The Times, Its Readers and Their Advocate, Part I

GUEST: Daniel Okrent
VTR: 6/17/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And just the other day I had occasion to think about what an extraordinary number of my guests over the near 50 years since I began this program have come from that great gray lady in Times Square, not so gray anymore incidentally, from whom I and I suspect many of you have learned so much of what we know or believe about the world around us … The New York Times.

And now my guest today is its Public Editor, its Ombudsman, as his counterparts are known elsewhere in the press, the first person, as he introduced himself barely six months ago, charged with publicly evaluating, criticizing, and otherwise commenting on the paper’s integrity. “My only concern in this adventure is dispassionate evaluation”, Daniel Okrent wrote on December 7, 2003 in his first column as the New York Times Public Editor.

He went on, “My only colleagues are readers who turn to the Times for their news, expect it to be fair, honest and complete and are willing to trust another such reader, me, as their surrogate. So, who am I,” he asked, answering as simply and modestly as he has dealt with the extraordinary journalistic challenges that he’s faced in the months ever since.

“By training and experience,” he wrote, “I’m a journalist. For 25 years a magazine writer and editor, for the last couple of years and during various other between-gigs intervals, a writer of books. Earlier in my career I spent nearly a decade as a book editor.” That’s the way he summed himself up.

Of course, what Mr. Okrent doesn’t detail for his Times readers is “Great Fortune”, he recent Viking Press study of the epic of Rockefeller Center, about which Ken Burns testified, “With characters worthy of a Dickens novel, a supremely gifted writer makes the greatest city on earth come elegantly alive.”

Nor does my guest remind us of his wonderfully compelling 1987 Esquire article on that greatest singer on earth, Frank Sinatra.

But now this program isn’t about Daniel Okrent as writer, as good as he is. Instead it’s about his involvement with the ethics of contemporary journalism as practiced in today’s New York Times. And if he and you will forgive me I’d like to begin today by asking him to comment on something that Janet Malcolm wrote in the New Yorker magazine back some many years ago.

It’s something that I often put to my journalist guests. And I hope you don’t mind if I quote her.

OKRENT: Nope. I, I think I know it by heart by now. But go ahead.

HEFFNER: That famous first paragraph.

OKRENT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone. So the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns, when the article, or book appears, his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and the public’s right to know. The least talented talk about art. The seemliest murmur about earning a living.” How do you respond?

OKRENT: Well, I’m making a living.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

OKRENT: Ahmm, well, I think that, I think it’s morally defensible to take advantage of people’s vanity. Perhaps not their ignorance. I, I … you know, I think that there’s … certainly a kernel of wisdom in there. And I think that Malcolm is using that … one of those wonderful journalistic tactics of exaggeration to make a point. There is an act of traducing that goes on when I take you, an individual, and put you in print before a million or more people. It can never be the you that you perceive yourself to be, or even your nearest and dearest. I think that it’s almost a truism for those of us who’ve worked for a long time in, in the journalism business, that people will say, you know, “I love your paper (or your magazine), but when you wrote about me, you got it wrong.”

We can’t take the individual and replicate the individual in print. And that’s not the point of journalism.

HEFFNER: What is the point?

OKRENT: Well, I think it’s different in different institutions and different … and for different audiences. I think that at its best, it’s to inform and entertain and to explain what’s going on in the world. And it’s really very simple, and that taking it to … I will agree with Malcolm that one can get an incredibly high in trying to invoke grander reasons for it. But I think those are perfectly good reasons. Inform me. Entertain me. Let me know what’s going on.

HEFFNER: Where does the entertain come in?

OKRENT: Well, if you can’t write it, or present it in an interesting and lively fashion, nobody’s going to read it. I think that entertainment is, perhaps, it’s a usage of the word that many wouldn’t use in this context. But that story that we’ve all read, that feels like, you know, you start on the first line and it feels like a window shade being pulled down … you just race through it. It may be about horrible things going on in the world, but it’s entertainment in the sense that it has captured your imagination.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, when you say “entertainment” I, I would have replied, I would have hoped that you’d use the word “interesting”.

