New York Times Ombudsman Daniel Okrent discusses his career.
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GUEST: Daniel Okrent
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Daniel Okrent, who joined me here fairly soon after he became The New York Times’ first Public Editor, it’s Ombudsman, as his counterparts are known elsewhere in the press. He promised then that he’d come back at the end of the run and he’s a man of his word.
“My only concern in this adventure is dispassionate evaluation,” that’s what my guest wrote in his first column. Now an agreed 18 months later as he ends his time at The Times, I would ask Dan Okrent how went the adventure? Indeed, I would ask him whether he is any different for the time spent, the term served, whether the Times is any different … and somewhat cynically … does it all make any difference any way?
OKRENT: [Laughter] I won’t answer them all at once.
HEFFNER: Okay. But you’re on.
OKRENT: What do you want to start with? Which one? It was a very worthwhile experience for both the paper and for me. And I would like to think for the readers of the paper as well. If there’s one accomplishment that I’m proudest of, it’s now that the job is now permanent.
I was an experiment. The experiment took well enough … my successor Barney Calame will be serving for two years, a longer term than mine. And there will be others after him.
Did it change the paper? I think that there was a … there is a greater consciousness at the paper about the issues that concern readers. That simply having an annoying person on the premises, whining and moaning all the time, jumping up and down and having little temper tantrums …
HEFFNER: Are you describing yourself?
OKRENT: How could I possibly be? Yes. The thing … I was told … I have been told by several Times people, that after my columns appear on alternate Sundays … on Monday morning people come to work and argue about what I wrote. In many cases they’re simply saying “What a jerk he is”. But they’re engaged by the issues and if they are engaged by the issues, if they’re thinking about these things that matter to readers, about credibility and trust and fairness and all the other issues that flood my E-mail every day, then that’s a good thing.
And in terms of how has it changed me? It certainly has raised my consciousness. There are things that I did in my long, but … admittedly not newspaper career … but my long career as a journalist that I look back now and I say, “I simply didn’t understand how readers perceived what I was doing”. And now I have a much better sense of that. And were I to go back to journalism, which I’m not going to do … I would practice it differently.
HEFFNER: But you know, Dan, I think I said to you when you were here before that so many members of the press who have been at this table for the last 49 years have usually said, “There’s no one in here but us chickens, there’s not much we can do, we’re responding to public opinion, to public need, to public desire”.
HEFFNER: If that’s the case, what difference does it make?
OKRENT: Well, I don’t think … I don’t think that they were responding to public … they weren’t responding to public desire in terms of the practice of journalism. Perhaps in terms of what are we going … are we going to have a dining section, are we going to have a larger sports section? There was certainly a perceived response to what readers wanted. But were they hearing readers who say, “I don’t want to be told what to think?”, or readers who are saying, “Please don’t … who are these anonymous sources that you make up?” Or, “Why do you pick these experts who only serve your point”, or, or, or, or, or … and I could make a long list of them.
“Why can’t your reporters add? Why is the mathematics wrong? How are numbers misused in the paper?” Any number of subjects that generally go unexamined by, by journalists. They’re not hearing this from readers, or if they’re hearing it, it’s passing right through them.
HEFFNER: Do you think people … now, this is the cynicism … give a damn?
OKRENT: People who read the paper? Oh …
HEFFNER: People who read the paper.
OKRENT: Oh, I can tell you they do.
HEFFNER: I’m not just talking about the New York Times, I’m asking you now to …
OKRENT: Well, it’s hard …
HEFFNER: … move outside …
OKRENT: … well it’s hard for me to go beyond the Times. I mean I’ve been focused so much on this one particular mushroom in the forest that I can’t really see the rest of it. Yes, people do give a damn. Certainly that’s indicated by the volume of, of mail and phone calls that both I and my colleagues at other newspapers … much less visible than the Times … receive. I mean it’s thousands of people who are coming to the door of the office of the public editor because there’s something that concerns them.
HEFFNER: What’s going to motivate the Times now to continue along the lines, and similar lines, parallel lines in your absence, even with a new Ombudsperson. We’re talking now mid-May but The New York Times put on its … I must admit … very difficult to access …
OKRENT: That’s one of the things that they’re not being responsive to readers about … mmmhmm.
HEFFNER: … website … this new report, a report to your Executive Editor “Preserving Our Readers Trust”, and it’s done by a group called the Credibility Group.
HEFFNER: Why’d they call themselves that?
