and asked to speak to John S. Knight, who was the founding patriarch of our company. The operator put the caller through to John S. Knight III, his grandson, who was an editorial writing intern at the free press, and young Jack Knight heard this caller say that Eagleton had a history of severe depression that had been treated with electroshock therapy on more than one occasion and that the republicans knew about this and were going to use it as a dirty trick late in the campaign, and it needed to get out now because something needed to be done.
He urged the caller to call back with more detail. He had the presence of mind to realize that there wasn’t enough here to do anything with, and the caller promised to do so. I landed in St. Louis not knowing that this call had taken place. This is an era before cell phones. I went straight to the ”St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and asked to look in their library at their clips, and I saw that they were got all their Eagleton clips and began reading through them, and I saw that there were these gaps in his public life. This is a fellow who had been held public office in the state for many years, and up to attorney general, I believe, before he was elected senator, and there would be these gaps of sometimes a month, 2 months, 3 months, where there was absolutely nothing, and then it would pickup and go again. And in the gaps, sometimes there were little things like Senator Eagleton checked into the Mayo Clinic for a physical, or Mr. Attorney General Eagleton is suffering from exhaustion, same thing, and there was one article that made some suggestion about a drinking issue.
Well, these were just clues. I didn’t know. I was about to start reporting. But then when I got to my hotel, I got a call, saying this anonymous caller had called, and they’ve called back with the name of a doctor. So I went out to the doctor’s home in a suburb the doctor was retired and knocked on the door and said I was Clark Hoyt from the ”Knight Newspapers” and I was here to talk about the time in 1960, whatever it was, at Bernard Psychiatric Hospital when you were present when the senator was treated for electroshock therapy.
Now, Brian, if I knocked on your door and said that on a Sunday morning, you’d say you need some help, sir. And instead, the doctor, all the color went out of the doctor’s face, and as the door was being slammed in my face, what I heard was, ”I can’t talk to you about that.” Bam. That, that. I knew it was true at that moment, without question.
We did a lot of other reporting. We ultimately went to South Dakota, where Senator McGovern and his campaign staff were vacationing, as they did in those days before starting the campaign on Labor Day. Dr. Frank Mankiewicz (ph) presented him with a memo about what we had found, and they promised that they would produce Senator Eagleton for an interview and his medical records. The truth is, they already knew this. The caller had called the that campaign as well. They knew they had trouble. Eagleton was on his way to meet with McGovern to discuss what they were going to do, and they ultimately decided that they couldn’t have reporters make this like an investigative story. So he held an impromptu quick press conference and announced it.
LAMB: Before you had written it?
HOYT: Yes, and we received what they termed the consolation prize of an interview with him after his announcement. But that I’m sorry, that wasn’t all that brief, but that’s essentially the story.
LAMB: No. But that this fellow’s name is Joel Thurtell?
LAMB: Who wrote this on July 7, 2008 for the ”Michigan Messenger,” but had worked for the ”Detroit Free Press,” and he was he was upset, by the way, that ”New York Times” portrayed it in Tom Eagleton’s obit as to what happened, and it’s you know all of this is complicated, and most people don’t care about this. But the whole thing was that you got a Pulitzer basically for discovering that he had mental illness instead of the story itself. Is that
HOYT: Well, I think at the time what people were saying was that and I’m not sure if this story ever would have been handled by any news organizations that way today we felt strongly that we could not publish something without talking to him, without getting a lot more information, verification, details, and that it would be irresponsible to do something flash quickly and incompletely.
LAMB: What would they what would happen? I mean you’re
HOYT: And I think that had more to do with the prize than anything else.
LAMB: But what would happen today? What do you think would happen today? The same situation exists. This person has this information. Where do you think they’d go with it?
HOYT: Well, I hope responsible journalists and I believe there are lots and lots of good responsible journalists would do essentially what we did. But take a look in New York at a recent case involving David Paterson, the governor of that state, and an aid of his. The a top aid who was accused of abusing women. As the ”New York Times” was reporting that story, Web sites, gossip Web sites, began saying that ”The Times” had a blockbuster bombshell, going to knock Paterson out of office, full of rumors about sex, about drug use, about all of all of it wild, all of it off the mark, and it you know part of this proliferation of voices. There’s a lot good about it, but a lot of the bad is that it creates this incredible buzz that makes sometimes makes good, responsible, careful, painstaking and time consuming investigative journalism more difficult because you’re under a spotlight from the moment you start.
LAMB: So what did you think of the ”National Enquirer’s” whole thing on John Edwards, and you know some people say they’ve they were so successful in adding that whole situation that they deserved a Pulitzer, and I don’t know about you, but I suspect the Pulitzer people didn’t even consider it.