OKRENT: Well, I’ll take that as well. But also some of it is sheer entertainment. You know, one of the people I miss at the Times … the Times as an extraordinary institution seems to keep on putting forth new generations who can do the same thing. No one has ever replaced Russell Baker. Right. Impossible to come up with a columnist like that. He’s been gone from the paper for 20 years, or even more than that at this point. Certainly that was entertainment. Some of the sports columnists … the better, the better the critics. That there is an element of, of, you know, life in show business, even.

HEFFNER: How come? Why no replication?

OKRENT: I don’t know. You’d have to ask the Editors of The Page … when they, you know, hiring a columnist. I think that, that Baker was … is … a distinctive talent. There are other people who do things like that. I think that there’s a … probably, I’m guess about this, that there’s a feeling of risk involved. If you invite somebody in to be funny … you may find yourself worrying about what they’re being funny about.

HEFFNER: Tell me, why are you there? What happened? I don’t mean to tell me about this Editor or that miscreant. But what led The New York Times to look for a Public Editor?

OKRENT: That Editor and that miscreant. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Simply that?

OKRENT: I don’t have to tell the story again, because I’m sure that all of your viewers know the basics of the Jason Blair and then Harold Raines stories. But The Times had for nearly 40 years resisted the idea of an Ombudsman, of somebody in this role. The Ombudsman movement, such as it is, in the US began at the Louisville Courier Journal in the 1960s. And quickly had quite a lot of steam. The Washington Post had one, it was, I think, in 1968, when that position began.

But The Times always resisted it on the grounds that “Our Editors are our own Ombudsman.” They’re the ones who are supposed to represent the public, be in touch with readers who have complaints; be responsive to story subjects who aren’t very happy. And to interpose somebody else between us and our readers doesn’t serve anybody and, in fact, would enable our Editors to not be attentive to readers.

Well, it sounds good. And many Editors at that paper over the years, I’m sure, have been very good at it. But it really, really didn’t happen the way that I believe the people who ran The Times claimed it was happening.

Then along comes an earthquake, and earthquake named Blair and in the aftermath it caused the obvious soul-searching and self-examination and the paper looked inside of itself and said, “You know to regain our credibility we have to have somebody who is not … does not have the self-interest of the newspaper or the automatic defensiveness of somebody who works here, who will be able to create some transparency. Who will be able to represent and respond to readers and not be in a position of ‘well, you know, I’m trying to hide this, or I’m trying to make things look good for the paper.’ But to be an honest broker.”

HEFFNER: Now, you’re a modest person so I, I know this question won’t work too well, but I’m going to throw it at you anyway. Has the Times changed for its readers since you arrived?

OKRENT: Well, I’m afraid I’m going to dodge it a bit. I will dodge it first and then I will try to answer. The dodge is not for me to even say that. I think … ask readers … who … they’d have a much better sense of the …

HEFFNER: But you’re a surrogate for the readers.

OKRENT: But, I … there are some things that I know have gone on at The Times because I am watching it so closely, I am reading every letter of the newspaper, every letter of every word of every line. And I will see things that are perhaps meaningless in the larger context. But I will see change because I’ve got a microscope on it on a daily basis.

There are some things I believe that have gotten better. I believe simply the very fact of the column, forget about the fact that I’m writing it, but the fact that there is this thing, unedited by anybody at the newspaper, commenting on the newspaper, that is transparency; that is a, a … there’s no better way of creating credibility than being willing to allow people to criticize you. So that alone is an improvement.

Beyond that I’m told by various editors and writers who are on my side in this adventure that certain practices have gotten a little bit better in some ways. Last week’s rant was on anonymous sources, and I’m going to be re-visiting it in another column very soon and I think I might have some impact there because reporters don’t particularly like using anonymous sources, either. So in a way it’s air cover for some. So, in a variety of ways I think that there are improvements.

HEFFNER: You say …

OKRENT: What do you think?

HEFFNER: What do I think?

OKRENT: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You know I’ll do the same thing that I did to Charlie Rose when he was here guest here and I asked him a question and he said, “What do you think?” …

OKRENT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and I said, “On this program I ask the questions.”

OKRENT: It’s your show, I know.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] So, I wonder why, why you say that the anonymous source business, a lot of reporters are happy to have that minimized, rather than maximized. Why’d they use them?

