Monday, March 13, 2006

Bye Bye Wycliff

The Chicago Tribune's public editor, Don Wycliff, posted a farewell column last week. Perhaps it is fitting that it lacked any real substance, for that has been Wycliff's flaw all along. In fact, if the next public editor is going to be like him, the Tribune Company should just save their money.

I won't say Wycliff is a bad person (notice this is not a "Bastard of the Day" award), but his contributions were worthless at best, damaging at worst. Rarely did his investigations into Tribune reporting venture beyond his own navel. Wycliff was the most wishy-washy writer I ever saw in the Tribune. When someone questioned the Tribune's coverage, he would write about both sides but rarely take a position (and if he did it was usually half-hearted). Is that what a public editor is supposed to do? If it is, then what is the point?

I only contacted Wycliff twice about obvious reporting errors in the newspaper. He blew off one entirely, but his treatment of the infamous Farm Aid smear was downright unconscionable. The reporter clearly made a mistake because he did not understand accounting practices for non-profits, giving the impression that the charity was far below the recommended standard for fiscal responsibility. The reporter's editor stood behind him, and the spineless Wycliff fell right into line. The best he could do after having a month to mull it over was to say that it wasn't clear that the Tribune had reported anything meaningful. But it was meaningful; it was an uninformed hatchet job, and people who didn't understand the underlying details took the reporter's implications as truth. The Reader's Michael Miner got to the bottom of the story. He even called the reporter's sources to verify that the reporter screwed up. Why the hell couldn't Wycliff do that?

I was not surprised to hear that Wycliff was taking a job outside of journalism. I can't speak for his previous work, but as public editor, he always sounded like somebody bullshitting his way through, biding his time until he could find something better. If Wycliff really cared about being public editor, he sure didn't show it. Goodbye and good riddance.

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