Liz Spayd had an upset stomach.
“Maybe it just goes with the job,” she said, barely picking at an abstemious lunch of undressed salad and plain pasta at one of Manhattan’s gastronomic meccas.
It’s a role that requires her, on behalf of Times readers, to publicly scold the paper’s editors and reporters for slip-ups, mistaken judgment, bias and breach of ethics—and to absorb whatever slings and arrows (usually, but not always, padded in polite language) that land in her inbox from aggrieved Times journalists.
Her latest reproach, published Friday afternoon, unfavorably compared the Times’s scanty coverage of a nationwide protest of prison inmates to the millennial-friendly report on the new HBO program Vice News Tonight.
Spayd was not persuaded by national editor Marc Lacey’s explanation that he had assigned two reporters to the story, and they are planning a deep dive in the next few weeks.
“It’s reassuring that The Times has an ambitious plan in place, but the paper could also have offered a quick-turn effort to size up the issue in the current news cycle,” Spayd wrote, noting that the Paper of Record is in direct competition for the coveted millennial readership with high-speed sites like Vice, Buzzfeed and The Intercept.
“For all that has changed at The Times,” she continued, “its deliberate approach to the prison story shows why the paper can’t seem to shake its reputation for thinking that something isn’t news until it says so, as if the world is just waiting for it to weigh in. That may have been true at one point, but the pace is no longer set by a building in Times Square.”
“No one has been belligerent,” said Spayd, who knows that journalists as a class (including herself, including the author of this story) can be a thin-skinned and reflexively defensive lot. “There are people who are pretty pointed, and are unhappy about what I’m writing. But I haven’t had somebody be rude or in my face. Not yet.”
Spayd added that the despite the ambient stress of her work—which already has been nitpicked both inside and outside the Times for, allegedly, some of the same flaws she’s paid to identify in others— “I’m surprised that I’m much more comfortable taking it from all sides than I would have expected I might be. It doesn’t faze me. I knew coming in that that’s what this job is, and I’m not going to be the popular girl. I’m not going to have a lot of friends at the cafeteria table.”
Indeed, Spayd confided that while she obviously knows people—some of whom she’s worked with during more than three decades in the business—when she takes a table by herself in the Times building’s 14th-floor lunchroom, she risks eating alone.
“It’s tense. It’s fraught,” said Spayd’s predecessor, Margaret Sullivan, who recalled that, coincidentally or not, after a series of tough critiques of Times stories—“some people didn’t like them very much”—the Public Editor’s office was relocated from the third-floor main newsroom, where most of Sullivan’s victims toiled, to a fourth-floor cubbyhole near the Styles section, where “it was a little more removed,” she said.
“But at the same time I wrote about the culture coverage,” said Sullivan, recalling her especially severe verdict concerning then-television critic Alessandra Stanley’s essay about ABC showrunner Shonda Rhimes, in which Stanley referred to Rhimes as an “Angry Black Woman.” Sullivan pronounced it, “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”
Sullivan resigned as Public Editor after 3½ years to become a media columnist at The Washington Post, which in 2013 eliminated the job of Ombudsman—the Public Editor equivalent—due to budgetary issues.
“I’m glad about that,” Sullivan joked. “I’m on the other side of the fence now.” Ironically, The Post had maintained an independent in-house journalism watchdog since 1970, while the Times had stubbornly resisted the idea until the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal resulted in the firing of executive editor Howell Raines and forced the paper’s hand.
Spayd is the sixth person to hold the position—a two-to four-year appointment in which she enjoys editorial independence from the newsroom and reports to Times Co. Chairman and Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
“I guess the way I approach this job is I do take seriously the idea that I am a representative of the reader,” Spayd said. “Their whole business depends on readers. It’s in their [the Times’s] interest—and it’s my responsibility—to take that incoming, and try to figure out what part of that is justifiable, and to turn to the newsroom and force them to be accountable.”
Spayd’s assistant pores through hundreds of reader emails and letters every week, suggesting possible topics for blog posts and her fortnightly Sunday Op-Ed column.
Spayd’s goal, she declared, is to “effect change,” help the Times become a better newspaper and, beyond her day-to-day role as a cop on the journalism beat, take the measure of the sometimes revolutionary changes that the paper, and the industry as a whole, are compelled to embrace.
“If you just focus on the different stories that come up like whack-a-mole, then you’re going to miss some of the biggest transformations taking place here.”
But make no mistake, despite her official function as an in-house nag, Spayd counts herself a huge admirer of The Times and its journalists.
On Thursday, when the paper published a blockbuster story in which two women went on the record to accuse Republican nominee Donald Trump of making unwanted sexual advances—and quoted Trump as denying their claims and calling a Times reporter “a disgusting human being”—Spayd emailed The Daily Beast: “I thought the story seemed solidly reported and relevant in the context of the [Access Hollywood] tape. And the decision to include the response from Trump seemed appropriate to me—that’s what the man said.”
Spayd, who started out as a reporter for small mining-town daily in her native Colorado, arrived at her current perch after spending 25 years at The Washington Post (where I knew her slightly, and she left as managing editor), and running the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review.
“I like to think I’m a fairly modest person,” she said, “but I think I know a lot about journalism, and a lot about news judgment. So I feel quite comfortable saying what I think.”
In the 28 blog posts and columns Spayd has written since starting in early July, she has weighed in on whether the Times’s reputation for being a “liberal” newspaper is justified (being fair and balanced is a constant struggle, she suggested); taken exception to reporter Patrick Healy’s sexualized framing of Bill Clinton’s Democratic Convention speech about his wife (“Not a Bodice Ripper,” Spayd’s headline argued); and spanked Times Kabul bureau chief Rod Nordland for quoting comments from a fellow author at a private book festival reception in a Times story, pointing out that since Nordland didn’t alert Suki Kim that their cocktail party chat was actually an interview, she had every reason to believe her remarks disparaging another author were off the record.
But Spayd’s most attention-getting essay so far was her Sept. 11 Op-Ed column, “The Truth About ‘False Balance’,” in which she scoffed at the increasingly popular journalistic argument—in the midst of an unsettling presidential campaign between a career politician/public servant with a self-defeating tendency for concealment and fact-shading and a foul-mouthed, ill-informed reality show star with record of lying and questionable business practices—that Hillary Clinton should not be scrutinized as aggressively as Donald Trump.
“The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking,” Spayd wrote. “What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers—remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope.”
New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, for one, wrote an impassioned response to Spayd, accusing her of all manner of nonsense and logical fallacy.
“Donald Trump’s candidacy,” he argued, is “an outlier horrifying even to a great many conservatives who have been largely comfortable with their party’s direction until now. How can the news media appropriately cover Trump and his clearly flawed opponent without creating an indecipherable din of equivalent-sounding criticism, where one candidate’s evasive use of a private email server looms larger than the other’s promise to commit war crimes?”
At lunch, Spayd saw no reason to modify her position.
“I don’t think that most news organizations like The Times are out there counting up the chips. ‘Okay, we wrote three pieces critical of Trump, and three pieces critical of Clinton.’ They make mistakes, but they’re trying to evaluate both of them, and I think the people who are claiming this ‘false equivalency,’ what they want is for The New York Times to turn the guns off Hillary—and that’s not what The New York Times should be doing.”