OKRENT: Well, in Washington and in covering diplomacy, you really don’t have any choice if you want to have the story. Condoleezza Rice invites a dozen reporters into her office and the condition is you’re speaking to a high Administration official or a high … or a senior White House official. “Here’s what our thinking is on …” whatever the foreign policy issue is of the day. The next day that appears in print in The Times, “according to a high Administration official; a senior White House official … the Bush Administration is planning such and such and so and so …”

The reporters are totally … they are traduced in this case. They’ve been taken advantage of by the, the screen of anonymity that Rice has arrogated to herself. So that she does not have to be held responsible for anything that’s said. Reporters go crazy about this, but there’s nothing they can do, they can say “I’m not going to take part of that. The New York Times is going to get up and walk out of the room.” And then you read it the next day on the front page of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and everywhere else.

They … the Washington reporters I know would really like to see a bomb thrown at that practice. And I think it’s important to note … this is not a province of the Republican Administration. It’s a … this has been a truism in Washington through Republican and Democratic Administrations for decades.

HEFFNER: For decades. Since when? When did this begin?

OKRENT: I don’t know, Dick, I, I wouldn’t have a … be able to put a precise date on it … I know certainly it was going on … well definitely in the Nixon Administration. I would expect in the Johnson and Kennedy’s as well. And for all I know, it goes back to, you know, Chester Alan Arthur. But it, it … it is an absolutely accepted it’s a sine qua non of, of Washington journalistic life.

Diplomatic. I’m sorry … as I said in the column, not to quote myself, but diplomats are diplomatic. And when you have a story about the possibility of a Libyan plot against the Saudi government according to a “Senior Western diplomats” they will never, ever speak to you on the record.

Now, what I believe reporters can do, and there are reporters who really disagree with me about this one is, don’t attribute it to the anonymous person, which makes it … gives it the illusion of authority. But I, as a reader, have no reason to believe that authority. Put it on yourself.

HEFFNER: How do you do that?

OKRENT: Declare that … if you believe it to be true …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

OKRENT: … if you believe it to be true and you’re an experience journalist and you know the players, if you believe it to be true, you say that “the Libyan government has been plotting against a Saudi source”. If you don’t believe it to be true, maybe it should not be in the newspaper in the first place.

Now there’s … there’s the question of a reporter speaking ex cathedra, when there’s no cathedra to speak from. However, I think that if you stopped a hundred serious, experience journalists on … you know, on the street and said “List for me the publications that you trust and rely on?” I think that the Economist would probably be on as many lists as any other publication. And the entire thing, the entire magazine, not only is written ex cathedra without even by-lines on it. So we are able to accept that as a means of the conveyance of important information. We just have to be acculturated to it by, you know … in, in the climate. We’re not used to that in The New York Times. We’re used to “a senior Administration official said”.

HEFFNER: There’s no competition for The Economist in a very real sense.

OKRENT: No. I think it’s the only … well, there are other publications that do similar things, but nobody does it as well as The Economist.

HEFFNER: So that it can get away …

OKRENT: Yes, but if it were … if people didn’t believe it … you know, having no competition doesn’t do you any good at all if, if you get it wrong.

HEFFNER: What about the matter of competition in the press? How …

OKRENT: Well, I think it’s, it’s both wonderful and terrible. It’s wonderful in the sense that competition makes you get up in the morning and gets your engine going. I know … I was the Editor of Life magazine in the early 90s, for four years. And when Norman Pearlstein became the Editor and Chief of Time, Inc. he brought all the Editors of the major magazines to … he had a retreat … and said, “what could I give you that would make the magazine … your magazine better?”

And the Editor of Time said, “I want more foreign bureaus”, and the Editor of Sports Illustrated said, “I want more color spreads”. And so on and so forth. And it go to me and I said, “I’d like you to start Look. Because …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

OKRENT: … if Look magazine came back we would get up in the morning and we’d know who we’ve got to be better than. So in that sense … it’s a long and discursive way of explaining that competition is important.

On the other hand, when the competition is for a meaningless prize and the … to me, the overwhelmingly meaningless prize is being first. That’s a competition that brings about bad journalism.

HEFFNER: Why do you think that’s meaningless when so many of your colleagues obviously think it has a tremendous amount of meaning?

OKRENT: So did I until I got in the position of high moral authority. [Laughter] You know … it’s, it’s absolutely …

HEFFNER: Is this an admission?

