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May 13, 2005

In Praise of Daniel Okrent

"The public editor's job is a deeply political one. Rather than regret this he plunged in, changing the way the public is represented within the newsroom. That means tampering with the journalism gods. But they were angry with the New York Times, so it had to be done."

Ultimately Daniel Okrent will have had more influence on the New York Times than the notorious Jayson Blair.

Although his 18-month appointment as public editor was supposed to be a trial period, there was no agonizing about whether the position should be continued. Everyone knew it should be. Everyone knew it would be. And on April 5th, the Times simply named a new public editor, Byron E. Calame. He will officially take over in June. Okrent’s last column will be May 22nd. It should be an interesting one.

I see Okrent’s lasting influence in four main areas:

1.) He changed the way readers were represented at the Times; this is to my mind his most important and far-reaching accomplishment, and I discuss it more below.

2.) Executive editor Bill Keller created the job (and he had his own ideas about how it should work, which have been vindicated) but Okrent created the “office” of public editor, with various procedures for responsiveness. For example: an e-mail address ( and a phone number (212-556-7652) that actually work.

3.) He listened (and responded) to critics of the Times more carefully than people at the newspaper thought necessary— even the most partisan critics. He once wrote, “Closing one’s ears to the complaints of partisans would also entail closing one’s mind to the substance of their arguments.” This he declined to do. In fact, he said his primary advice to Barney Calame would be to “engage with the paper’s critics.”

I’ve had incredibly valuable, and frequently fascinating, conversations with Times detractors ranging from FAIR to CAMERA to Accuracy in Media; with people who find the paper anti-Catholic, anti-Labor, or anti-Whatever. The practice has done two things for me: it’s enabled me to empathize with the critics, but also with those who daily endure the assaults of the critics.

4.) One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper. And even though he meant “…on social issues only!” it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times— and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he’s right.

In appreciating Okrent, it’s good to go back to the reasoning that held across the 36 years in which the New York Times refused to appoint an ombudsman. It went like this: “Every editor should represent the interests of the reader, and respond to complaints if they have merit. That’s what good editors do. We have good editors. We need no ombudsman.”

There the matter rested until the deeds of Jayson Blair, which led to the Siegal Report in 2003, which recommended the ombudsman. Although it initially divided the committee, the old argument that readers were adequately represented by the system of internal controls was defeated in favor of a more “decisive symbol of accountability,” as Allan Siegal put it.

“The New York Times had a firmly entrenched, almost bitter opposition to the appointment of an ombudsman, and we turned around on that,” he later said. Yes, as a matter of policy. But Okrent still had to overcome this opposition in the day-to-day sense, and on the whole he succeeded.

It should not be forgotten that while Blair’s crimes were shocking enough, and the lapses that permitted them more so, the thing that was truly shocking to people at the Times, and in the rest of journalism, was that readers who might have alerted the newspaper to what was happening either gave up or didn’t bother because they assumed it wouldn’t do any good. No one was listening. (See “Blair’s Victims: That Helpless Feeling.”) As publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. said:

One of the things that I found most upsetting about the Jayson Blair ordeal is that we received so few phone calls from those individuals who were mistreated in his deeply flawed stories. They just generally assumed that newspapers operated that way. They expected that the editors wouldn’t care.

A rogue reporter could be explained. The collapse of internal controls was harder to explain, but that could be fixed with internal reforms. Yet that feeling among readers—“the editors wouldn’t care”—could not be explained, or refuted; and there was no easy way to fix it. This was a complete shock.

It led not only to the public editor’s position, but to a second Siegal committee that Keller created to search for ways to improve accountability, trust, and openness. That report (posted here as a pdf file) came back last week; and it has a number of imaginative recommendations in it, like this one under the heading “enlarge our working definition of what constitutes news.”

Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox views and contrarian opinions and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than those most of us experience. We need to listen carefully to colleagues who are at home in realms that are not familiar to most of us.

Or this one on the way “cumulative coverage” can reflect hidden assumptions:

Though we have our lapses, individual news stories on emotional topics like abortion, gun control, the death penalty and gay marriage are reported and edited with great care, to avoid any impression of bias. Nonetheless, when numerous articles use the same assumption as a point of departure, that monotone can leave the false impression that the paper has chosen sides… despite the strict divide between editorial pages and news pages, The Times can come across as an advocate.

Or this one on how “framing” issues in one way excludes others:

The public editor found that the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, “approaches cheerleading.” By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter—gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else—we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural and religious life.

“The public editor found…” This gets to the Okrent effect that may be the most lasting. There were a lot of ways he could have done the job; after all, he was inventing it from scratch. The key choice he made actually began with the choice Keller made to appoint an outsider. Not only had Okrent never worked at the Times; he had no newspaper background to speak of. This meant he could never speak with the authority of daily newsoom experience, which is virtually the only kind of authority newspaper journalists respect on questions of practice.

He didn’t have that. So what did he have? Okrent grasped right away that while having space in the paper, and an 18-month appointment from Keller gave him a certain power to shame and expose, his only source of authority, which is a different thing, lay with readers themselves, and his capacity actually to represent them.

His most intelligent move, in my opinion, was to define himself not as a colleague with the public editor’s job, or as an outside critic, but as a kind of super-reader, or “reader with access.” Meaning that unlike you and I, he could get answers, and put those answers in the paper. In Jacques Steinberg’s article announcing Okrent’s appointment, this philosophy was already on view:

Unlike most of the reader representatives at other newspapers, Mr. Okrent said, he does not intend to write internal memorandums to the newspaper staff, saying the readers were his constituency.