OKRENT: You know that was not the formal name of the group, but it became sort of the shorthand in the Newsroom, as people talked about it. There’s no question that the credibility of the press generally is under, under question. There’s no question that it’s under question. The Rather incident, obviously, was the most visible of them. Jack Kelly at USA Today, there’s a recent adventure at USA Today and of course back to Jason Blair and Harold Raines.
HEFFNER: Thank you.
OKRENT: [Laughter] I was going to get there. The, the … if a newspaper doesn’t have credibility, it has nothing else. And there is a perception and I think it is a correct perception that readers are very concerned about the credibility … what they read in newspapers generally and to a degree, to what they read in the Times. So this group was formed to address “What can we do about that?” And “What can we do to change our practices so that we will be more credible?” And what can we do to respond to the charges of not being credible?
And it was a group of … I have to say … Al Siegal, the Assistant Managing Editor, who chaired it … he picked the, the best people in the company to do this. From reporters to senior editorial management. These are people who really care and really know how important it is that credibility be maintained in their report. And I think it’s a very, very good one.
HEFFNER: Too late?
OKRENT: No. It’s never too late. It’s never too late. Had the same thing been issued three or four years ago, would life have been any different at the Times? You know … probably.
There are policies upon policies upon policies … the ethical journalism guidelines is this fat book … the rules of the road … the integrity statement … there are a number of things. But you can create policies for 1,200 people, but making certain that they’re all followed calls for eternal vigilance and therefore nothing can ever be too late. We’ve got to do it every day.
HEFFNER: Now, you’re talking as though there’s this mass readership out there, and again I know you’re talking about the Times and I’m really asking you to extend yourself a little beyond the Times … a great deal beyond the Times. But as I’ve read you over the past 18 months and as I read this “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust”, I wonder, when I asked you “is it too late?” … whether the facts and the figures relating to newspaper readership in this country don’t belie this effort.
OKRENT: Well, I think that the sinking numbers of newspaper readers … I don’t think that a credibility issue. I think that is a life habit issue. Certainly there’s some aspect of it that has to do with “Well, I don’t trust what I read and you can’t believe what you read in the papers.” But if you do it by demographic group and you find, you know, how many people … what portion of the population over 70 is reading newspapers? What portion in the middle of the group … younger group.
You see that it’s demographic. That the younger people simply are not reading newspapers. Period.
HEFFNER: And they’re going to catch up with us old fogies.
OKRENT: Some day they will be old. You know, I have, have a friend who was a reporter at the Palm Beach Post fifteen years ago, and he says that’s the one place in the country where you’ll never have to worry about newspaper readership … there are three dailies … the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post that all circulate there and they all have huge circulations because everybody’s over 70. And they’re people who read newspapers.
HEFFNER: Yeah. But, Dan, some years from now …
OKRENT: I’ll …
HEFFNER: … everybody over 70 …
HEFFNER: … is going to come from the present group.
OKRENT: Absolutely. And, and … but, but I do want to separate the credibility issue from the simply to life habit issue. Now how can you get the younger people to read the newspaper … there are, you know, conflicting arguments … conflicting theories about this, this one. You know, one, let’s publish more stuff for young people … you about, you know, hip hop music, more about young people’s fashions, whatever that might be.
Personally I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go. You know, if I were 19 and I wanted to read about hip hop I wouldn’t go to the New York Times for it, for god’s sake. You know there are other places to go. I think you have to wait for people to reach the age where they are interested in the broader issues that a newspaper like the Times, or any major metropolitan paper addresses.
The other factor is simply the one of, you know, does news have to come from a piece of dead tree with ink smeared all over it? Or can news come in digits and pixels over a screen. I think that’s really the bigger issue … going forward … how will the newspapers manage to maintain revenue while they make the inevitable switch to a non-physical format as I think is absolutely going to happen. Not in my professional lifetime, but certainly in that of, of the generation or two behind me.
HEFFNER: But it is happening in your profession.
OKRENT: No. No. What I’m saying is that the absolution transition …
HEFFNER: I see.
OKRENT: … the transition when we, you know, somebody … you’ll be sitting here because you’ll be doing this show for the next hundred years …
OKRENT: … and, and you’ll be talking to somebody who’s been the Public Editor of The New York Times and The New York Times will no longer be a newspaper at that point … it will be digits and impulses flying through the air and landing on some sort of very convenient reader that you can tuck into your pocket. That’s … you know, getting from here to there … will … there will be a huge loss of revenue along the way. And how will they withstand that? It’s what the music industry is going through today.
HEFFNER: How will they withstand it?
OKRENT: I think the, the companies that will be most successful will be the ones who have diversified into other areas, so that they have a constant revenue stream …
HEFFNER: As the Times has.
