Alumni Profile – 1980s

Balancing Act

Journalism alumna rises to pinnacle while pushing for agenda-free reporting

by Coleman Cornelius | Photo: CSU Department of Journalism and Media Communication

Liz Spayd recently likened her job as public editor at The New York Times to that of a police officer in internal affairs: “You’re critiquing everyone and telling them what they’re doing wrong, and you’re doing it publicly,” she said, adding wryly, “so it’s a lot of fun for everyone.”

Her high-profile role at the nation’s newspaper of record, which she held during the election of President Donald J. Trump, put Spayd in the crossfire of inflamed public and political  discourse. From that position, she called on fellow journalists to identify and correct political bias in news coverage.

Spayd shared insights about the role of the Fourth Estate during a roundtable discussion sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts last fall, titled “Civic Engagement and Governance in a Polarized Society.” She spoke alongside CSU topliners John Straayer, from political science; Albert Bimper, from ethnic studies; and Bill Ritter, former Colorado governor and head of the University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.

A 1981 graduate in technical journalism, Spayd honed an interest in classic investigative reporting and media ethics during heady times for her profession, when would-be governmentwatchdogs flocked to journalism school inspired by the influential work of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal of the early ’70s. Spayd ultimately built a 25-year career at the Washington Post, rising to the level of managing editor – the first woman to do so – and helping to lead multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting efforts, including the paper’s coverage of the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

Spayd, who grew up in Denver, has held three of the most prestigious jobs in journalism, said Greg Luft, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Communication. From the Washington Post, she was named editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, then became public editor for The New York Times. She now is a consultant for Facebook, pushing the social media colossus to greater transparency on issues ranging from fake news to Russia-linked ads.

Her yearlong stint as public editor for The Times has been her toughest job so far, in part because it required publicly critiquing her peers. She urged a core ideal: “We need to be our best selves as journalists,” Spayd said.

“I wanted to see us write with a sense of responsibility about the entire country and speak to the entire country,” she said.

But that message can be tough to deliver in chaotic political times.

The day after Trump’s election in November 2016, Spayd wrote a column as public editor under the headline, “Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking.” In it, she criticized The New York Times for failing to consistently publish “the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.”

That shortcoming at her paper and other mass media outlets, she argued, prevented politicos and readers nationwide from fully understanding concerns among the disaffected American working class – and from accurately predicting the election’s outcome.

Shortly after the critique appeared, Fox News host Tucker Carlson – a self-described “sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and group think” – invited Spayd on his show to discuss media bias. Spayd knew she was entering a combat zone, but she decided it would be hypocritical to decline the invitation. To Tucker Carlson Tonight she went.

During their exchange about The New York Times, Spayd told Carlson, “I see the vast majority of journalists who walk in that door every day who work hard to have high journalistic standards. But I do agree with you that, especially when it comes to political coverage, the guns can get pointed too much in one direction.”

The first wave of response, from members of the Fox News audience, was grateful to Spayd for what she calls “crossing the red line” to listen to a variety of viewpoints. Then, after a media blogger wrote about the interview, Spayd became the focus of what she described as a Twitter storm of brutal personal attacks from journalists and liberals.

“I was blown away by it,” she told a rapt campus audience. “It spoke to so much that’s going on in this country right now.”

The experience reinforced Spayd’s belief that mainstream media outlets have contributed to national divisiveness by focusing too much on vitriolic campaign rallies and provocative presidential tweets, while investing too little in deep reporting and classic investigative journalism that would unveil activities within critical federal agencies.

“It’s a matter of balance,” she said during the Great Conversations program at CSU. “It’s a matter of thinking about, ‘What is our civic role?’ The media entered our society generations ago to play a role that is a lot larger than chasing after tweets.”

Her advice?

“Get that outside voice, that other voice and opinion, and really pause and think, ‘That person has a completely different life than I have.’ If we could insert more of that in our lives, I think that’s where polarization can improve.”

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