Monday, July 12, 2004

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The Timesmen really do not like their ombudsman

James Brander has a front-pager in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required should be their free article of the day*) chronicling how Daniel Okrent has fit in as the New York Times ombudsman. The answer would seem to be "poorly":

Daniel Okrent, a veteran magazine editor, has been the Times's public editor for seven months. But instead of bringing calm, the experiment has created fresh tensions within the Times about such subjects as the paper's coverage of weapons of mass destruction.

Some editors complain Mr. Okrent's questions are a nuisance, and also complain when he doesn't seek them out for comment. One reporter encouraged colleagues to ask confrontational questions in a meeting between Mr. Okrent and business-section reporters. "Sometimes you have to treat others like the Russians -- you have to demonstrate strength," says the reporter, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner. "I'm just waiting for him to screw up," Mr. Okrent retorts in an interview. He hastens to say the comment was a joke and that he will avoid tackling any issue concerning Mr. Johnston.

More recently, in an e-mail exchange, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller complained to Mr. Okrent about inquiries he was making for his column yesterday about a case of alleged child abuse. "i've got to say: man, you need a vacation," Mr. Keller wrote. "It's called reporting, right?" Mr. Okrent replied....

Mr. Okrent, 56 years old, says his first months at the Times were "very, very difficult." The paper, he says, "has a very strong immune system, and I was a different kind of antigen.... If there had been three public editors before me, the body might have absorbed it a little bit better."

It gets better:

The section in which Mr. Okrent's columns appear, Sunday's Week in Review, hasn't been particularly hospitable either. In early April, Mr. Okrent asked the section's editor, Katherine Roberts, for a response to reader queries about the difference between Week in Review articles and regular news pieces. Ms. Roberts says she initially ignored Mr. Okrent's e-mails. When she did reply, Mr. Okrent thought the answer incomplete.

Ms. Roberts says she felt Mr. Okrent could have found the answer by simply reading the section. "Did I drop the ball and not give him what he wanted?" she asks. "Yes." She concedes her behavior was "somewhat churlish."

Ms. Roberts was also peeved over the length of the public editor's column. Mr. Okrent now prefers to avoid dealing directly with Ms. Roberts, and communicates instead through one of the section's deputies. Ms. Roberts says she accepts the public editor as a fact of daily life. "Now it's here, and we live with it," she says.

The article concludes with nice-sounding words from everyone involved about how the Times is adjusting. And then there's the closing paragraph:

Mr. Okrent's puncturing days will be over after his term ends. From the beginning, Mr. Okrent said he wasn't planning on staying more than 18 months. When asked, he is able to pinpoint the exact time remaining on his contract. "It's like a prisoner's calendar," says Mr. Okrent's wife, Rebecca. "Crossing off the days."

*I will be linking more frequently to the Journal from now on, because I finally have an online subscription. This comes courtesy of my genius brother. Thanks, JBD!

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has more (link via Sullivan).

posted by Dan on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM


Everything about the Times, including what is said in this article, points to a deeply dysfunctional, even corrupt institution.

The Times combines the worst of elite universities with the worst of the corporate world. The jobs at the top, both for editors and reporters, appear to all the world to be like tenure track positions at Harvard, which are permanent, and exude a smugness and entitlement so dense other mortals can barely breath in its presence. But, unlike Harvard, no serious vetting takes place to get to acquire those positions. At Harvard, one must demonstrate that one is among the very best in the world at their particular subject to get tenure. Who can imagine that this is so for reporters and writers at the Times? Can anyone make a serious argument that Judith Miller is one of the best national security reporters in the country? Or that the book reviewer, Kakutani, is one of the very best critics? They are, with little doubt, nothing more than well positioned mediocrity, who pretty much chanced into their jobs, and keep them because the smugness of the Times culture will never allow it.

In the corporate world, people often chance into a position for which they are terrible fits and in which they are way over their heads. Such people typically are removed in one way or another. The Times, however, refuses to do so in the case of its defectives.

posted by: frankly0 on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Does the WSJ have a "Public Editor"?

posted by: Barry on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

The WSJ does not have an ombudsman or public editor -- a fact that was clearly stated in the article.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Does the WSJ NEED a public editor?

posted by: Bithead on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Can you imagine if any other profession were as snippy about criticism as journalists were? I can see it now:

"The client says that you left the fact he had three children off of his tax return"

"I've got to say, man, you need a vacation."

"You also forgot his $8,000 in tuition payments, and $4900 in mortgage interest payments"

"Did I drop the ball and not give him what he wanted? Yes."

posted by: Independent George on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

frankO, sorry but your idol worship of Harvard profs. is over the top to smart and savvy. Shining shoes to get there is being polite. Know I am stepping into it at this site, but am not alone in concluding that those in univs. set up a system to benefit themselves; which archaic system needed drastic change at least forty years ago. Most programs and numbers attending should be reduced, and entry age increased along with a few other requirements. Besides, smart people can read and apply. Intellectual-based subjects and programs posing as science are not as necessary as purported, nor are high priests of knowledge needed for people who can read and apply. Further, your adulation leaves no explanation for quotas.

posted by: Alex on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Independent George,

Have you spoken to any academics recently?

posted by: Mark on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Eeek, dont link to the WSJ (at least if the story is duplicated elsewhere), or the 50% that bother to read the story first, most likely will not be able to cause they don't have a subscription.

posted by: Jor on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Most of The Times's readership is somewhere between admiring and adoring of its reporting and commentary, and some of the readers who are not are genuine cranks and nutcases.