OKRENT: … well, yes, but not, not sufficiently. They’re, they’re mostly in newspapers. I mean they do own a hunk of the Boston Red Sox, which has turned out to be a good investment. But, you know, the Washington Post Company … the Kaplan Test Education Service is the most profitable division in the country. It makes more money than The Washington Post does, it makes more money than Newsweek does. That’s independent, utterly independent of the news gathering business and the news dissemination business.
HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen, though, at the Times if it’s not sufficiently diversified?
OKRENT: Well, you know … there are … what I think
is going to happen … I think that we will see more conscious efforts to attract specific advertising groups and specific readership groups for the specific purpose of funding its traditional activities.
The more remarkable document that came out of the Times in the last month … more remarkable even than “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” was a letter from Bill Keller to the readers who were complaining about the advent of the new Thursday “Styles” Section, which is fundamentally a fashion section.
And in the letter Bill does the things that, that editors have always done about broader readership and so many aspects to our lives and the newspaper is not just what the Senate is doing, what the President is saying … but, we understand why you’re upset about it, but we need advertising. We need advertising revenue to support those foreign bureaus to give you the foreign news you want so badly. To keep our staff in Washington at full strength. To be able to cover the city and science and all the important subjects that you, dear reader, who don’t like … may not like “Thursday’s Styles” … you want those things and we’ve got to pay for them.
And what was remarkable about this, was that Keller said we’re doing it for the advertising. Now editors have been doing things for advertising for centuries, they’re just not … they’ve not been admitting it. And I think this is a really important moment in American newspaper history.
HEFFNER: Acceptable to those who don’t want that Thursday “Style”?
OKRENT: Well, there is that thing that one can always say … “don’t read it”. You know, you are not compelled to read every section in the newspaper. You know … my wife, I don’t think she has, you know, touched the sports section … twice in the last ten years. She’s not offended that it’s there in the newspaper.
HEFFNER: Some how or other sports makes it.
OKRENT: Well, it’s, it’s traditionally there. But my point is that, that she buys, she reads the Times faithfully every day and doesn’t need to read everything in the Times. She doesn’t read much, she barely looks at the Business Section. She never looks at the Travel Section. I never look at the Travel Section except when I’m functioning as Public Editor of the Times. You know, it’s a cafeteria … take what you want. So if you don’t like Thursday “Styles” toss it … that’s okay, that’s acceptable
HEFFNER: What has that done, in your estimation … maybe nothing to those who thought of the “good gray Times”?
OKRENT: Well, you know, the “good gray”, the “gray lady Times”, it’s really a word that I think that ought to be tossed away. I mean it’s a relic of a very different era, the paper hasn’t been that “good gray lady” for decades. If you, if you take the mental image of the gray lady and you know, it is not this older person who’s very staid and, and has this kind of earnest focus on the important things in life.
I mean it has been filed with all sort so other stuff since the middle seventies, when Abe Rosenthal re-made the paper. In fact, even people who are great detractors of Rosenthal, who’s … I’d argue the most important an Executive Editor in the paper’s … certainly in my … lifetime. They will acknowledge that he saved the paper. That had it not gone to the four sections, including the LifeStyle sections, the paper may not be there today.
HEFFNER: How do you …
OKRENT: … It was really necessary.
HEFFNER: And I’ll grant that old fogies like me were fighting it, complaining, bitching … all our …
OKRENT: Everybody bitches about the … nobody likes a change in the newspaper. It’s like … you come down in the morning and you want your wife’s hair to be the same color it was the night before. And I guarantee it … every change that’s happened to the Times, in my 18 months there … I knew I would be, the next day, overwhelmed with complaining E-mail. You know, “They changed the, the typeface on picture captions”, you know. People go wild because you know, your wife has changed her hair color. It’s different. A newspaper to a daily reader is such an intimate part of one’s life and, and the, the … it’s regularity that you’re looking for. You want the Times to look like, feel like, smell like, sound like The Times. You don’t want it to be anything else and any change is upsetting.
HEFFNER: What do you think was the most important element in this “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust”, this report to the Executive Editor.
OKRENT: Well, important in terms of the paper, or in terms of … I, I think because it’s my big issue, the focus on anonymous sources and the effort to cut down on anonymous sourcing in the paper is the most important one in terms of actually establishing, re-establishing, confirming, preserving credibility.
The ground-shaking one, the shocking one was the, the statement of a determination to argue back, to fight back to the charges of, of distorted news coverage; of partisan bias and such.
