COLUMN - Thank the lord the Times isn't the newspaper of record

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

Dec 7 (Reuters) - The New York Times took a few lumps yesterday from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who seconded the protests of “many readers” who wrote to her complaining that the Times was not paying sufficient attention to the pretrial testimony of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is accused of the wholesale leaking of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. The New Republic has also taken the newspaper to task for its non-coverage of the hearings, during which Manning described inhuman treatment by his captors.

The Times has not subjected Manning to a news blackout, Sullivan acknowledges, writing that the paper ran an Associated Press story about the proceedings last week and repeating Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt’s pretty good excuses that 1) the paper does not ordinarily cover every proceeding in every newsworthy case and 2) the paper previously covered (in 2011!) the charges of Manning’s mistreatment.

Sullivan is not persuaded. She quotes at length from a comment by Times reader David Morf, who states that the Times “is the paper of record” and the place where the Pentagon Papers were published. “It’s unconscionable and sad if the Times sits quietly by saying nothing - even worse, simply running AP wire copy to let the story bury itself,” he writes. Sullivan nods in approval, concluding that the Manning hearings’ news value dictates that the “Times should be there.”

What the Times should and what the Times should not cover is a parlor game that even Times non-readers can play with every day’s edition. The likelihood is that no two players will ever find themselves in complete agreement about what to cover and in what precise depth. That is not a reason not to play the “should-shouldn’t” game but an indicator that the Manning complaint that Sullivan and her correspondents share is a tad arbitrary.

Even if the Times is the be-all and end-all of journalism (something I doubt), it does not mean that if the Times is not reporting a story the story is not getting reported. Frustrated Times readers seeking play-by-play coverage of the Manning hearings can take their interest elsewhere. Besides the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Reuters, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, CNN, the Washington Post, the Tribune Washington bureau, the BBC, NBC, ABC, PBS and other outlets have been on the story.

It has not been 1972 for 40 years-we are no longer dependent on the Times (if we ever were) to be our definitive source of news. I can see a reader who is deeply interested in the Manning case complaining about the Times coverage from a convenience standpoint. How wonderful it would be for a newspaper or wire service to perfectly anticipate our every news preference. But in the age of the Web, it is more efficient to query Google News for more on those days that the Times fails us.

Fueling reader discontent against it is the expectation that the Times is, as reader Morf puts it, the newspaper of record and that any non-coverage of a topic that a reader wants to know about violates the Times’s status as record keeper. Of course, the Times has never been the all-seeing newspaper of record, as former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent explained in a 2004 column. The phrase, “newspaper of record” was not coined by editors but by the creators of an essay contest in 1927 designed to promote the newspaper’s annual index. (Read Okrent’s spritely column for the boring details.) The comprehensive index made the paper useful to scholars and writers in search of historical details-weather, transcripts of presidential press conferences, texts of treaties, important speeches, the comings and goings of ambassadors, the shake-up of foreign cabinets and the like. Anybody eager to check “the record” could turn to the Times for a Google-esque snapshot of official reports and documents and accounts of major and minor events. “The Times used to feel an obligation to print lots of things that we knew no one much would read,” a Times editor told Okrent in 2004. “Fortunately, those days are over.”

To give you a sense of how stenographic the old Times could get in its pursuit of the record, see page one of the Sunday, May 6, 1951, edition. The banner headline reads “Transcript of Testimony by MacArthur,” and nearly every inch of the page is given over to General Douglas MacArthur’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee. The transcript jumps to almost eight full broadsheet pages. It’s like C-SPAN in print!

According to “Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times,” Edwin Diamond’s 1993 book, the paper began to put distance between itself and its newspaper-of-record label in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal modernized it. Reporters were encouraged to surrender their tweezers, which they had used to collect and arrange the daily movements in legislation, hearings, trials, diplomacy and other “official news” in orderly patterns so they could adopt broader newsgathering techniques. By the time Arthur Ochs Sulzberger turned the paper over to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., in 1992, the transformation was complete and the paper was “actively” avoiding the old title, writes Diamond. “The record is boring for most people,” said Times veteran Warren Hoge. “We don’t record the news, we find the news.”

Every reader has a right to play press critic and to berate the Times for the errors and omissions they have detected. Some days, I am that guy! But the decision to publish wire copy about the Manning hearings instead of assigning a staff-written piece is an example of news judgment, not of news lapse. Presumably, Times reporters who could have written the Manning story were working on something equally newsworthy or better. Don’t get me wrong. I am not about to compile a list of stories I think it is O.K. for the Times to skip. But if the Times is not covering a story that other outlets are, I do not consider that a journalistic travesty.

If it is the “record” you seek, do not expect the Times or anybody else to compile it. The only place anything approaching the record exists is locked up in Google, Nexis and Factiva. If you want it, you’ll have to do the work yourself.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics. )

Jack Shafer