NYT set to torpedo public editor

I question the timing. Not the Times’s timing, but Byron Calame’s:

The New York Times will soon decide whether it will do away with its public editor…

“Over the next couple of months, as Barney’s term enters the home stretch, I’ll be taking soundings from the staff, talking it over with the masthead, and consulting with Arthur,” meaning publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., wrote Bill Keller, The Times’ executive editor, in an e-mail to The Observer…

When reached by phone on Dec. 29, Mr. Calame said he had heard the news. His assistant, Joseph Plambeck, had attended an in-house Q&A on Dec. 15, at which Mr. Keller expressed the idea.

Except for his column a few weeks back reversing course on the Times’s SWIFT expose, Calame hadn’t done much boat-rocking. He’s mocked for it in the Observer piece, in fact; the author compares him to Barney, “the friendly purple dinosaur.” But all that changed on December 31, when he fact-checked the Sunday Magazine’s cover story on abortion in El Salvador into oblivion. Sample quote:

At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling. It proved to be the same document as the one disseminated by LifeSiteNews.com, which had been translated into English in early December by a translator retained by The Times Magazine’s editors. I’ve since had the stringer review the translation of key paragraphs for me.

Did Keller’s hint two weeks earlier about the axe falling set him off? They have “a really bad relationship” according to one source quoted by the Observer, so if Calame takes this as a challenge and uses the four months he has left to go after the Times, he could not only put the screws to Keller but make it hard for him to terminate the position. It’s easy to phase out a job staffed by Barney the purple dinosaur, not so easy to phase out a job known for generating incisive criticism. Why, that would smack of dissent-crushing. What would George Washington say?

All in all, though, I don’t much care. The boss is unhappy, and I agree — it’s nice to have someone critiquing the Times from within, with a pipeline to their audience. But the more media moves away from print and towards the web, the more the Times will end up sharing (virtual) space with its critics, whether it wants to or not. If they cancel Calame, all they’re doing is buying time.