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December 11, 2003

Tough Guy Journalism More in Vogue in LA

Tim Rutten of the LA Times has big problems with the new ombudsman at the New York Times. Rutten's objections put public editor Daniel Okrent on the couch. "Narcissism" is the charge.

Tim Rutten, media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, did not wait long to announce that the experiment with a public editor at the New York Times was off track. Reacting to Daniel Okrent’s debut in the Times of 43rd Street, Rutten saw serious problems.

First problem: the Times “surrendered to fashion” when it created the public editor’s position. (Or: you should have more backbone, New York, like we in LA showed with the groping story during recall days. It wasn’t the popular thing to do. We did it anyway. And took the heat.) Okrent himself surrendered, according to Rutten, when he chose to include in his inaugural column—called “An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself”— information that introduced himself. Here’s the offending passage, in the critic’s eyes:

Draw a line from The Times’s editorials on the left side to William Safire’s column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action.

Rutten psychologizes Okrent’s reasons for revealing this stuff. He puts him on the critic’s couch. His Okrent is not stating in a confident and forthright manner, “Sure, I have my own politcs. And so do you.” Nothing like that. He’s confessing, in a more or less guilty way, to his own bias. “Confession of this sort may be good for the soul, as in the confessional, or for the psyche, as on the therapist’s couch,” Rutten wrote.

But it’s bad policy to release personal facts that really ought to be irrelevant. It gives ground to the crazies who populate talk show America. These people scream nonstop about political bias because it keeps them in an insulated world, griping about a press corps that will never conform to their ideology. Hunting bias is “appealing not only because it involves opinion rather than hard-won facts, but also because it suits our currently polarized politics and the culture of narcissism that dictates so much of our social thinking.”

Note that psychoanalytic term, narcissism. It’s doing two things. It’s a dig at Okrent for writing a self-involved column. And it dimisses a popular form of press criticism, bias talk, not as incorrect, but as infantile: I want news of the world to reflect me back to me; and I am going to scream, (and compile skewed statistics) until I get what I want. This is what Tim Rutten, the adult in the room, hears.

By telling us who he is, politically, Okrent agreed with the wingnuts that “who he is, politically” matters to his work as an editor. Rutten says: hold it there. Where-I-am-coming-from information should not matter if you are a journalist doing the job. And if you say it matters (or can’t hurt), then you have bought into what the bias crowd is selling. You may have lost your nerve. Either that or you are naive about how the information will be loaded into critics’ guns and fired at you.

The New York Times held one position about the ombudsman (or reader advocate) from 1967 until the summer of 2003. “Not needed, good editors already represent readers.” This year it changed its mind after Jason Blair happened and the Times took stock. (See PressThink on the Siegal Report.) Rutten liked the old policy:

Fairness, accuracy and consideration of the readers’ interests were the responsibility of every reporter and editor on the paper. To locate those obligations on a single set of shoulders in some way lifts them from everyone else’s. It was a sound argument then and it still is.

But as Tim Porter points out, “Responsibility to readers—and to the larger public trust—is not a zero-sum game.” Having one editor who thinks full time about that responsibility does not mean others will abandon it. Why should something crazy like that happen? The LA Times has copy editors. Does that lift from the shoulders of everyone else the responsibility for correct grammar, correct style, correct spelling, correct names and dates? No. Professional pride does not permit that kind of complacency, (just let the copy desk catch it) and it would not allow it in the case of the public editor.

In a professional newsroom, accuracy, fairness, serving readers, earning the public’s trust are everyone’s responsibility. At the Times of New York, they were basic standards the day before Okrent started his job, and they will no doubt remain basic—constitutional for Times journalists—for the 18 months he will be on the job. Tim Porter adds:

Acceptance of that responsibility—and the obligation of higher editorial standards and day-to-day newsroom work that accompanies it—is the first step toward lifting the shroud of mediocrity that hangs over too many newspapers, but editors and reporters and copy editors and other journalists aren’t always fair or accurate or considerate of readers, and then readers become confused or angry or frustrated with the newspaper. That’s when they need someone like Okrent to step up for them.