That, that instead of saying “Let our work speak for itself”, for the first time there’s an official statement from the Times saying when people charge us with things that we believe to be incorrect, we have the obligation to rebut those charges.
HEFFNER: Why do you think that’s so important?
OKRENT: No, … it’s earth shaking and groundbreaking and various other gerunds because it’s never happened before; the, the stamps of newspapers generally and particularly the Times as “We are above the fray, we are not gong to enter the fray, we will let our work speak for itself and then go on and put out tomorrow’s newspaper.
Now they’re saying, “We’re going to get in there with our sleeves rolled up and when people charge us with, with misdeeds, unfairly, we’re going to answer and we’re going to indicate why they’re wrong.
HEFFNER: All right. Another gerund. Evaluating …
HEFFNER: … this notion.
HEFFNER: What do you think?
OKRENT: I’m …
HEFFNER: Your personal …
OKRENT: On that one, you know, I’m, I’m a little … a little concerned about it because once you get into the fray as I have learned by being in it myself, it’s very hard to extricate yourself. You know it can be a tar baby and you get … you take a punch with your right and then you can’t get your arm out of it. And this has happened to me in dealing with some of the paper’s critics that I have advised my successor in certain … with certain individuals, don’t engage with them because you cannot get out of the argument.
HEFFNER: Spitting contests usually …
HEFFNER: … don’t work out …
OKRENT: They don’t work out.
HEFFNER: … at all.
OKRENT: Now, one part of this response though is for the management of the paper, the Executive Editor and the two Managing Editors to write periodic columns about what the paper is doing. That I think is great. That’s something that I advocated in my column, am very pleased to see that they’re doing it. I have a meeting coming up with Barney Calame my successor and Bill Keller were we’re going to discuss how it might be done. And I’m extremely hopeful that that’s going to be something that will go a long way with readers.
HEFFNER: You know when I read that, a light went on and the light was “Where are they going to put it? Well, maybe pre-empt, co-opt the Public Editor’s space.”
OKRENT: Well, that’s … you know … by, by the time anyone who is watching us and listening to us speak, this will have been decided. I’m sitting here two days before the meeting that Clay and Keller and I are having to discuss how it ought to be done.
Do I know what’s going to come out of that meeting? No. Do I have my own feelings on how it should be done? Sure. But it’s not my decision.
HEFFNER: Would you take it from the Public Editor …
OKRENT: I wouldn’t take space from the Public Editor. No, I think that that … I can’t say this without sounding terribly vain, but I think that the Public Editor’s space, as defined during my tenure, is one of those things that you can’t take away from readers. If you take it away I think the readers will be upset. And, it’s a big paper, there’s room to do it elsewhere.
Now, you know, I … my pattern generally until just the last two months when I moved to the OpEd page from the Week in Review pages was … I was there three weeks out of four. Column … week off … column … letters from readers. That, you know, if they used that second week out of four, that would be fine. But I think that they want to write more frequently than that.
HEFFNER: Question that came up … the light that went on for me was “Is this hostility, percentage-wise to the whole concept of the Ombudsperson, the Public Editor?” Let’s cut him down a bit.
OKRENT: Ahemm … is this … no, I don’t think it is at all.
HEFFNER: No. Okay.
OKRENT: Well, partly I think that because I think of it as sort of a direct response to my challenging, urging them to do this, so … how … I can’t be insulted that they followed my advice. No, I don’t think it is.
OKRENT: Is it the opportunity for a rebuttal? Sure. That’s fine. I’m cool with that.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s the way it’s seen as a rebuttal to the public?
OKRENT: No, no, no, no. But I’m … you know, just speculating on what it could be … at times I could see the Public Editor could take a particular position that was antithetic to the Times and I could see the Editors the following week responding by why they did it that way.
HEFFNER: Your counterparts around the country … have they had your experience? Have you had their experience?
OKRENT: Well, I belong to a support group. I just had my last meeting with them last Friday.
HEFFNER: Oh, that’s … you’re kidding …
OKRENT: No, no, no, no.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s wonderful.
OKRENT: There’s an organization … it’s called the Organization of News Ombudsman … ONO … perfect acronym …
OKRENT: … it’s got about 45 American members and about 35 overseas … it’s an international organization … it’s convention is taking place the end of May in London … which I think is kind of cool, a junket for Ombudsmen … I’m not going.
And in that group we are divided into cells of five, six, seven people and once a month we have a conference call. I’ve just had mine … I’m with Ombudsmen from the San Francisco Chronicle and from … a bunch of California … San Diego, Sacramento, Salt Lake City … not California … St. Petersburg, Florida …
HEFFNER: The “S’s”.
