When Daniel Okrent accepted the newly created position of Public Editor for The New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal, he knew that he would face resentment from inside the newspaper, where some reporters and editors took extreme exception to having their work publicly monitored and critiqued; and additional acrimony from readers who believe the Times (pick one): a) harbors a liberal bias, b) delights in exploiting sources, c) has no regard for accuracy, or d) all of the above.
Blair's admission in May 2003 that he had made up details, quotes and even whole stories represented only the most prominent fraud in a recent wave of duplicities by reporters and editors. Stephen Glass' edgy articles for the New Republic, it turned out, had more in common with fairy tales than non-fiction. Elsewhere, syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams was recently revealed to have been a phenomenally well-paid shill for the Bush administration's education policies, and Long Island Newsday copped to cooking its circulation numbers.
Okrent explains that he reports on ethics rather than enforces ethical codes. But as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed long ago, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." And, since his column's debut in December 2003, Okrent has cast light into that most Byzantine and imposing of American media institutions, The New York Times. While his critiques of the Times are blunt and sometimes chiding, Okrent holds the paper in high esteem and believes that the kind of transparency promoted by his column only strengthens the paper's utility and credibility.
Okrent describes his tenure as the Times' official lighting rod as both enlightening and stressful and, while he has no regrets about taking the job in the first place, he is counting the days until his contract expires at the end of May 2005.
Among the numerous practices that Okrent, who is an independent contractor paid by The New York Times, and not a staff editor, has dissected (and sometimes fricasseed) are:
- "Rowback"-the practice of writing a story that corrects a fact in a previous story without revealing the earlier story was in error. In a March 2004 column, Okrent wrote: "A less charitable definition might read, 'a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed.'"1
- Lavish coverage of the Tony Awards, which he pointed out in a May 2004 column pretty much amounted to a valentine to some of the Times' best advertising patrons.2 (The Times has since curbed its enthusiasm.)
- The oblique nature of corrections, with their "runic syntax...elliptic references [and] straight-faced earnestness of a prose style that has acquired the gloss of self-parody."3
As I.F. Stone pointed out in his book The Trial of Socrates, exhorting others to virtue is "never an endearing profession."4 Okrent can relate. He hears readers complaints in one ear and grumbling from Times' staffers who are the subjects of his Sunday columns in the other. Still, he believes the creation of the Public Editor post has made the Times a better and more conscientious newspaper (he is adamant in pointing out that the credit goes to the position, not him personally). The column, he explains, is a catalyst for conversations about journalistic practices and ethics-within the Times and among its readers.
Those conversations, though, may also happen because Okrent does not write in the dour voice of the schoolmarm. His prose is lively and witty, making his columns worth reading even when one may not find the particular topic of much interest on a given Sunday.
When Times Executive Editor Bill Keller went looking for a Public Editor as the newspaper wound up its investigation of Jayson Blair's deceptions, he sought "someone smart, curious, rigorous, fair-minded and independent...with the reporting skills to figure out how decisions get made at the paper, the judgment to reach conclusions about whether and where we go astray, and the writing skills to explain all of this to our readers." Okrent, Keller said at the time of his hiring, "fits the bill."5
In his debut column, Okrent confessed that while in college he was a "not-very-good campus correspondent for The Times, a little on the lazy side," but his inauspicious start in journalism was not a portent.6 He eventually founded the award-winning New England Monthly, became managing editor at Life, was editor of Time's new media operations and served as an editor-at-large at that magazine. After leaving Time in 2001, and prior to signing on as Public Editor at the Times, he produced Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (Viking, 2003). Somehow, he also found the time to help invent rotisserie baseball.7
Okrent recently talked with this writer for MEDIA ETHICS about his experiences as the Times' first Public Editor. While he was ambivalent about casting himself as an in-house ethicist-preferring instead to emphasize his role as a surrogate for readers-he agreed that accountability, an ethical keystone, is at the heart of his work.