I found it curious that Rutten, who after all believes in accuracy, tried to concoct a professional vogue for reader advocates, a trend. “Ombudsmen are the flavor of the month in American journalism,” he says. But what month would that be? There are about 45 U.S. newspapers that employ an ombudsman, under a variety of titles. Their professional organization (ONO) has a whopping 85 members worldwide. There are about 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States. So the “wave” that is said to have swept over Bill Keller’s Times has so far taken in three percent of the newspaper press, from small towns to big cities. That’s in the 36 years since the first ombudsman (Louisville Courier Journal, 1967.) Why is Rutten warning about an oncoming fad when 97 percent of American newspapers have so far resisted that fad?

Because it’s the New York Times, silly. Instead of recognizing the singularity of Okrent’s position—first public editor at the most powerful newspaper in the most powerful country in the world—Rutten relied on “fad” and “narcissism,” which in the press fraternity are just forms of insult. Which explains why he’s willing to have a conversation of columns that goes like this:

Okrent: Hi, I am the new public editor. Let me introduce myself.
Rutten: Introduce your self? What a narcissist!

Whereas others might see it as simple politeness. Still others may find it refreshing that a journalist embarking on an experiment in openness says, “yes, I have a political mind and some definite leanings… here they are.” A good many Americans (and some who comment at PressThink) are ready for the disclosure ethic in political journalism— waiting for it. But not so they can pounce on bias, which they do not see as some punishable sin.

Rather, these new wave citizen-critics are accepting of human plurality, conscious of human perspective, confident that, if they know where you’re coming from, they can filter what you tell them accordingly. They think a good news organization is an intelligent filter on the world. They don’t believe in the view from nowhere. And they tend to react badly to news providers who say: no filter here, just news, facts, truth… the world. If newspapers were truly interested in young people, they would realize that a higher proportion of young people see things this way, especially those who cruise for news on the Net.

To this much larger “party” out there, which does not correspond to any known side in the culture wars or bias fights, journalists become realer and more believable, not when they claim to have the view from nowhere, not when they let biases show in their work, (who wants that?) but when they describe themselves in ways recognizably human. Which is all Okrent was doing in column one. The theory is not elaborate: disclosure improves credibility.

It is quite unwise of Rutten to sneer at this, since he and his colleagues are constantly relying on the logic of disclosure in pushing for the story to come out. Okrent wasn’t confessing to bias in describing himself a social liberal, a free-trader, and a centrist Democrat in foreign policy. Nor was he falling in love with his reflection in the New York Times. He was treating readers like adults.

Editor John Carroll’s column to readers after the groping stories, Dean Baquet’s speech in New Orleans on the same subject, and now Rutten’s column share in putting forward a tough guy tone in big city journalism. I suppose it’s in reaction to what is seen as too much coddling of readers, and the threat of cave-in to politically motivated critics. To me that is a bad read on the politics of being the press these days. But I do not pretend to understand the internal politics at the Los Angeles Times.

Rutten had one great idea. He quoted Matt Welch:

Welch found Okrent’s debut “disarmingly open and honest” and a “strategically brilliant way of disarming the bias issue.” The problem, said Welch “is that I don’t regard the Times as a fundamentally biased newspaper. The proof of its willingness to make needed change is not to have a smart, funny guy write an occasional column, but to have editors and reporters who admit their mistakes and who go out and ask people what they think of the paper’s work. That’s hard, but important.”

I agree with that.

Check the comments section where the discussion continues with Matt Welch, Tom Mangan, Len Witt, Jamie Gold, Stirling Newberry, Jay Rosen and others.

Tim Dunlop, an Australian writing from DC: “transparency of interest is more important than independence and objectivity.”

See also these PressThink posts:

Flagship Turns: A Public Editor for the Times of New York (Sep. 10)
The Siegal Report: A Trumph of Self Reflection at the New York Times. (Oct. 28)
A Public Editor for an Internet Public. (Nov. 25)

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part One. (Oct. 24)
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part Two. (Oct. 25)

LA Times Editor is Defiant: Don’t Like Our Investigations? Go Elsewhere.
(Oct. 13)
Exit, Voice and Loyalty and the Los Angeles Times. (Nov. 14)

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 11, 2003 11:40 PM