OKRENT: Yeah, I guess I have the S’s. And we are on the phone with each other, as I say, once a month for an hour. “What’s going on in your back yard? What, what trouble are you having?” Or … “Any of you have an idea how I can deal with the fact that the Executive Editor has just threatened me with such-and-such”. It’s been very useful We do undergo the same things.
The one thing that I’m free of, or that the Public Editor of the Times is free of and god bless it, that this is the case, is comics. Comic strips. The …
HEFFNER: They loom large?
OKRENT: They are huge in, in the lives of every other Ombudsman in America, because very so often a “Boondocks” will be censored, or pulled or words in a “Doonesbury” will be changed, or a comic strip … or “Mary Worth” will be dropped. And when any of these things happen there’s an enormous uprising of rage. It’s again that matter of the, you know, the daily expectedness of what’s in your newspaper. And if you see that “Doonesbury” is supposed to be there and it isn’t there, and the Ombud at that particular paper is going to get thousands of calls.
HEFFNER: And the publisher, the owner … here in the Times?
OKRENT: What about him? [Laughter]
HEFFNER: What’s his reaction to …
OKRENT: He’s been, he’s been publicly very, very supportive. Just at the annual meeting two weeks ago, Arthur Sulzberger the publisher and Chairman spoke approvingly about how much he thought that this position had done for the Times. Privately, with me, he’s taken issue with me a couple of times, but never in a bumptious or threatening way. “You’re wrong about that” he will say to me, and I’ll say, “Tough” to him and he’ll say, “Fine, let’s have a drink”. It’s perfectly friendly.
The thing that … one of the many things that pleases me … there were members of the Sulzberger family who were really opposed to this idea. And made it very clear to me. And in the case of two … Arthur Sulzberger’s Aunts, sisters of Punch Sulzberger, they have both gone out of their way to tell me how I had changed their minds and how they think its good for the paper. That’s gratifying.
HEFFNER: That’s good. That’s good. One last question. I don’t know if it’s the last question, it depends upon whether you answer it or not … when you were talking to my friend Neil Hickey in the Columbia Journalism Review … you say, yeah you had goofed at a point or two …
HEFFNER: But you didn’t want to talk about that.
OKRENT: Right. And I’m, I’m still not ready. I’m … six months from now I’ll be … or seven months … I’ll be embarking on a four month fellowship at the Kennedy School and what I’ve been doing … what I’ve done to earn the fellowship is promise to write a 25 page paper reflecting on my time at the Times. And I’ve decided to wait until then to publicly announce what I did wrong. I mean … I mean there, there are things that, that … you know I wrote a column that had the very catchy headline, “Is The Times a Liberal Newspaper”. And then the first line was “of course it is.”
And inevitably, I should have known this … on the one hand I did it that way because it’s very readable and attracts a lot of attention and I’m as vain as any other writer about wanting that attention. But it was taken … those two sentences have been taken out of the larger context and have been used by the paper’s enemies, “See the Times’ own Mr. Okrent says that it’s a liberal rag”.
Well, that’s not quite what I said and there was a …
HEFFNER: You didn’t say it was a rag.
OKRENT: I didn’t say it was a rag and I said it was a Liberal newspaper on four particular issues and I also wrote that it was not a partisan paper, but that gets ignored.
So I’m sorry that I, I gave that weapon to people who would misuse it.
HEFFNER: If I ask you, in the 40 seconds we have left … Dan, is the Times, by and large, or leaning … a liberal newspaper?
OKRENT: First, in the opinion pages … absolutely. In the news pages, I’d say generally speaking … on the social issues … guns, abortion, gay rights, environmental issues as well … on economic issues or foreign policy issues … not at all.
HEFFNER: And you couldn’t just read the news sections and get that feeling that it leans …
OKRENT: Well, no I think that …
HEFFNER: … except in those areas.
OKRENT: In those areas, I think you do.
HEFFNER: But outside of those areas.
OKRENT: I don’t see it. Do you?
OKRENT: How so?
HEFFNER: And that’s the point at which, I get the signal … times up.
OKRENT: It’s a deal … you win …
HEFFNER: If you stay and do another program, we’ll go into that. But I know you’ve done eight recently and I just want to congratulate you on the job you have done, as the Ombudsperson or Public Editor. I hope you’re going to write a book about this experience.
OKRENT: I don’t think so. I think that I want to just go back to reading the newspaper. But I could change my mind.
HEFFNER: Not fair. Dan Okrent, thanks very much for joining me on The Open Mind.
OKRENT: Thank you.
HEFFNER: 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.