Q: I want to talk about various facets of your work as Public Editor, but since my primary focus is on ethics, let's start there. Do you think the creation and evolution of your position has had the effect of putting ethics closer to the foreground at the Times?
A: Well, I don't think that the average reporter is thinking about ethics any more than he did before. In practice, the presence of my writing has compelled a certain number of conversations that might not otherwise...have taken place.
Q: From reading your columns and Web journal, dissatisfied readers seem to cast their complaints in ethical terms: To wit: So-called political bias, misquotation, failure to run corrections, etc., are really at heart charges that the paper hasn't acted ethically-at least by their lights. Are you, in some senses, an ethics cop?
A: I suppose in some ways. But I think I am more of an ethics reporter in the sense that an ethics cop has the power of enforcement, which I do not have. I make recommendations and I make noise publicly which is why I would say that I am an ethics reporter.
Q: Is there a disconnect in how readers see the Times' contract with them and how the reporters and editors perceive that contract? How would you describe the contract between a newspaper and its readers?
A: Yes, I think that is a very common disconnect. I think that the reporters and editors get a little insulated about [their work] and they begin to think from the perspective of another professional rather than that of the great unwashed readership out there.
Q: What are some of the points of conflict where the reporters or editors just have a completely different idea about that contract than the readers?
A: I think the leading area, and I have written a lot about this, is unattributed quotations and the assertion of facts without either the evidence of the fact to back it up, or the writer's willingness to put his or her own reputation behind the assertion of fact. I find that readers really don't believe unattributed quotations. They think that reporters just make them up. Now, I don't think reporters make them up, but that is the sort of disconnect that exists. You will find reporters saying, "Well, I know that we don't make it up. We don't do that at the Times. How can you raise that question?" And I say, "Don't look at me, look at the readers who are doubting what we are saying."
Q: It seems to me that Watergate was the beginning of this acceleration of anonymous sources. Is there any way to go back? I mean, if you ask someone about the weather today, they'll say, "Well, let's go off the record."
A: Right. And the mistake I believe reporters make is that they say, "Okay," when in fact, if you say, "No. I will only publish if it's on the record" . . . it compels honesty from the person you are talking to and it discourages scurrilous spin.
Q: Yes, I tell my students that if someone agrees to an interview they have already made the decision to talk and if you catch them off guard and say, "No I need to interview you on the record," you have a 50-50 shot of getting it on the record.
A: I think you are absolutely right, I was taught by Jimmy Breslin thirty years ago that when people begin saying to you, "I want to tell you something, but can I tell you off the record?" they've already made the commitment that they want to tell it to you. And if you say, "No I can't [go] off the record," they will often find a way of saying it.
Q: To what extent has the position of Public Editor met your expectations and what are some of the things you didn't anticipate?
A: Well, you know, I knew that it was going to be very difficult and very tense and filled with contention. But knowing that and experiencing it are two very different things. When you go to have a root canal you know that it's going to hurt, but that doesn't keep it from hurting when you actually have the root canal. And so though I intellectually knew the difficulties, I didn't really internally feel them.
Q: What are some of the things that came out of left field, where something landed on your desk or a call came in and you thought, "Gee, I never thought this would happen"?
A: Well, one of those things is that people use me for purposes that have nothing to do with my intent. So I might write something about the Times' political coverage and then find on a very partisan Web site that I am quoted, and it is taken out of context, of course, to support the point of the complainant. And I'm inevitably identified as the Times' own Daniel Okrent as if the Times is admitting something, when in fact I am not the Times' Daniel Okrent, I am my own Daniel Okrent who just happens to have a column at the Times.
Q: I imagine that it can be a point of tension if someone attacks a reporter and uses you, in effect, as an expert witness....
A: Yep, and you know there is a worry about that happening in a libel suit. It hasn't happened.
Q: What is the structure of your position? Do you work for The New York Times Company?