HOYT: I have no idea whether they did or not. I gather it was entered in the competition. I don’t know.
LAMB: But I mean in history, has the ”National Enquirer” or any publication like it ever gotten a Pulitzer?
HOYT: No, and the ”National Enquirer” has never gotten a Pulitzer, and one of the issues is paying for paying for stories, paying sources for stories. What do I think of the Edwards story? I wrote a column about it at the time just as things really blew up. I felt that the ”New York Times” in particular, but that mainstream media were slow and showed poor reflexes off the mark on that story. The ”National Enquirer” dribbled that out over a long period of time, and I can understand some of the initial why some of the initial stories didn’t provoke more of a response. But later on, by the time there were photographs of the senator in a hotel room holding a baby with the woman, I think everybody should have been asking much tougher, harder questions and pursuing that story. He was still he was no longer a presidential candidate, but he was still a major player in the Democratic Party, and he was being talked about as a possible member of an Obama a prospective Obama Administration.
LAMB: Your his column, ”No comment, but you didn’t hear it from me. Washington, where I have reported and edited and used my share of unnamed sources for the better part of the last 40 years, is a city steeped in a culture of anonymity.” We just talked about this earlier, but you also talk about it in one of your pieces about access, that people are afraid in the journalism business that they won’t get access. How big a problem is that in a town like this that you and have you have you ever pulled something back because you thought we’ll never get in that White House again if we write this story, and how much of that is an intimidation on the media?
HOYT: I think it can be a problem. I don’t ever recall an instance. ”Knight Ridder” was not in the same in Washington, there was New York or Washington outlet, so despite the fact we had far larger circulation than many others in this town, we didn’t always have the visibility, and so the issue of the secretary of state won’t return my call if I say this in an article didn’t necessarily arise in the same way it might arise for a ”New York Times” or a ”Washington Post.” I would say that it can be a problem. I don’t know the degree to which this is true, but it seems to me that the ”New York Times” and ”Washington Post” both missed the skepticism that did exist in this town about the need to go to war with Iraq, and I’m proud to say that ”Knight Ridder” journalists like John Walcott and his colleagues really dug into that story and went against the grain. And I don’t know the degree to which people at ”The Times” or ”The Post” felt that if they did that they might be shutting themselves out, but I’ve always wondered whether that didn’t play some role in that.
LAMB: When were they the maddest at you at the ”New York Times” during your 3 years there as the public editor slash ombudsman?
HOYT: Well, different individuals were mad at different times. There was a story that actually won a Pulitzer prize for the ”New York Times” that I had some difficulty with, and especially in its presentation, and I would say that there was a good deal of anger over criticism of that.
LAMB: What was it?
HOYT: That was a story about the Pentagon’s information campaign to get generals and ranking officers to feeding them information that would then be used as military analysts on cable and network news shows during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I thought the story was excellent in exposing the existence of the program and showing that it that it the efforts that were being made. It was not necessarily quite as clear to me that it actually had an impact on the air, and I felt that the paper and the way it presented this story, the photographs on the front page were of many officers who had many different levels of engagement with this, and that it wasn’t all clearly explained.
LAMB: You say in your final column there is an entire body of scholarship devoted to what social scientists call the ”hostile media,” in quotes, ”hostile media syndrome.” The belief that people with strong feelings about an issue, any issue that the news media are hostile to their side. Who invented the term ”hostile media syndrome?”
HOYT: Boy, I wrote the column, but I don’t remember who invented the term, but it’s a bit about what you and I were talking about before, and that is that there is a tendency if you don’t support my point of view, if you’re reporting unearths facts or presents an issue in a way that is not that doesn’t comport with my view of the world, I’m angry about that, and I think you’re out to get me or get my point of view, and there tends to be a leap from, well, maybe this is a different way to look at things. Maybe I should think about it in a different way, or look at that or examine it. Instead, people seem to go instantly to motive. Crooked reporter, hidden agenda, conspiracy believe me, I’ve seen all of that hundreds, if not thousands of times, as I as I would receive mail from readers, and also from nonreaders of ”The Times” who were just angry at ”The Times.”
LAMB: That wasn’t your final column, as you know. That was back in 2008. In that same column, you said bias is a tricky thing.
LAMB: None of us are objective. We like news that supports our views and dislike what may challenge them. We tend to pick apart each article word by word, failing to remember that it is part of a river of information from which facts can be plucked to support many points of view. Perversely, we magnify what displeases us and minimize what we like. On the bias thing, if you were sitting around with the Fox people before they started that network, what do you think you would have heard when they came out with you know ”we report, you decide.” All the little phrases they’ve used about bias were they making fun of the business, or did they really believe it?
