Without fanfare, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt published a final column in today’s Sunday Week In Review, ending a three-year contractual agreement. He promised that The Times will soon name a successor. But even so, his departure is a loss, both to Times readers and others who follow journalism closely.
Hoyt was the third public editor at the paper, which for years resisted calls that it appoint an editor to keep an eye inward at how the The Times‘ staff covered the news and wielded considerable influence and power. He also was the paper’s best, writing with reason, independence and integrity, defending The Times when he saw fit, but more often holding it accountable for what he perceived to be its errors or omissions, even when that meant taking on top editors.
In his final column, Hoyt wrote:
I have deplored the overuse of anonymous sources, warned against the creep of opinion into news analysis and worried about the preservation of Times quality on the Internet. But, in truth, I have sometimes felt less like a keeper of the flame and more like an internal affairs cop. “What did I do now?” a reporter asked with a sigh when I called recently.
He praised the paper for showing the courage to invite “someone like me into its midst: an outsider with no investment in its mystique or the quirks of its newsroom culture. I was handed the equivalent of a loaded gun — space in the newspaper and on its Web site to write whatever I chose about its journalistic performance.”
With characteristic restraint, he failed to note his own courage for time and again bumping heads with some of America’s most powerful journalists. He has criticized the paper for inconsistencies in applying its own ethics’ code; questioned its handling of a piece during the 2008 election that appeared, without on-the-record evidence, to suggest a past affair by Republican Presidential candidate John McCain; and defended the paper when it refused to disclose yet-to-be-published reporting about New York Gov. David Patterson that became the subject of intense internet speculation and gossip.
In teaching my own journalism ethics class, I’ve regularly pointed students toward Hoyt’s columns. He writes with clarity and substance, hardly surprising for a man who well before his 30th birthday shared a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for disclosing Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton’s treatment for severe depressions and who later in his career was Knight-Ridder’s vice-president for news and Washington Bureau Chief.
In closing his final column, Hoyt writes:
The Times is imperfect. As in any human institution, the 1,150 people in the newsroom make mistakes. But they get much, much more right than wrong. The miracle is that they don’t make more mistakes, given the complexity of creating a daily, comprehensive news report on two platforms, the printed page and the Internet. Without The Times, which continues to invest heavily in news coverage around the world as others cut back drastically, we would all be poorer.
I share his sentiment. But it is also true that The Times has not infrequently fallen prey to hubris and that, in these difficult and frenetic times for journalism and journalists, makes its fair share of mistakes. So American readers would also all be the poorer if The Times fails to act swiftly in replacing Clark Hoyt with someone of equal stature and independence.
Regardless of who is chosen, The Times next public editor will have big shoes to fill.