Why Margaret Sullivan is right to be wrong

By Felix Salmon
October 12, 2012
Joe Coscarelli giving the new NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan, a "rapturous reception".

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I was one of the “oxpeckers” quoted by Joe Coscarelli giving the new NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan, a “rapturous reception” — not on the grounds that she was particularly spot-on in her judgments, but rather on the grounds that she has been infinitely better than her predecessors when it comes to engaging with the enormous range of voices with an interest in the NYT’s content, both on her blog and on Twitter.

Sullivan was unknown to the New York oxpecker crowd when she was appointed, and as she engages, her views are, naturally, coming into focus. She hails from Buffalo, which is much more conservative than New York City in both senses of the word. That was a good choice: I suspect that she’s more representative of the NYT’s broad national readership than just about any long-term Brooklynite would be.

For instance, on Tuesday Sullivan criticized the newspaper for running a quirky photo illustrating a quirky story; it was taken inside a men’s bathroom, and Sullivan declared that she “could have easily done without” it. More substantively, a substantial part of Sullivan’s harsh take on Andrew Goldman was based on the fact that “he used a strong obscenity” in a Twitter exchange. Indeed, she said that “given the level of obscenity” in his tweets, the NYT should think about setting up “a clear social media policy”.

Later, on Twitter, Sullivan clarified her thoughts a bit: she wasn’t necessarily into micro-managing what NYT staff and freelancers think, but does reckon that there should be “no blatant misogyny, no raging racism, that kind of thing”.

Personally, I think that by the time you need a social media policy to tell your journalists not to put raging racism on Twitter, it’s already far too late. But what’s interesting to me is the ease with which Sullivan lumped Goldman’s “strong obscenity” in with misogyny and racism, and the vehemence with which she reacted against it. While no New Yorker that I know would consider the tweet obscene at all. Here’s the single tweet she reacted so strongly against:

goldman2.tiff

Sullivan’s column on Goldman was notable for the fact that she didn’t actually talk to him. That’s fine, in principle: you don’t need to talk to people before you criticize them, and Sullivan did tell Goldman that she would be “glad to consider” a followup if he had anything to add. But if there’s one small criticism I would make of Sullivan, it’s that she’s too shy when it comes to engaging with people she disagrees with.

The most obvious example, here, is her verdict on the term “illegal immigrant”. After asking for a discussion of the debate about the use of the term, Sullivan received — on nytimes.com, no less — a long and sophisticated answer from NYT reporter Lawrence Downes. He uses the phrase himself, but with many reservations, since it “defines an entire person,” he says, “not merely an unlawful act”.

The word turns 11 million people into a suspect class of quasi-criminals. It is a class-action adjective. It is the reason the country has not yet passed sweeping immigration reform, which in theory should be an easy thing to do.

Downes’s essay deserved a thoughtful response; in the end, it didn’t even get a link from Sullivan. Instead, after stating that “I’ve thought a great deal about this volatile topic”, she simply declared that the term “illegal immigrant” is “clear and accurate”, and that readers would not benefit were it banned from the paper. That’s a reasonable conclusion to come to, but a bit more detail on how she got there, or what she thought of what Downes wrote, would have enriched her piece significantly.

Every public editor shapes the job as he or she sees fit. Sullivan’s conception of the job is that she should be an engaged media pundit, not afraid of her own opinions — and that’s very welcome and refreshing. Her predecessors felt too constrained by the role: they worried about the weight their pronouncements would carry both inside and outside the newsroom, and were therefore too cautious when it came to doling them out willy-nilly. Sullivan doesn’t have that worry: she knows that the newsroom will feel free to ignore her. And that gives her latitude to be much more approachable and opinionated, both about the NYT and about other news organizations.

The result is that she’s turning into what you might call a media pundit with a bully pulpit. Ed Champion could never get a response from NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren to his questions; Sullivan can. She has her own opinions — but she’s also responsible for representing the public inside the newsroom, and so she can extract answers from journalists and editors where very few others could. It’s a power and a privilege, and I’m glad that Sullivan is putting to full use her newfound ability to exercise it.

One of my slogans is that “if you’re never wrong you’re never interesting”, and Sullivan is a great example of that in action. I disagree with her on some things; I think she’s downright wrong on others. (A formal social-media policy encompassing even freelancers? No good could come of such a thing, quite aside from the fact that it would give the NYT’s legion of haters a bottomless well of potential ammunition.) The thing is, I’m happy that she’s wrong. Because it means that she realizes that the real value of her output is not in what she says, but rather in the way in which she can act as a venue for a fascinating conversation between the NYT and its many critics. Debates are always more interesting than pronouncements, and Sullivan’s hugely welcome innovation is to encourage the former, while effectively downplaying the importance of the latter.

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