HOYT: Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t sitting around
LAMB: I know, but what do you think I mean because you know people in the in the media business get very upset when they hear that.
HOYT: Yes, I think I think watching it and listening to it quite a bit, I think that there is an element of
LAMB: Fair and balanced comment. We’re fair and balanced.
HOYT: Yes. I think I perhaps they believe it. I think what they really believe is that there is a public perception of unfairness and imbalance in the media, and so they’re going to take advantage of that, and there is a there is a strategy there, if you will, a business strategy, and it’s very clever.
LAMB: But I hear more and more people say I don’t watch that anymore, I don’t and not Fox, anything. I don’t watch it. I don’t read a newspaper anymore. I don’t believe in it. I don’t trust them. There is a problem. I mean look at the
HOYT: Absolutely there’s a problem.
LAMB: But why? I mean you’ve spent your whole life in this business. What is it that people don’t trust?
HOYT: Well, I think people are less trusting of all institutions today. People don’t trust government. Look at what’s going on right now. People don’t trust the media. People don’t trust people are angry at large corporations and do not trust them. People are angry at lawyers and do not trust them. You name it, and
LAMB: What happened?
HOYT: There is a large it’s been going on for quite some time, and there’s a large mistrust of institutions in our society.
LAMB: But where did it start?
HOYT: Well, it’s hard to say where it started. Some people would say it started with Vietnam. I don’t really believe that. I’m just in the middle right now of reading a wonderful biography by Alan Brinkley of Henry Luce, and you know the 1920’s and 30’s were a period of cynicism and mistrust as well. There’s always been some undercurrent. Technology today and the proliferation of voices tends to magnify everything, to speed it up to make it bigger, louder, more intense, and I think that’s part of it, that there’s strains there have been strains as long as there has been American history of mistrust. But today it’s magnified and amplified.
LAMB: Let me keep asking you that question.
LAMB: Where did it start?
HOYT: I can’t tell you where it started, Brian. I don’t know where it started.
LAMB: When did you see it get worse, then?
HOYT: I would say in my own life I saw it get worse during Vietnam.
LAMB: And why would Vietnam be a place where it would have you know accelerated?
HOYT: Because people felt as though government lied to them and that many thousands of people died for a war that those waging it were themselves skeptical about and viewed, as we later came to learn, some of them viewed it as unwinnable, and we all lived through a period in which society seemed to be tearing apart in many, many respects, and I’m not sure we ever fully recovered from that and fully knit back together.
LAMB: I don’t know whether there’s a list of four or five for you, but what institutions do you trust the most yourself?
LAMB: Yes. Where do you find trust today? Who do you go to and say, yes, I believe them?
HOYT: I trust my doctor. I trust because I live in it and know it and believe I understand it, I trust the media in way, I guess, that many people, not all people. Let’s face it, the mistrust people who are unhappy complain and complain loudly. People who are not you don’t hear as much from. Having said that, it is clear that there is a large amount of mistrust in the news media in this country, but I happen not to share that, and I guess you could understand why I don’t.
LAMB: The ”New York Times” has a slogan, ”All the news is fit to print.” Good idea?
HOYT: Well, it’s been its slogan for so long, and sure. What’s wrong with it?
LAMB: Go back to when you were writing your columns. One of those you seemed to have a tussle with them over was the John McCain front page story.
HOYT: Oh, yes. I regard that as the single biggest mistake they made, journalistic mistake, misstep during my 3-year tenure as public editor.
HOYT: I believe that it was a bad story in the sense that they raised one of the most toxic subjects that you can raise in politics. They an allegation of sexual misconduct by a presidential candidate, and if you’re going to raise that, you’d better be able to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. And they absolutely could not do that, and having raised it, I think they failed to make the case, which simply played into what we’ve been talking about, liberal newspaper out to get a conservative republican presidential candidate. I think it was very damaging to the ”New York Times.”
LAMB: Catholic Church.
LAMB: You wrote about that, and ”The Times’” constant reporting about the Catholic Church.
HOYT: I did. What about it?
LAMB: What about it? I mean what’s the beef that you get from people outside reading the ”New York Times?” I’ve
some of the letters here.
HOYT: Yes, the from within the Church, and I’ve heard from the Church hierarchy, from within the Church, there was a feeling that the ”New York Times” was anti-Catholic, that it was unfair to harp on these instances of child sexual abuse in the Church, and particularly as it began to as the stories began to escalate to the point where they reached Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pope, there was a feeling that ”The Times” was out to get the Church, out to get the pope, and that it was on some kind of unfair anti-Catholic crusade.
