Daniel Okrent

The Times, Its Readers and Their Advocate, Part II

VTR Date: June 17, 2004

Daniel Okrent discusses the ethics of contemporary journalism.


GUEST: Daniel Okrent
VTR: 6/17/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Daniel Okrent, who became Public Editor of The New York Times barely a half year ago, introducing himself at that time as the first person charged with publicly evaluating, criticizing and otherwise commenting on the paper’s integrity.

But let’s move on to more issues relating to this matter of journalistic integrity. There were so many that I didn’t bring up last time and Dan, I think I’d like to ask you the key question about fairness and balance and where you think that concept or those words fit into your responsibilities.

OKRENT: Well, they certainly fit into my responsibility. A fairness with accuracy is the other sine qua non, it’s the necessity that one wants that in every, in every word of the paper.

Unlike … well accuracy is sometimes difficult to judge. Fairness is very, very difficult to judge. Balance sometimes creates imbalance. That’s a different issue.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “creates imbalance”?

OKRENT: The example, this will make some of your viewers angry, probably. But let me give you a very recent example. For decades, the Times, among many other institutions has refused to use the word “genocide” to describe what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915. And for all of those decades Armenians, Armenian interest groups, Armenian associations have plead, have picketed, have bargained, have tried to bully … whatever … use your, use your verb … the Times, and to other journalists, this was genocide. Call it genocide. And some Armenian scholars and some non-Armenian scholars who supported their view came to me, I introduced them to Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, Keller decided that he thought it was appropriate to use the word “genocide.”

Now the Turks are very angry at the Times and I have a meeting with a group of, of, of representatives of the Turkish community scheduled for a few weeks from now. But already in our correspondence they have made … “this is not balanced, you have sided with the Armenians.”

Bill Keller believes, based on his study, I haven’t studied it as closely as he has, that, in fact, it was genocide. And that is not something that requires … if you seek the balance, you may end up with something that is imbalanced, because sometimes something is true.

HEFFNER: Sometimes.

OKRENT: Let’s move it from that to the Holocaust. When somebody asserts that the Holocaust, the murder of millions of Jews took place, are you required by balance to go to a Holocaust denial … a denyer? No, of course not.

So balance, this has happened … now let me move it actually to a simpler, more contemporary examples. When a Republican … well, let me see … you know, when a Republican political operative says, you know, “John Kerry really didn’t do what he said he did to win his Purple Heart.” Do you have to publish that? No, you don’t. See, because there’s no evidence that he’s right.

But if it’s in response to something that a Kerry supporter has said, where Kerry did win these, win these medals, these awards … then often a journalist will say, “Well, I need to balance this by getting what somebody else has to say.” But he won the damn awards. So that balance is a very, very dif … it’s very hard to pin down.
Fairness is listening to everybody and then deciding what’s appropriate to use.

HEFFNER: Do you think broadcasters are worst off, better off because there’s no Fairness Doctrine any longer?

OKRENT: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. I, I think that, that the Fairness Doctrine, as I recall it, certainly created the illusion that everybody was getting their say. Whether it was really happening or not, I don’t know. One of the things I think was a problem with the Fairness Doctrine is that it led some broadcasting outlets to not go into certain areas, “because if we do that, then we’re going to have to have the other side on.” That’s certainly bad for a democracy. So, you know, I could see the case for why it doesn’t belong there any longer.

HEFFNER: You know, as many times as people talk about that tendency of the Fairness Doctrine, that it froze, that it chilled news reporting, I’ve never seen it happen. Not in broadcasting, and I wondered whether it happens, in your estimation, in print journalism?

OKRENT: I think it does. I think it does. And I don’t know enough about broadcasting to, to give you a rebuttal on that. I’ll take your word for it. But, I’ve brought up some questions with reporters of the Times, “why don’t you look into such and such, I’ve got readers saying ‘why don’t you look into such and such’. And they say, ‘well, to do that would be tendentious, it would be, we’d be representing a point of view and if we did that then we’d have to go to the other side and, and, and … you know, let’s just steer clear of that because there’s no easy resolution.