A: No, I am a contractor. I am not an employee. I don't have any benefits. I have a contract and I am paid by The New York Times.
Q: This position was created in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. After nearly a year in office is there a diminished likelihood now that such an episode could recur?
A: Well, I don't think that is because of my presence. I think that there is a severely diminished likelihood of that occurring simply because the Times has been through it. Now, maybe 25 years from now when people have forgotten . . . but it is so fresh and so raw a wound that they don't need me to prevent that from happening.
Q: What are some of the continuing reverberations of that episode in the culture of The New York Times?
A: I think that there is much more attention being paid to complaints when they arise. There is less of a tendency to say it is just somebody bellyaching if they say [a story] is inaccurate. For instance, the prosecuting attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland, who said that the Blair stories about the D.C. sniper were all wrong. I think the people might listen more carefully [to such a complaint], particularly about an untried reporter with a long record of factual mistakes.
Q: In what way do you think the corporate culture of the Times newsroom contributed to the Blair episode? The story the Times published about its investigation into the Blair case was extraordinary and it seemed to me that there were some managers who suspected Blair and sort of passed him off like a live hand grenade, hoping he would go off in someone else's hands.
A: That sounds right. You know fundamentally the same things I know. I was not there at the time. I have heard stories, but I don't have any direct experience with what it was like, but I do get that sense of what you just described.
Q: How much direct contact do you have with reporters and editors? Do they dread a call from the Public Editor? Do you think they open the Sunday op-ed section with a sense of anxiety that they might be the subject of a column?
A: Well, I talk to or e-mail or have phone conversations with them every day. They range from earnest and cooperative and friendly conversations to some really rather nasty, vituperative stuff. More the former more than the latter these days, I am happy to say. But, you know, yesterday I had lunch with the Metropolitan Editor. A very pleasant lunch. We get on perfectly well. We disagreed about half a dozen things intensely, but civilly.
Q: Didn't you tell me last time we talked that the Sunday op-ed page editor won't speak to you?
A: Well, the Sunday Weekend Review editor. That is no longer true. That was the case earlier on. She didn't respond to my e-mails.
Q: What was the beef?
A: She just didn't like anything about me.
A: She didn't like me, she didn't like what I had to say, didn't like my delivery schedule, didn't like the fact that I wrote so long. Look, she lost real estate [space in the Sunday op-ed section] that she has no control over and I am somewhat sympathetic to that.
Q: Could you talk about the gamut of reactions you get from reporters when you call and say, "I'm looking into a story you worked on"?
A: We generally do it by e-mail because I think it is worth it for everybody to have a firm record. And, you know, some are very responsive and some are responsive but hostile, like "Who the hell are you to be asking this? If you knew anything about journalism you wouldn't go this far." Some are very civil. It is a wide range. It reflects the nature of the species.
Q: Well, I think you mentioned earlier that the best reporters actually welcome the opportunity [to explain or correct their work].
A: Yes, that is what has been both interesting and gratifying: That the very best, the stars here, when I say that I have a problem or the reader does, they thank me.
Q: How many issues or columns start with readers' e-mails and how many from your own perusal of the Times?
A: I'd say they mostly start with reader e-mails although sometimes there is a subject on my mind and I feel prodded to actually do it when I get the reader e-mail.
Q: What would you describe so far as your finest moment?
A: I think that the two things I am most proud of were my analysis of the weapons of mass destruction reporting-how that went wrong. And secondarily my columns on the question of unattributed sources. And I will continue to get back to that.
Q: Have you ever encountered any interference from above, you know, someone saying, "How about laying off this, Dan? How about letting this one pass?"
A: Appeals have been made to me, but not from above. And when I say above I mean from the masthead or the publisher. In one instance, someone on the masthead said, "Wait a few days on this one because I think the results will be different from what you may think they will be." And he was right.... And, you know, he probably ran the risk of my printing that they asked me to hold back on this one, but I trusted him. That was the important thing.