LAMB: You write in your column, and you know you used to publish letters you’d get. Here’s one from Monsignor Michael Fitzgerald, Philadelphia let’s see, I think it’s November 8, 2009. He wrote, ”With respect to Maureen Dowd, it’s difficult to see how ’The Times’ sponsors her vitriolic diatribes in general. Her work is short on reason and logic, but long on venom and distortion. Hardly a contribution to a serious public discussion. It’s no secret that ’The Times’ is steadily losing readership. Remaining in denial about its skewed coverage of the Catholic Church is just the latest example of how badly out of touch with reality the editors and writers for ’The Times’ continue to be. I suspect many will find your attempt to defend ’The Times’ record on this matter to be thoroughly unpersuasive.”
HOYT: You know it’s interesting. A nun in the Church sent me not long ago an article in a Catholic magazine about by a writer pointing out all the positive stories that the ”New York Times” wrote about the Catholic Church, about Catholic clergy and laypeople doing things for communities and society, and this the article was basically making the case that it’s pretty hard to this is not my article, this was someone else writing it’s pretty hard to call ”The Times” anti-Catholic if you read it fairly and broadly everything it has to say.
I think that the nature of the scandal in the Church inevitably made it big news and front page news. These are not isolated cases. There were there were hundreds, thousands of them, and the Church pretty systematically was more concerned with protecting the clergy and the hierarchy than dealing with the victims, and you and I both know the old Watergate thing; it’s not always the crime it’s the cover up, and the Church is going to endure this kind of coverage until this is fully openly dealt with and expunged.
LAMB: How many times in your 3 years at ”The Times” as the public editor did you get a call from a Bill Keller, the executive editor or Arthur Sulzberger or Jill Abramson, the managing editor (INAUDIBLE) and they’re really ticked?
HOYT: Several times. Well, it would depend. I think I heard from Arthur once when he didn’t like a particular column, and he was unhappy about it, but it was very civil. I mean it was not I heard from Bill and Jill on a few occasions. Not
LAMB: What’d they say?
huge number. They would be unhappy, and they wouldn’t like it and would disagree with it. But they also sometimes they I said in my farewell column, I you know I really felt ultimately and broadly supported by them in the sense that even when they were unhappy, they kept it they kept it civil, they kept it on the subject, not personal, and in the end we’d all agree to live for another day and come back.
LAMB: How many ombudsmen are there at newspapers around the country?
HOYT: A declining number. I can’t tell you how many there are now, but they newspapers as they shed staff and downsize have been losing ombudsman. The ”New York Times” and the ”Washington Post” still retain them. There are others around the country, but far fewer. Sadly, the first newspaper ombudsman was at the Louisville ”Courier-Journal” in Kentucky, and that position has been eliminated at that newspaper. Interestingly, I belong to something called the Organization of News Ombudsmen, which is an international organization. Its acronym, by the way, is ONO. Interestingly, it is growing around the world. News organizations in Europe, in Asia and Latin America around the world are embracing the concept even as American news organizations tend to be walking away from it for financial reasons.
LAMB: I talked to somebody this morning just in passing. I said that I was going to be interviewing, and I asked them what they thought of ”New York Times” and they love the ”New York Times,” and they said to me I can’t understand why the ”New York Times” wastes its time you know setting up a situation where they have somebody like you criticizing their reporters in this day and age. It just seems to be such a I mean it’s a ridiculous way to do business. What’s your reaction when you hear somebody like that, and anybody ever say that to you?
HOYT: Yes, I’ve heard that more than once, sure. You know I would say that obviously, I don’t agree with that view, and I would say that the role is important, and it shows a great deal of courage, and it shows a great deal of strength that an organization can open itself up to internal criticism and allow on its own pages examinations of areas where it may fall short, where it may fail. Listen, one of the one of the reasons ”The Times” comes in for so much criticism, I believe, is that it has long been perceived as an essentially impregnable fortress. Nobody knows how to talk to it, to reach it, to ask it questions, to complain to it, and I think that this serves as a valuable avenue for people to engage with the newspaper and to raise issues that need examination.
Like all human institutions, ”The Times” makes mistakes. It does make mistakes. It does fall short. Better than most, it tries to correct them, but often there is still an institutional resistance and defensiveness that a role like the public editor helps to break down.