I’m trying to think of a current example … well, there’s a … I want to be careful how I say this … one issue that has come up … when … various Catholic Bishops said that Governor McGreevy in New Jersey, or Senator Kerry, should not be able to take communion because they do not support the church’s teachings on abortion. A reader asked me, “Well, why don’t you reporters ask those same Bishops whether they’re giving communion to Arnold Schwarznegger, George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani … all Catholic politicians who support abortion, but happen to be Republicans. And I went to a reporter and said “this is a very good point.” Says, “Yes”, she said, “but it’s an argumentative point, and if we made that point then people will be saying that we’re being unfair because we’re raising something that isn’t the issue, the issue is Senator Kerry … he’s the one who’s running for President.”

That’s just a lousy answer.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “an argumentative point?”

OKRENT: Because, as …

HEFFNER: As distinguished from what?

OKRENT: … there’s the, there’s the … there is among certain reporters a distinctive, an instinctive resistance to doing anything in response to that which they perceive to be tendentious. In other words, if it comes from … if you are a reporter covering the Middle East and you are criticized by CAMERA, the Committee on Accurate Middle East Reporting in America, the Zionist press watchdog, the automatic reportorial instinct among bad reporters is “I’m not listening to that because that’s an argumentative point of view. And I can’t be influenced by such; I have to stick to the straight and narrow.”

So there’s a, a resistance to that which I think people feel would, would push them into areas that would require further levels of fairness. I’m not being very clear about it … I wish I could be a little bit more articulate, but I do think that the, the likelihood of the heavy weight of a balance on one side that would require the seeking of balance … the counter-balance … does keep journalists away from certain stories.

HEFFNER: But, of course, I always remember the feelings my wife and I had so many, many, many decades ago when we’d read James Reston …always the seeming need on the one hand and on the other …


HEFFNER: … and that was very distressing.

OKRENT: So distressing.

HEFFNER: But now?

OKRENT: Well, no, it would distress me as well. I, I do want to trust the authority of reporters and consider them innocent until proven guilty and when they’re proven guilty, I won’t trust them any longer.

But I realize that I’m in a position where the by-line means a great deal and I know who’s written every piece. And not every reader of the Times pays attention, nor should have to pay attention to that. But there … sometimes the “on the other hand” doesn’t justify the ink that used to print it. Sometimes, something is true.

HEFFNER: And when you’re a columnist and opine …

OKRENT: That’s different. I think that is different. I think there … I still think fairness is admirable and something to aspire to …

HEFFNER: But not necessary?

OKRENT: Uhmmm, William Safire says he’s entitled to be wrong-headed, but it’s his wrong-headedness. Maybe he’s euphemizing there …

HEFFNER: Meaning he’s not entitled to be wrong …

OKRENT: He’s not entitled to be wrong, but to be wrong-headed. In other words, you can’t say that Louisville is the capital of the United States. But he can say that Louisville should be the capital of the United States. And that’s entirely wrong-headed, but that’s … he’s a columnist. Is it … I, I, I think that human decency asks for fairness. But readers also ask for columnists to really stand for something. And sometimes they’re unfair in the process of doing that.

I certainly don’t think that the columnists need to be balanced. Not for a moment.

HEFFNER: You mean within one columnist’s column?

OKRENT: Within one columnist’s column.

HEFFNER: But what about …

OKRENT: Or within one columnist’s career.

HEFFNER: But what about the “voice” or the voices expressed in the New York Times.

OKRENT: In any newspaper. Well, you have seven OpEd columnists …

HEFFNER: Can’t be evenly divided.

OKRENT: No, they cannot be evenly divided And I would say that by pretty … well four are clearly to the Left; two are clearly to the Right; one is, I think, so purely a reporter … this is Nick Kristof, that he really doesn’t … an ideology doesn’t come into it. I’m not suggesting that ideology drives the other ones. But in his case, I find him … I have no idea what his politics are. Which is very rare when you’re reading a columnist on a regular basis. But it’s interesting to me that, you know, the Times does have its two Conservatives and they’re both Conservatives who support … in one case civil union … the other actually supporting gay marriage. You know they’re acceptable Conservatives for the New York Times. You know you won’t … you’re not going to get real balance when the newspaper has a point of view and the ownership of the newspaper has a point of view. It’s visible on the left-hand side of that spread with the editorials on a daily basis.