Q: Sometimes you do a column on a particular story, but sometimes you do a column on an institutional practice. I loved your column on the cryptic nature of corrections. You also wrote about conflict of interest and the coverage of the Tony Awards. What kind of feedback do you get when you do a more institutionally oriented column criticizing a Times' policy?
A: Well, on the corrections one I got nothing but positive response. The only negative response was from readers asking, "Why are you writing about such trivia when our boys are dying in Iraq?" That's a constant refrain when I write about anything that isn't earthshaking. Certainly that happened a lot when I wrote about the Tony Awards. The response to the Tony Awards column was both extremely positive and extremely negative inside the paper. There were people in the paper who sent me letters of gratitude saying that it's about time that somebody called us on this thing, including [Managing Editor Bill] Keller, and he ordered up a change in the coverage, which I was very glad to see.
Q: I assume when you did the column entitled, "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper" you interviewed [Publisher Arthur] Sulzberger. What was that like? Was he receptive to that? Sulzberger keeps a very low profile.
A: Yeah, and I haven't gone to him often. I think that I've invoked him in two maybe three columns and when I did that one it was important because he's the one who calls the editorial policy to the editorial page. And it is also a question that comes up a lot. Now, he might have said to me, as he has in other times, "I will be happy to talk with you on background about this but I am really not in the practice in being quoted in my paper." But on that one he thought it was important enough and I think that the nature of the conversation was pretty well reflected in what I published.
Q: How can newspapers better enforce ethical codes? How can they try to maintain an ethical standard among reporters and editors?
A: Just keep talking about it. Probably the greatest contribution that I am making is keeping the conversation ongoing. And that compels people to think about these issues.
Q: Public satisfaction with news outlets keeps hitting new lows, if you can believe what's in the papers. How can the news media restore trust?
A: Transparency. I think that is another very, very good thing-not about what I am doing, but the job itself. Being willing to acknowledge error and being willing to open yourself up to criticism within your own pages is very, very rare for newspapers and that is what restores credibility. It is a signal to readers that we take this stuff very seriously and we are willing to be publicly accountable for it.
Q: I know that your contract expires in May. Are you still planning to move on?
A: Absolutely. Not the slightest doubt. I haven't had any doubt since the day I got there. You know, this was by design by both parties. I knew going in that this was not going to be renewed. We discussed the possibility of it and I told them that I had no interest in renewing it and I also thought it was better for the institution to be able to assert in my very first column, publicly and loudly, that it was not possible to renew, thereby leading readers to understand that I would not be soft on the paper so I would keep my job.
Q: What will you move on to?
A: Well, I'll go back to writing books, which was what I was doing at the time that they pulled me out from under a rock to do this.
Q: We've talked a lot about how the creation of the public editor position has changed the Times. How has this experience changed you?
A: It made me realize how many things I have done wrong in my career as a journalist. It made me realize how much I took for granted and how little readers may understand about what goes on. And it made me realize the credibility problems that newspapers have.
Q: Are you going to leave this job feeling hopeful about the future of journalism or depressed?
A: I don't know. Ask me in May.
(Editor's Note: This interview has been selective with respect to content and lightly edited for clarity. While most New York Times content can be accessed for free by registered users for only three days, all of Daniel Okrent's Public Editor columns can be accessed without charge at: http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html)
1 Daniel Okrent, "Setting the Record Straight (but Who Can Find the Record?)," The New York Times, March 14, 2004.
2 Okrent, "There's No Business Like Tony Awards Business," The New York Times, May 9, 2004.
3 Okrent, "Corrections: Eccentric, Essential and Ready for an Upgrade," The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2004.
4 I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1988, p. 9.
5 Jacques Steinberg, "The Times Chooses Veteran of Magazines and Publishing as Its First Public Editor," The New York Times, October 27, 2003.
6 Daniel Okrent, "An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself," The New York Times, December 7, 2003.
7 Steinberg, "The Times Chooses...." op. cit.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 3,17-20.