OKRENT: … well, yes. I mean certainly when I was writing for Time, I would want to beat Newsweek. I would want to be first. It’s, it’s … it’s built in to the journalistic DNA. Certainly in this country. And it is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. But it … if you step back from it … and say, what have you really accomplished by being first? Is it better to be right?

HEFFNER: As you said Times editors were known to say.

OKRENT: Yeah. Yeah. “Let’s get it right.” And, in fact, I have a wonderful current example it. A lot of criticism of the Times on the reporting of the Abu Ghraib scandal. You know, this story was in The Washington Post on Monday and The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday … and “you guys didn’t get to it until Wednesday.” Well, please.

And this was meant to be, to show that you didn’t care, the Times wasn’t on top of things. Well, in fact, you would hope they would want it to be right. Now criticize it for being wrong. But, the fact that it was two days later? That’s meaningful? It just isn’t.

One of the great journalistic horse race stories of the last century took place on that tragic day, November 22, 1963. And the United Press International which was still functioning then … people there bragged for 30 years that they were up with the story of President Kennedy’s death 17 seconds before the Associated Press. Well, if this is what makes you happy.

HEFFNER: It didn’t give them continuing life.

OKRENT: It certainly didn’t and I don’t think that getting it first now does … if you are racing to get it first, you are likely to be incomplete and it is quite possible you’re going to be wrong. That’s doesn’t mean it’s bad to be first. But if that’s your goal, you’re going to suffer and your readers will suffer.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to a question that I put to so many of my journalistic guests. And I get an answer that is usually meaningless and I know I won’t get …

OKRENT: I’ll see what I can do.

HEFFNER: … that from you.

OKRENT: I’ll keep the string going.

HEFFNER: What are your responsibilities as … not just in your present position … but what is journalism’s responsibility as the nation’s story keeper … the historian. The source of our knowledge about ourself. Not just today, but about ourselves yesterday and the day before.

OKRENT: Well, if I’m understanding your question, and I’m not certain that I am …

HEFFNER: Do you have the obligations of the historian?

OKRENT: We have the obligations of … we have the aspirations of accuracy and completeness. And nuance. I’d add that to it as well. I do think, as you know, in my other life I write books that are often historical in nature. And I depend on the newspapers of 60 and 90 years ago. My next book is, is set in the 1920s. Would I rely on what I see in newspapers as fact? No. I’d have to get it corroborated because the news … the, the line that has always been a complement … you know, we are creating the first draft of history. If you really take that line apart, you realize we’re making a lot of mistakes … that’s why it’s called the first draft …

HEFFNER: First draft.

OKRENT: And the people who are going to do the final draft … the historians are going to have to take that into consideration when they look at our first draft. But, that said, one wants to be accurate. One aspires to accuracy. When one wants to, when you make a mistake, when you are inaccurate, to acknowledge it and admit it immediately. Which journalists are very, very bad at doing.

I find that in the response to my column there are people who say, that, you know I feel so much better about the Times because they’re letting you say what it does wrong. And that you trust the paper more if it’s willing to be straight when it errs.

HEFFNER: Let’s continue though on the line of your writing books, your writing history. You live a great many years and when you start to write about the first years of this century … you’re going to be in a hole, aren’t you …

OKRENT: It’s going to be terrible. This is a hugely important change in our culture that you clearly are on to, but very few people are. When I was writing my book about Rockefeller Center, which was set largely between 1927 and 1948 …the book was … not that this was the most important subject in the world, or that people needed to understand how Rockefeller Center came to be, or New York in the 30s and 40s, but I relied on letters, I relied on documents. I must have read … I’m sure I read well over a million pieces of paper in the six years I spent on that book.

And documents tell the truth. Documents that are contemporary, that create the trail from which everything else proceeds, don’t exist any longer. The advent of E-mail has changed so radically the way that we communicate with one another. There is no paper trail. And when historians come back … even popular hacks like me …come back to write about the world we live in today … they’re going to have to rely on newspapers because there is no documentary record.

HEFFNER: And how much can they rely upon newspapers?