LAMB: Back to that column that you where we had letters, this one came in from a fellow named Thomas J. Rice (ph), November 10, 2009. He says this, ”The core audience of ’The Times’ secularless” basically he didn’t say it right ”atheist members of certain politically left-leaning Christian and non-Christian denominations all enjoy it immensely when ’The Times’ uses its pages to kick the Church,” back to the Catholic Church. ”Archbishop Dolan is” Tim Dolan is the Archbishop of New York ”Is correct. Other face, and I might add certain other favored segments of society, get a buy,” in quotes, ”than the writers and editors of ’The Times.’ Who knows? Maybe ’The Times’ and its Catholic baiting political and cultural allies will eventually hound us into shutting down our charities, closing our hospitals, ending our school system and walking away from our colleges.” What about that early charge of secularists, atheists, members of certainly politically left-leaning Christian organizations?
HOYT: Well, that’s an extreme characterization of the readership of ”The Times.” In my own experience with engaging with readers and hearing from readers, ”The Times” has a wide, wide readership across the political spectrum. Even conservatives who may view it as a liberal newspaper, who say I couldn’t do without it I heard from people like that, who said there’s nowhere else I can get the international news, there’s nowhere else I can get the cultural news that I get in ”New York Times.” You know that’s a letter written for an effect. This is a person who’s angry about stories, doesn’t want to see those stories in ”New York Times” and so has sort of drawn a caricature of both the newspaper and its readership, which I believe is really inaccurate.
LAMB: The and then on the left side, this is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. That’s the John Podesta Organization, who’s chief of staff to Bill Clinton, and there’s something called climate progress. ”New York Times” headline, ”New York Times public editor files final report never mentions the paper’s dreadful global warming coverage. The New York Times has been widely criticized for it’s terrible climate coverage in the past 3 years, but you would never know it from a final report from internal affairs, the last column of Clark Hoyt, the public editor.” That’s from the left. This all looks just like a piece of journalism, headline, the whole thing. How often did you get criticized from the left?
HOYT: Not as often as from the right, but quite frequently, and it would surprise people on the right, I think, to know that. There was unhappiness with the paper constantly from the left about this is one example. There’s another example about the ACORN, the community activist organization. There was a lot of complaining about that coverage from the left and the right, actually. During the presidential campaign, believe it or not, there was there was complaining from the left about the way the paper covered the campaign. You if you don’t like the news, get mad at the messenger.
LAMB: So define ombudsman.
HOYT: Readers’ representative, somebody charged with helping a newspaper to examine its own practices and to look at and correct instances where it’s fallen short.
LAMB: So now that you’re done, it’s over, never to write from the ”New York Times” again unless it’s a letter to the editor or a column on the op-ed page. What’s the change in your view of them from the day you started as ombudsman to the end?
HOYT: You know I have a great deal of respect for The Times. I did before I went in, and I do coming out the other end. It’s a newspaper that is deep and rich in talent. I think that unlike most news organizations I wrote something to Arthur Sulzberger and told him at the end as I was leaving, I told him the story of John S. Knight and the ”Miami Herald.” John S. Knight bought the ”Miami Herald” just before World War II. It was the sort of pathetic third-place newspaper in a three-newspaper city, and it paper rationing came in World War II. The dominant newspaper owned by Colonel Cox, the Miami News, made money hand over fist with advertising during that period, and Miami was a big training and staging area, and there were lots of troops and families there, and the Miami News went to town with advertising.
The ”Miami Herald,” the legendary Lee Hills, who was in charge of it then, recommended to Jack Knight that they limit advertising to one page in the newspaper and just go all out covering the news of the war and the community for all the people who were there. At the end of the war, the Miami News was way behind. The ”Miami Herald” was the dominant newspaper. The Miami News went out of business, ultimately, and the ”Miami Herald” dominated South Florida and still is a reduced but powerful newspaper.
The ”New York Times” is doing the same thing today. It is investing when others are cutting back, and it’s investing in the future, and I believe that that’s one of the most powerful things I observed up close during my three years.
LAMB: Less than a minute. If you were to advise the business of journalism, print journalism, to do something different to get people to come back to them, what would that one thing be?
HOYT: Well, I’m not sure people are going to come back to print. I think young people have moved to the Internet and moved to social media and moved to handheld devices, and holding paper in our hands is something you and I believe in and like to do. I’m not sure that’s the next generation. I think what needs to happen is the values of journalism and the values that make reporting good, solid integrity based independent reporting important to people need to be carried forward onto these new platforms. That’s what needs to happen.
LAMB: Clark Hoyt, the just retired ombudsman for the ”New York Times” public editor, thank you very much for joining us.
HOYT: Thank you, Brian.