It cannot be easy being a “public critic,” or ombudsman, so I have a certain sympathy for Arthur Brisbane, The Public Editor of The New York Times. Although he is in their employ, he is charged, as I understand it, with acting as the voice of the people at the paper, exploring issues and practices at the paper independent of the regular news and editorial staff. The practical, personal, professional and ethical issues are complex, no doubt, and it’s worth noting that the paper’s first Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, has turned to the comparably relaxing world of the professional theatre as an alternative.
But despite this sympathy, I have to say that The Public Editor’s newest work, “The View From The Critic’s Seat,” is a disappointment. While written with Brisbane’s usual clarity, it sets up a premise and then utterly fails to address it, leaving this audience member to wonder whether late cuts muted his commentary or whether he simply wasn’t able or willing to confront head on an issue which he himself had highlighted.
In his first act, running a brief 5.5 column inches, Brisbane relates stories of readers who have expressed their displeasure with the tone of several articles in the arts pages of the Times. Since none of those he cites are a Mr. Richard Feder from Fort Lee, NJ, I have to trust that these are direct quotes from actual readers, not composites or inventions. The readers expressed reservations about pieces on the singer Jackie Evancho, principal dancers in a performance of “The Nutcracker,” and the late artist LeRoy Neiman. I know little of the work of the first artists’ named; my closest connection to Mr. Neiman was a free Burger King book cover I received sometime in the early 1970s, adorned with Mr. Neiman’s Olympic art. Therefore, my response to the column is not compromised by any personal feelings about those discussed by The Public Editor.
But after setting up the premise that he will address what some readers see as unduly harsh assessments of artists, Mr. Brisbane pivots suddenly, referring to complaints about criticism as “a certain backwash of discomfort,” employing a negative, unappetizing metaphor unilaterally to this particular subgenre of reader correspondence. He then ceases to utilize his own ostensibly opinionated voice for his disproportionately long Act II, preferring instead to dedicate some 17 column inches to the culture editor Jonathan Landman discussing the scale and challenge of covering all that the Times culture desk endeavors to encompass. And while the scale is almost certainly as wide ranging and logistically complex as Mr. Landman asserts, it has absolutely nothing to do with the issue of opinions which may step beyond an undefined line of propriety and into character assassination.
It’s a shame that The Public Editor didn’t go beyond a single source, since within his own paper he can find evidence of ethical quandaries when it comes to authors personal opinions, what appears in the paper and what is appropriate. Perhaps Mr. Brisbane might have explored Charles Isherwood’s declaration that he no longer wished to review Adam Rapp’s plays, an internal issue given a public airing that allowed Mr. Isherwood the opportunity to once again cast aspersions on the work of an author even as he was saying that he no longer wished to be forced into the position of casting comparable aspersions.
That aside, it is the inexplicable avoidance of the very topic he sets up that proves such a letdown and, as if to exacerbate matters, he tosses in a coda at the end of his encomium to the Times cultural reportage saying that it “should never come at the expense of the subject’s dignity.” Well, has it, Mr. Brisbane? Has it? Had he spoken to the various subjects of Times criticism, or conversed directly with the letter writers, I suspect they could have given him numerous examples where they feel that line was crossed, so that Mr. Brisbane could have made his own assessment.
The Public Editor’s column can, at his or her discretion, be a monologue; in this instance it was a two character piece adopting the form of an interview. Had Mr. Brisbane chosen to bring in the active voices of others who are affected by this issue, and not simply spoken with Mr. Landman and quoted from letters, he could have provided a compelling picture of the ongoing struggle between arts and critics, newspapers and their public, and perhaps even between a Public Editor and his employer.
Despite his hagiography of the Times culture section, which I also admire, I shall continue to follow The Public Editor’s work with interest, in the hope that he will challenge authority, play devil’s advocate and on occasion ruffle a few feathers. For those of us who care about (and pay for) quality journalism, The Public Editor has the potential to be one of the most valuable voices in journalism, as a check and balance against the reporting of the news itself.
Update, July 16 at 1 pm: Timing, as they say, is everything. Barely two hours after I posted this piece, The New York Times announced that Arthur Brisbane would be succeeded as public editor by Margaret M. Sullivan. While my criticism of yesterday’s column by Brisbane stands, so do my hopes for the role of the Public Editor and, therefore, Ms. Sullivan. I look forward to her tenure, which beings in September.