OKRENT: Well, it’s … if it’s all you’ve got, you’ve going to have to rely on it. But I think, you know … one of the … here’s a small reform that has taken place at the Times since my arrival there. I wrote in February or March about a practice that some people call “rowback”, some call “skimback”, some call “skinback” a number of different terms for it where an article appears in the paper and then Editors, writers realize “Oh, god, did we get it wrong.” So three days later another article appears that doesn’t acknowledge the first article ever existed, finds something else to move forward from to justify it’s being there again … that’s the “rollback”.

Now, as of two weeks ago, in the Times electronic archive, the first article is linked to the rollback. That if you go back to find out about that event that took place on that day, there’s a note at the top that says, “clarifying article appended”. And then, there’s more. And that … the editor, who instituted that, said it was strictly because of my column. I feel very, very proud of it. Now it may seem to be a small thing. But certainly in terms of the historical record, it’s a very important thing.

HEFFNER: What about the availability for the historian of the, of that record. Not just the change, not just the change that is made, or the indication of the rollback. But the whole business of assuming that the whole story is there, making the Times … the newspaper of record.

OKRENT: Well, I don’t think the whole story is ever going to be there.

HEFFNER: As much of the story, let’s say …

OKRENT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: As one can hope for from …

OKRENT: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … responsible journalists.

OKRENT: Yeah. Well, you know, you make the judgment, “am I more likely to trust the Times than the New York Post?” And then I’ll rely on the Times’ version of it, I suppose.

HEFFNER: What about the availability … morgues …

OKRENT: Oh … I’m sorry … I’m …

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I meant … you responded correctly.

OKRENT: Oh, the morgues … actually that’s an improvement. You know, look, all of us who grew up in this business and I did … although the detractors of the Times say I don’t have newspaper experience and they’re right.

As a baby boy I was copy boy at the Detroit Free Press. And there was nothing better than the morgue. And you’d go into this room filled with these great green file cabinets and you … I found out about my father … you know, my father was a lawyer in Detroit and I was an 18 year old copy boy, he must have been in his … he would have been in his early, mid-fifties at the time and I immediately went to look up Harry Okrent and I, you know, these clips from before I was born, about his career. You know, it was wonderful. It was like … just … and I certainly moved beyond the story of my father, which wasn’t that interesting a story. Those are gone, those are gone.

HEFFNER: Why?

OKRENT: Because it’s all electronic. I can get anything. I can instantaneously, virtually instantaneously and you can, too, but you’d have to spend some money to do it, or go to a library to subscribe … I can type in your name, into a data base … every article that has ever appeared in the New York Times going back to 1852 …

HEFFNER: I don’t go back to 1852. Sorry.

OKRENT: Well, you know, this is the way that you could prove it … okay? Anything you want to know, you can do a search, by names, by the section of the paper it appeared in and yada, yada, yada. It’s all there. It’s is much more retrievable and much more reliable … much more reliable than morgues where pieces of paper disappear and get torn up and where is there no linkage of the, you know, the correction to the original story. This is great. This is very, very good. And, and, you know, without leaving my chair I can do that also for the Wall Street Journal, I can do it for the Washington Post, I can do it for The Boston Globe and many, many other papers.

HEFFNER: You said “reliable”. You think it’s trustworthy, not in terms of someone deliberately not entering something. But in everything going in there. How does it magically happen?

OKRENT: Well, that …

HEFFNER: I’d be suspicious.

OKRENT: … you’d have to … well, now it’s very easy for it to happen. I mean the question of how does … you know, the stories from, from 1932 about Mayor Cermak being killed … in, in Miami … did somebody photograph that page? Was that page then digitized? Was the … a scanner … I don’t know. But what’s created for the newspaper today … the same words that go into the paper, as they’re typed by a reporter or an editor are the same words that go into that archive. It’s great.

HEFFNER: So that is the digitization.

OKRENT: That isn’t even … that’s … it’s pre-digitizing because … it’s not taking the newspaper and then digitizing. The words as they are created, are created for the database. And they go directly into it. And it’s great. It really is. And more and more magazines are doing it. I think that for the record that exists in published material. We’re better off. We will … future historians will be better off in writing about our era.

But for the documentary evidence, for the letter, for the, you know, the memo that explains why we’re going to do this or do that. That doesn’t exist any longer.

HEFFNER: Daniel Okrent, I have a lot of questions to ask you, please stay where you are and we’ll do another program. Okay?

OKRENT: Great.

HEFFNER: Good. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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