L.A. Times Sunday Opinion editor Bob Sipchen spoke with me recently about the newspaper’s admirable “Outside the Tent” feature, in which the L.A. Times provides space for its critics to take their best shot at the newspaper — as long as they abide by certain guidelines. (As some of you are aware, I contributed to this feature a couple of weeks ago.) I’d like to thank Sipchen for being willing to speak on the record about this feature. I think you’ll find his comments interesting and revealing.
A quick note about the structure of the interview: I have split this interview into three shorter posts, all of which I have posted at the same time. Part One (this post) relates specifically to the “Outside the Tent” feature. Part Two is a broader discussion of objectivity and transparency in journalism. Part Three is Sipchen’s e-mail to me in reaction to the interview (he says I “got it right” but has a couple of clarifications).
Sipchen credited Michael Kinsley with the idea for the “Outside the Tent” feature, although Sipchen had been thinking about doing something similar for some time. The feature was originally going to be called “Inside the Tent” and would be written by Mickey Kaus, whom Kinsley had hoped to hire as a regular columnist for The Times. When that didn’t work out, Kinsley decided to call it “Outside the Tent” and to invite a variety of writers to take part. Sipchen acknowledged that the title refers to a quote from LBJ about J. Edgar Hoover:
It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
(Thanks to reader See-Dubya for the tip.)
Sipchen said that the purpose of the feature is “to offer a forum for legitimate criticism” of the Los Angeles Times, “no matter how strong” — as long as that criticism comes within certain guidelines for what critics may and may not discuss.
Sipchen has set these guidelines himself. He told me that, while he spoke to John Carroll about the feature before the first installment ran, Carroll had not insisted on any of these guidelines, which are fluid and subject to change and refinement.
Sipchen sent me the current version of the guidelines, which are similar to those that I was provided with when I was asked to contribute:
* These pieces should be about what appears in the Los Angeles Times — news stories, editorials, comics, columns etc.– or about the editorial practices that influence what appears in the paper. They should not be about internal politics, personalities, personnel issues (who got fired, who should have been hired), business practices, advertising or circulation matters. They should be criticism not reportage.
* These pieces should not be about Times employees. Feel free to tear into what someone has written, photographed, drawn. Don’t attack character.
* These pieces must deal with facts and be supported by evidence. Reasoned opinion is fine. Please don’t repeat rumors or offer speculation on matters that can’t readily be verified with a reasonable degree of certainty.
* These pieces will be held to our usual standards, and while we pledge to edit in a way that helps the writer make his or her case most clearly and forcefully, we will also edit for taste, accuracy and fairness–as we would any other column.
To elaborate just a bit, the tenets of good journalism are universal and Times editors and reporters are no less entitled to fair treatment than the people they write about and photograph. [I’m biting my tongue here out of courtesy. — Ed.] For various reasons-not the least of which is that we simply don’t have the time-Opinion’s editors can’t be put in the position of having to go to a reporter or editor for comment about an allegation about his or her competence or motives made in this column. We don’t want opinions to ping-pong back and forth in the column (although we may well run rebuttals at some point). Investigative reporting on the Times’ alleged failings is a legitimate enterprise, but this column isn’t the place for it. Nor is it a gossip column. It’s a media criticism column.
Sipchen told me that the purpose of the guidelines is not to avoid discussion of specific topics, but rather to make the feature workable. He emphasized that he is an editor, not a reporter. He said that if someone makes a factual allegation in one of these pieces, he would be required to check it out, which would force him to assume the role of a reporter, rather than an editor. He does not want to feel the need to have to interview specific reporters and ask about their motives.
Sipchen gave me a specific example of the kind of allegation he refused to allow. He said that Jack Dunphy, whose contribution was set to run the day after I spoke to Sipchen, had wished to refer to an alleged conversation between a book author and a Los Angeles Times reporter. Sipchen said that this sort of allegation was inappropriate for inclusion in an “Outside the Tent” piece, because it would require Sipchen to interview the reporter who had allegedly had the conversation with the author, and make a judgment about who was credible. Sipchen explained that, as an editor, he simply is not in a position to do that.
I asked Sipchen if that meant that we are unlikely to see something like Jill Stewart’s famous piece about the origins of the Arnold Schwarzenegger groping story. Sipchen acknowledged that that piece was a “very good example” of the sort of piece that would be inappropriate for the “Outside the Tent” feature. He said that stories that investigate the motives of Times reporters are a “perfectly legitimate exercise for a journalist to take on” — but that the “Outside the Tent” feature is not the forum for such an article.
I asked Sipchen to respond to Kevin Roderick’s complaint that the feature “seems in love with bloggers as the critics of the Times that count.” After all, the first four contributors (Mickey Kaus, Hugh Hewitt, Marc Cooper, and myself) are all bloggers. Sipchen said that he doesn’t seek out bloggers as such; he seeks out critics of The Times, wherever they may be. It “just so happens” that many of those critics have blogs. One reason is that the critics he seeks are often going to be independent journalists (“I won’t turn to a New York Times reporter for criticism”), and a lot of independent journalists often have blogs.
For example, Sipchen said, he was interested in Jack Dunphy because he is a police officer, not because he writes columns on the Web. Sipchen said that he is actively searching for critics from different walks of life, such as academia, for example.
I asked Sipchen if he could share with me the names of any future contributors to the feature, other than Dunphy. He said that he couldn’t, because the whole concept is still very tentative and experimental. He said that, any given week, the possibility exists that editors could decide that the feature had run its course.
I said that I hoped that wouldn’t happen. From what I have seen, the feature is very well-regarded by the public, which sees it as a courageous thing for a newspaper to do. Sipchen agreed, saying that he thought that it was “very brave of John Carroll” to run the feature.
If the feature does survive, one possible concept is to have a stable of writers who will be invited back to contribute repeatedly. (I note that Marc Cooper has already alluded to this possibility.) But Sipchen stressed that this is all up in the air, because the feature could end any week.
I asked Sipchen how the feature is being received at The Times. He said that reaction has been mostly positive. The feature is widely read within the building, and most people in the building are supportive of the concept of providing a regular space to critics of the paper. However, they generally disagree with the specific criticisms that have been leveled thus far. Sipchen said that this isn’t surprising. Despite the ulterior motives that some critics attribute to the paper’s staff, Sipchen said, reporters and editors try to do the best job they can. If they thought there were a better way to put out a newspaper, they’d already be doing it.
Not everyone is supportive of the feature. After a few installments, one senior editor at the paper expressed the opinion that the feature was, as Sipchen put it, a “truly dreadful idea.” As best as Sipchen can recall, this opinion was probably expressed just after my installment was published. (Hmmm. It doesn’t sound like my suggestions are going to be implemented any time soon . . .) On the other hand, another editor who had initially expressed misgivings about the feature has become a convert.
I asked Sipchen about the memo recently leaked to Mickey Kaus, regarding Kaus’s suggestion that the paper run more gossip. (Sipchen volunteered that he had not leaked the memo.). Sipchen said that no other memos had been circulated regarding any of the “Outside the Tent” pieces, but that much discussion about the pieces had been bandied about through e-mail and otherwise.
All in all, it sounds like this feature is doing well. I hope the senior editors at the paper continue this great experiment.
(In Part Two of the interview, I relate a discussion I had with Sipchen about the concept of objectivity in journalism — an issue about which Sipchen has strong and frankly expressed views. Sipchen reacts to the interview in Part Three.)