Retrospective: Clark Hoyt, New York Times Public Editor and People’s Champ, Steps Down


Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times — charged with trying “to help this newspaper live up to its own high journalistic standards” — published his final column Sunday. Hoyt, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor reporter became the third man to hold the ombudsman position in 2007, when the position was slated to last two years, ending in May of 2009. He managed to sneak his column into the paper every week for another thirteen months, until today, doing some enlightening work, but also riding a fair amount of fences. To his credit, he inspired fear in the newsroom, with one writer even threatening suicide after being “shaken” by Hoyt’s impending conclusion. Executive editor Bill Keller compared meeting with Hoyt to a “proctological exam.” Now, a look back, assholes and all:

In Sunday’s column, Hoyt candidly compares his role to that of “an internal affairs cop,” or as any NYPD Blue viewer knows, the enemy of the good guys doing the hard work. “‘What did I do now?’ a reporter asked with a sigh when I called recently,” Hoyt writes.

I was handed the equivalent of a loaded gun — space in the newspaper and on its Web site to write whatever I chose about its journalistic performance. My contract stipulated that I reported to no one and could be fired for only two reasons: failing to do any work or violating the company’s written ethics guidelines.

Hoyt does a solid recap of his three years noting his coverage of, among much else: editing standards, bias in coverage of the Middle East and the line between analysis and opinion.

He also singles out the Times coverage of Vicki Iseman as his “disagreement of greatest consequence,” when the paper suggested she had an affair with then-presidential candidate John McCain. “I said The Times had been off base,” Hoyt writes.

Let us also remember Hoyt for laying the smackdown on the error-prone Alessandra Stanley, who had the byline on a Walter Cronkite obituary, which included “an especially embarrassing correction…fixing seven errors in a single article.”

And then there was the time Cintra Wilson went straight up fat-phobic on J.C. Penny shoppers in a Critical Shopper piece, leaving Hoyt to shake his head at Wilson’s image of her audience as “1,300 women in Connecticut and urban gay guys in Manhattan.” In the column, Keller tells Hoyt “that he wished it had not been published.”

Hoyt was always a pro at scolding without coming across as angry or frustrated, but merely interested in “teachable moments,” like Mr. Feeny in the college years. And don’t forget the minutiae: where do the texting-while-driving accompanying photos come from?

But Hoyt was not without his critics. NYTPicker kept a close eye, most recently calling Hoyt out for the idea that it’s acceptable to show sources stories pre-publication. The Awl’s always entertaining and sarcastically wise Shadow Editors always kept an eyebrow raised when it came to the supposed voice of the people at the paper. “And when is Clark Hoyt’s term up? He is boring me to death,” Choire Sicha wondered. The watchdogs of the world’s climate, meanwhile, are wary of Hoyt’s work, too.

But it is doubtlessly an unforgiving job, not unlike reporting: one side is angry with you or the other side is, or the third side is seething and the letters won’t stop! In that sense, the man kept his head, played fair and provided plenty of fodder for those who consider journalistic ethics or the Times-as-sausage-factory interesting in the least. Like the paper that employed him, Hoyt became an institution of sorts, a final word on Sundays, often after a week of online screaming about ethical breach or another. He never seemed to raise his voice, he just heard all sides, wagged his finger a bit, and if someone’s tail ended up between their legs, it’s not hard to imagine him walking them, arm around the shoulder, to a bar to buy a round.

For some that’s the problem — maybe caring and coziness weren’t in his job description. But his reverence to the paper, possibly even fandom, was never a secret. In this last line of his final column he writes, “Instead of being paid to evaluate The Times, I can go back to savoring it — as a reader.” But the most measured and respectful thinkers and writers are usually the most difficult to attack or look back on sourly. It’s hard to stay mad at gentle wisdom.