This might help explain why so many people at The Times don't think they need a public editor, or that they need one only to smoke out some future Daniel Blair. It certainly would explain Katherine Roberts's attitude; editor of a Sunday section that seems deliberately to strive for tedium and pedantry, she must feel Okrent's presence a real imposition.

posted by: Zathras on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

I must concede that a fashion editor does not have anything directly to do with the political coverage of the New York Times, but this following story is still disturbing:

"NEW YORK An editor at The New York Times Magazine may have violated the newspaper's highly-publicized ban on political campaign contributions with a $1,000 donation to John Kerry's presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirmed that the newspaper was looking into the contribution by Elizabeth Stewart, a fashion editor for the Times Magazine, who made the donation on May 20, according to campaign records listed at the PoliticalMoneyLine Web site."

Daniel Okrent cannot fix all of the problems with the New York Times. I doubt very much if he can fire the top editors who continuously slant storys to benefit the Democrat Party.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

Here's some more work for Daniel Okrent:

Monday, July 12, 2004 2:35 p.m. EDT

Reporters for Kerry--I
Kedwards have been all over the place the past couple of days, in what the Associated Press calls a "joint tour." If they're following the precedent of the last Democrat to win the White House, they didn't inhale. But they sure exhaled a lot, and when they did, they frequently passed air through their glottises as they moved their tongues, jaws and lips to produce meaningful sounds.

OK, you may quarrel with "meaningful," but some of the things they said were at least interesting. Here's the elder Kedward in an interview with the New York Times:

KERRY: And I believe if you talk with Warren Hoge or you talk to David Sanger, you talk to other people around the world, they will confirm to you, I believe, that it may well take a new president to restore America's credibility on a global basis so that we can deal with other countries and bring people back into alliances. The credibility of this country has been tarnished by this president. We can restore it. We will restore it.

Hoge and Sanger are New York Times reporters. Do they really endorse John Kerry, or at least one of the central premises of his campaign, as the candidate says here? We're inclined to think the answer is yes, since the Times itself published this statement without any denial or clarification--though it did so only in the Web transcript, not in the news story on the interview, which led with the earth-shattering revelation that Kedwards are critical of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

A few months back, when Kerry claimed to have been endorsed by various "foreign leaders," he insisted he was not at liberty to say who they were. But when he asserts he has the backing of New York Times reporters, not only does he name names, but the Times views the claim as neither newsworthy enough to report prominently nor embarrassing enough to rebut. It's as if Times reporters taking sides in a political race were the most ordinary thing in the world.”

Gosh, will Okrent ever get any sleep? The poor dude must feel overwhelmed.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

An interesting tidbit,

"Mr. Okrent has prompted some notable changes. In an early column, he chastised the paper for writing articles that contradicted earlier pieces without acknowledging the error. It's a "squirrelly journalistic dance step," Mr. Okrent wrote. Now, if new information undermines a previous article, the paper links the accounts in its electronic database, allowing readers to see the difference."

Increase accountability is key. Journalists should start getting creative and ocme up with some metric for assessing reliability and importance of particular peices. More importantly-- reliability. An estimate isn't good enough, you need error bars on that estimate to see whats goin on.

posted by: Jor on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

One more

"Queries from Mr. Okrent, who had breakfast with Mr. Cox, prompted the Times's editorial-page editor to issue a formal written policy a few days before Mr. Okrent's column ran, a Times spokeswoman says. The policy wasn't new, but it hadn't before been made explicit. The Times said corrections would run at the bottom of contributors' columns. "As far as I'm concerned, Dan has made a very big difference," says Mr. Cox."

I noticed some corrections at the bottom of a few Krugman columsn recently, and thought that was new, but never knew why. Mostly insignificant stuff. I'm waiting for these corrections to catch up to Saffire, but he's probably safe using innuendo and attributing appropriately.

posted by: Jor on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

THe botom line here, folks is that the NYT has credibility issues... issues htat the ombudsman's position was designed to rectify, or at least create the appearence of the Times doing something on the problem.

Thing is they're unwilling, it sems to actually do anything about the issue. And consider where that comes from; Salzberg. Has there been any indication from on high that he's willing to give the ombudsman any teeth?

posted by: Bithead on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

BitHead, there is no doubt the Times has massive cred issues -- but cred issues compared to who? The entire media has massive cred issues. From Fox to the USA Today, to CNN, to whoever.

posted by: Jor on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

I'll agree that most of the press has such issues, Jor, but you paint with too braod a brush, here. In any event, the Times was supposed to be the leader... and apparently they were... though not quite at what was advertised.

posted by: Bithead on 07.12.04 at 01:38 PM [permalink]

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