Public Editor #1
by Daniel Okrent
Public Affairs. 291 pp. $22.00
In an ideal world, the job would have been mine. Alas, it was not to be. Instead, the arguably most interesting assignment in all of journalism went to Daniel Okrent, who, just like me, had earlier been a senior editor at Time Inc. In October 2003, Okrent was named the first ombudsman (or “public editor,” as the paper labeled the position) of the New York Times.
Over the past quarter-century, many other big-league newspapers, including the Washington Post, had established ombudsmen positions, but the Times had long resisted them. The theory undergirding this anomalous institution holds that a newspaper benefits when there is an in-house critic looking out for the concerns and preoccupations of the ordinary reader while also offering an independent voice for fairness and accuracy in news coverage. An alternative and rather obvious view, to which the Times clung for years, is that those functions are what the paper’s own editors are presumed to be doing in the normal course of their work. But the Times‘s resistance crumbled in 2003 after its reporter Jayson Blair was exposed as a serial fabricator.
Okrent’s deal with Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, specified that on alternate Sundays he would contribute a critique of the paper to the “Week in Review” section. He would be free to choose the topics he wrote about, and his pieces would be checked only by a copy editor before getting into print. During his eighteen months on the job (a term limit imposed by Okrent himself), he would have some bitter substantive disagreements with Keller and other editors, but the basic arrangement appears to have endured. In general, and despite one or two snarling contests with prima donnas on the Times staff, the public editor received the cooperation he needed to do his job. His book comprises the 38 commentaries that ran in the paper plus assorted second thoughts about them, together with an introduction attempting to describe the culture of the Times and, in general, make sense of his experience.
The ombudsman’s job may be crudely divided into two quite separate tasks, one concerned with various procedural issues—e.g., how the newspaper handles factual corrections—and the other with fairness and biases in reporting. It seems reasonable to assume that readers of the Times care a great deal more about the paper’s fairness than about its in-house procedures. Yet in Public Editor #1 it gradually emerges that most Times writers and editors, and the ombudsman himself, were far more interested in the procedural matters, apparently because they did not see political bias as a serious problem at the Times. (The same appears to hold true for Okrent’s successor in the position, Byron Calame.)
Okrent is interesting on the paper’s handling of corrections. The Times labors mightily to correct factual errors, but it generally does not allow individual readers to point them out in letters to the editor. It wants the record to be set straight only in its own daily “Corrections” department on page 2. Okrent disagrees with this approach. He believes that letter writers should be allowed to stick it to the reporter who committed the original mistake, possibly on the Times website if space in the newspaper is unavailable.
But the procedures that most preoccupy Okrent concern the use of “anonymous sources,” a subject for which 30 citations are listed in the book’s index. The need to attribute some factual assertion to an unnamed “government official” or a congressional aide is an inescapable fact of life for reporters, and not only in Washington. A study cited by Okrent indicates that in December 2003, 40 percent of all bylined stories in the main news section had one or more anonymous sources. While not denying the need occasionally to cite sources who are unwilling to be identified, especially when major national issues are at stake, Okrent posits that the Times leans on them too often, citing, for example, one unnamed tattler who disclosed to Times readers that Barbra Streisand expects hoteliers to sprinkle rose petals in her bathroom. And he argues, although not very persuasively, that the practice has disastrously undermined faith in the veracity of the paper.
It is true that anonymous sources present some special problems. A person not willing to stand publicly behind his assertion may be viewed as inherently less trustworthy. Even if the information he provides is accurate, he may have selfish or corrupt reasons for disclosing it—reasons that possibly belong in the paper’s reportage. In addition, some Times readers may suspect that a cited “government official” is nonexistent—that is, a figure invented, à la Jayson Blair, by a dishonest and/or lazy reporter.
To counter this presumed crisis of confidence, the Times, possibly influenced by its public editor, now demands that, wherever possible, readers be told why a source cannot be named. In February 2004, the paper published detailed guidelines for dealing with these thorny issues (available at www.nytco.com/sources). Okrent, who viewed the document as supremely important, wrote at the time: “This is the journalism conversation that matters more than any other these days.”
Anonymous sources matter more than political biases? How could a thoughtful and gifted writer like Okrent commit himself to such an implausible proposition?
The explanation for Okrent’s skewed preoccupation surely has to do with the unique relationship between an ombudsman and his employer. The former is required to criticize the latter, but also not to get carried away. So it is not entirely surprising that the party of the first part gravitates to issues that are procedural rather than substantive and that could not possibly be read as threats to the editors’ first principles.
Selecting an ombudsman presents a delicate political problem for any newspaper, and the problem was obviously highlighted at the Times, whose political perspective is rather well defined and yet eternally controversial. The whole exercise would appear pointless if the in-house critic turned out not to be very critical, but the paper would risk massive disruption if it ended up with an ombudsman who perpetually pointed out how the editors’ political ideas were being advanced in the ostensibly neutral news pages.
Okrent, one of several candidates for the job (the others included a judge and a pastor), must have looked like the ideal compromise. In his first outing, he told Times readers that he was “a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.” In addition, he came across as a sensible fellow who understood that the rules of the game forbade a frontal challenge.
Even so, Okrent found a lot to criticize in the Times, and occasionally let fly with judgments that were indeed remote from Upper West Side orthodoxy. He derided the editorial page as “saturated in liberal theology.” He said that the op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, an insistently partisan Democrat, had “the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing, and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.” In the book’s introduction, he speaks sympathetically of a couple of politically conservative Times writers (unnamed) who were constantly made aware of being “different” from other staff members.
Despite these forays from right field, however, it does not take long for the reader of Public Editor #1 to become aware that Okrent is a political and social liberal. He voted for Kerry in 2004 and believes in affirmative action, gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, gun control, and higher taxes on the rich. Even in his occasional needling of liberal follies, he never squarely takes on any major article of faith at the Times.
One senses, in fact, that Okrent is not entirely comfortable dealing at close quarters with political arguments. In October 2004, having earlier raised the question of whether the Times‘s coverage of the presidential campaign was biased (and concluding that it was not), he released his “public editor” space for a debate on the subject between Todd Gitlin, a liberal sociologist based at Columbia University, and Bob Kohn, a conservative California lawyer. Who needs an ombudsman for that?
Okrent’s most dangerous moment began with a July 2004 entry titled: “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” To which his answer is: “Of course it is.” In elaborating this crisp response, he slides into a devastating critique of the paper’s coverage of gay marriage. He begins by observing that he personally believes homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexual couples, but also that all sides of any controversial issue should be subject to “robust examination.” He is disappointed by the Times‘s unwillingness to apply this obviously desirable standard to the subject of gay marriage.
Other liberal publications, Okrent notes, including the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, had managed to incorporate coverage of some of the problems associated with gay marriage into their reporting—the Chronicle, for instance, had run a lengthy account of one scholar’s argument that gay marriage in the Netherlands has had a deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage there. By contrast, the Times‘s reporting came across as unabashed advocacy and what Okrent calls “cheerleading.”
This article set off a firestorm of protest among Times readers, and the public editor was obviously shaken by the reaction. Commenting on it in his “second thoughts,” he reiterates his support for gay marriage but not the substance of his critique of the Times‘s reporting, settling instead for an explanation of why he and his critics disagree:
We read the way we read, and write the way we write, because of the intricate complexes of personal history, experience, and attitude that make us who we are.
This is lame, if not incoherent.
On the whole, readers of Public Editor #1 will sense that they are getting a good inside look at the operation of the paper. Whether they got something more than this from Okrent’s tenure, or whether it is even possible for an ombudsman to take on “fairness” at the Times, is another question.