Part of creating the office of public editor was working out the procedures by which he could interrupt busy people, pose annoying questions and get replies from editors, reporters and bosses at the Times. Another part was taming the tide of incoming e-mails and phone calls so that his sense of what his contituency was worried about could be empirically grounded. Thus:

Dan Okrent, the public editor, told the committee that when readers complain to him, anonymous sourcing is the No. 1 killer of our credibility. We cannot afford to ignore that finding.

Indeed. And they could not afford to ignore Okrent because he had successfully tapped his only source of authority. Everything journalists at the Times do they allegedly due in the name of the Times reader. But that is an abstraction, and all too many journalists like it that way. The Reader as a distant god to be served is a way of not dealing with the messy responses of actual readers— sometimes called “real people” by newsroom inhabitants.

When the second Siegal committee tested other channels the Times had set up for receiving complaints or feedback from readers, it found “dismal results.” Meaning: no reply most of the time from the various desks responsible. But those who have tested the public editor’s office have generally found the opposite. Okrent or his office actually answer. This has become a standard the newspaper as a whole wants to meet; and there are many on the staff who do meet it— but not enough of them.

Numerous bloggers and critics of the paper—including myself—can testify to what Donald Luskin called a “productive relationship” with Okrent, who seems genuinely interested in what we have to say. (Ask Robert Cox.) This in itself is new. We’ll have to establish that all over again with Byron E. Calame, but I am hopeful it will happen.

I write today in praise of Daniel Okrent because he did a good job, but mostly because of the way he defined his job: the reader with total access, the writer weighing every word, a thinker willing to go outside the Times for better ways to understand it. He became that decisive symbol of accountability; the experiment has, I think, been a success.

Okrent and Bill Keller knew that the public editor’s job is a deeply political one. Rather than regret this he plunged in, changing the way the public is represented within the newsroom. That means tampering with the journalism gods. But they were angry with the New York Times, so it had to be done.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Jeff Jarvis seconds the motion:

Dan did more than change The Times, he changed journalism. He reversed the flow in the pipe and showed the good journalism that can come from conversation.

What made him different from other ombudsman was that he did not just try to represent or explain or slap the paper; he made the public an equal in the conversation and he pushed both sides to do better.

Armando at Daily Kos roundly disagrees. See Praise For Okrent? Logrolling? “Jay Rosen is respected by many, including mostly me, at dailykos. But he blew a lot of my respect with his paean to Daniel Okrent,” says Armando.

Personally, I felt completely unrepresented by Okrent, whose assistants fired off insulting and cruel e-mails to readers with complaints, who personally penned an insulting column (now behind a firewall) attacking critics from the Left and who never, to my knowledge, addressed a substantive criticism from the Left.

Daniel Okrent tells “On the Media” about his column calling the Times a liberal newspaper:

I probably did not do the paper as much service as I would have liked to with that column, because by the very headline, and the first line, which was: “Of course it is,” I handed the paper’s enemies something that could be taken radically out of context. I made it too quotable. I believe that, as I wrote at great length in that column, that the Times is on certain issues, social issues, a liberal newspaper as a result of the place that it is published from and the nature of the people, the backgrounds of the people who work at the Times. It’s not because somebody is sitting upstairs and saying let’s make this a liberal newspaper. It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it’s really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived as a result of that.

New York Daily News reporter Derek Rose at his blog:

Our readers will continue to be our most important fact-checkers — and we need to make it easier for them to reach us. Publishing email addresses isn’t nearly good enough. We need to be interacting publicly with our readers — hopefully assuaging not only the concerns of an individual reader , but also demonstrating to everyone who cares to listen that we take customers’ complaints seriously.

Previous PressThink posts that bear on this one:

Some Blogging and Citizen Journalism Items…

I’m still in Oz at the moment, exploring life beyond the International Date Line (weird, weird) but on Monday, May 16 I’ll be joining in the big Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York, which is bringing a lot of influentials to town. Read Micah Sifrey’s description of what’s in store. I’ll be on the closing panel with Chuck Defeo, who ran the Bush/Cheney ‘04 online campaign; Tucker Eskew, deputy assistant to President Bush until 2003 and now a communications strategist; Arianna Huffington, fresh from the debut of The Huffington Post; Jeff Jarvis, whom you know, moderated by Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has started a new weblog covering the world of blogs and assigned a top-notch reporter to it, Daniel Rubin. His official debut is Monday, May 16. But it’s up now and it’s called Blinq. “I cover the blogosphere,” Rubin writes, “trawling the nearly 10 million sites of vaunted wisdom and unvarnished pablum so you don’t have to.” Good luck, Daniel.

And at the opposite end of the Keystone State, Pittsburgh Dish has debuted. It’s a local blog started by three journalists. I’ll let them describe what they are up to:

First and foremost — oh, hell, exclusively — we hope, though trial and error, to be a resource to our community. With any luck we will achieve this by writing about local issues that escape the eye of traditional media, of which we were once a part at both daily and alternative weekly newspapers as well as the odd magazine or two. The Nation, Rolling Stone and the New York Times are not among these publications. And with even more luck, we will achieve this goal with a bit of humor, panache if you prefer, style and, when the occasion calls for it, gravitas. We hope that last thing is rarely required.

Journalists afraid to be serious? That would be funny. Anyway, warmest welcome, Dishers. You guys need a local bloggers list.

Wow. Voices of San Diego is a serious development in nonprofit, Web-based local journalism and citizen’s media. Read their about page— intriguing stuff. See Steve Outing’s take on why it matters. And check out Sarah Colombo’s piece in Online Journalism Review. There’s newspaper journalism in the project’s DNA. I agree with Outing: “Such non-profit news organizations could in the future fill a void left by the slow erosion of the newspaper industry.”

Witt Note: Dan Gillmor has launched Bayosphere, his new community blog. See more at PJNet. The Spokane mayor discussion is part of the first set of posts.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 13, 2005 10:04 AM