The New York Times’ public editor, who answers questions about the paper’s news coverage from readers, has taken the side of readers who complained that a column in the Times’ Bay Area section blurred the line between news and opinion.
The Aug. 15 column headlined “Fighting Tooth and Nail, Unions Overstep” was was written by Jonathan Weber, the editor of the nonprofit Bay Citizen, a new news-gathering organization funded through donations led by a $5 million contribution from San Francisco financier F. Warren Hellman. The Times oursources its Bay Area section to Bay Citizen. The section appears Fridays and Sundays in copies of the Times distributed in the Bay Area.
Readers felt that Weber’s column should have been treated as an op-ed, and not placed on a news page.
“It’s easy to see why these readers reacted as they did,” wrote Public Editor Art Brisbane. “The Weber column, which concerned union opposition to pension reform in San Francisco, stood at the very precipice of political opinion writing — analyzing union opposition while noting ‘vituperative’ union attacks and ‘scorched-earth’ tactics.”
- Times editors said they carefully edited the piece and that Weber simply analyzed the political conflict without weighing in personally on pension reform.
- Still, it strikes me as risky to bring on an outside entity — even one like The Bay Citizen that the Times has fully vetted — and empower it with a mandate to produce such work.
Brisbane said such pieces should be better labeled in the future. “Call it commentary or call it opinion, but call it something that people can understand,” Brisbane writes.
Weber posted a response to Brisbane’s column. He writes, “…the whole idea of a reported column is that it marries facts and point of view. Journalism today embodies a whole range of styles, some with more point of view and some with less, and while clear labeling of what’s what is a good goal, it’s not realistic to think that there can be some kind of calorie counter measuring the amount of opinion in a given piece. It’s also worth noting, as Brisbane does, that Times editors edited my column and came to a different conclusion about it.”
But Weber is quick to compliment the Times:
- One of the things that has been fascinating, and inspiring, about working with The Times is experiencing their maniacal commitment to journalistic quality and credibility. They take very seriously their role as the preeminent global source of news reporting and analysis, and there is no gap between what they expect of their own staff and what they expect of us. I’d like to think the learning goes both ways too, as we bring our own approaches to the mix and, together with all of our partners, push the frontiers of next-generation news.