April 4, 2007

Times Apologist Gets Media Criticism Award

In a strange version of Newspeak, the Penn State College of Communications has transformed the ombudsman role into that of media critic, and awarded Byron Calame its Bart Richards award. Calame made headlines when he reported that his own bosses refused to speak to him about the paper's role in blowing a national-security program designed to intercept communications between terrorists abroad and potential sleeper cells in the US, which won him the award:

The Bart Richards Award, presented annually by the College of Communications at Penn State, recognizes outstanding contributions to print and broadcast journalism through responsible analysis or critical evaluation. The award is intended to recognize constructively critical articles, books and electronic media reports; academic and other research; and reports by media ombudsmen and journalism watchdog groups.

This year’s award honors work produced during the 2006 calendar year. It will be presented Thursday, May 24, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

In the series of six columns Calame submitted for the award, he examined specific issues with reporting and stories that appeared in the Times. Among his submissions was a Jan. 1, 2006, column that reported that Times executive editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. refused to respond to Calame’s questions regarding the content and timing of a Dec. 16, 2005, article about an eavesdropping conducted by the National Security Agency. His columns touched on a variety of topics as he focused on how Times reporters and editors did their jobs.

Calame may or may not have done well as the Gray Lady's "public editor", the title they created when they eschewed the industry term "ombudsman", but that doesn't equate to media criticism. An ombudsman reacts to reader complaints about the reporting and editorial decisions of a newspaper; he or she doesn't go out and do a lot of original reporting. They do not review other media outlets and write criticism in the classic sense. Rather, they take complaints to the editors of the paper and report what they are told, adding their own opinions to their reporting.

In this case, Calame and PSU neglects to mention that the ombudsman initially whitewashed the issue. It took Calame eight months to respond to the complaints NYT readers had about this story, both about the decision to publish the data and the timing of the publication. What was the Bart Richards Award winner doing for those eight months? Mostly ignoring the story, and when he did address it, backing the Times' decisions.

That's not the only case where Calame had to recover from flacking for Bill Keller. When the Times exposed the Swift banking surveillance, Calame enthusiastically supported the decision to publish the story. Only after three months passed and it became clear that the Bush administration had not broken any laws in their efforts to track terrorist financing did Calame issue a lame, late, and buried criticism of his paper. And let's not forget his weak assertion that the Times' failure to report the scandal between Air America and the Gloria Wise foundation came from the fact that the story was still "unfolding" -- as it was everywhere except in the Times.

Calame isn't a bad ombudsman, but he's no media critic. Calame has only found his courage late in a story, when it offers little discomfort to his bosses at the Times. If Calame represents the best of media criticism, it explains why the blogosphere has mostly taken that role from the mainstream media.


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Comments (3)

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 10:45 AM

Who cares? This is just another autobackpat award, like the Oscars or the Grammys. There is nothing to see here. Move on, move on...

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 10:45 AM

Ah, my alma mater. Run by nice, clean, granola liberals who are great neighbors, but who you don't want anywhere near elected government. And you can bet they all just love the NY Times.

I don't think Penn State is known for having a top tier J-school program and just having a guy working at a visible position for the New York Times looks better when you're recruiting students, than awarding it to a more responsible reporter who works at the Hershey Daily News.

Posted by RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 10:59 AM

This is like rewarding Janet Reno for her tenacious investigation of the Clintons. Pretty nice, if you can get an award for yielding to a tsunami.