HEFFNER: How do you characterize that point of view?

OKRENT: I think that point of view is very much Left Liberal, supportive, by-and-large of the Democratic Party. It’s, I think, it’s not … it’s not populist, certainly …

HEFFNER: The New York Times?

OKRENT: No, no, no … not nearly. But I think it’s a believer, certainly in its position on economic policy and taxes of this … a believer more in the little guy than in the rich guy. Yeah, it’s a Liberal newspaper. It certainly a Liberal Editorial Page. And I don’t think … nor would anybody who works there deny it. What’s interesting to me, the entire Editorial Board, every member, I think you would have to consider …I’m told by two members of the Editorial … but we’re all Liberals. There isn’t a Conservative voice in the room, and I raise this question, actually just last night with Arthur Sulzberger.

And he said, “If we had a Conservative there, who would argue the other position, when it came to a vote … lose and then be asked to write the Editorial. And it’s just a … it’s a formula for somebody being incredibly unhappy.

HEFFNER: Why’d you even raise the question? You feel uneasy about that imbalance?

OKRENT: No, no. I think that the Editorial Page … any newspaper’s editorial page is, is the … as the man said, “Freedom of the press belongs to the one who owns it.” If the, the ownership of the New York Times, you know, wants to say that … to argue that the moon should be colonized, that’s their privilege to do so. They can say whatever the want on the Editorial Page … I don’t think they should lie. They should be … they shouldn’t be inaccurate, but their positions are theirs to have.

The conversation arose from the context of how people perceive the newspaper as a whole. And I think one of the reasons why people perceive, people particularly outside of New York, perceive the Times news columns to be slanted to the Left is because there is an atmospheric, already created by the Editorial Page and the OpEd page.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any justification to that perception?

OKRENT: Yes, I think there’s some. I do think there’s some. On certain issues … it’s a column I’m going to be writing pretty soon. I’d rather not go into it in great detail because I’m still thinking it through. But I think that on certain, social issues that the Times’ coverage does reveal the nature of the people who work there.

We’re all products of our own environment. And if the Times were being published in Enid, Oklahoma, I think that the same people transformed there … you know living there for x years would represent that environment.

This is a newspaper that comes out of Manhattan and certain issues … I think that gay rights is clearly one; abortion is clearly one; the environment is clearly one. A general cultural Liberal … I mean if you open the Arts pages and you see downtown performing artists who are doing bizarre things and sometimes the fashion spreads in the magazine … there is torn clothing. You know there’s a … you know you live in New York, you look at this “Yeah, you know, this is the sort of stuff that goes on”. But if you come from a different cultural background and you walk into the rooms of the New York Times, you say, “This is a Liberal institution.”

HEFFNER: How influential would you say the Times is now, nationwide?

OKRENT: I think it’s more influential now, certainly because the readership is nationwide. There are more people who get The New York Times outside of metropolitan New York than in metropolitan New York. That’s the print edition.

And then beyond that, there are more people reading the Times online than in print today. The daily online readership exceeds the daily print readership. And they are largely not in metropolitan New York. They’re all over the world. I see this in my E-mail where people are … this is a worldwide readership and, and very much a nationwide readership for an elite. But that’s where influence arises.

Certainly within the journalism profession, if the Times starts a story, the rest of American press picks it up.

HEFFNER: That business about “agenda-setting”.

OKRENT: Yeah. Not conscious “agenda-setting”. I mean there’s not …

HEFFNER: Not conscious?

OKRENT: No. I don’t think that, that, that on the news pages that when they get together at the 4:30 meeting to decide what to put on the front page, they’re saying “If we do this, than this is what they’re going to do in the, you know, the Des Moines Register, that we’re going to be able to set the agenda by doing this story.” They’re just doing the New York Times.

But it’s influence, wanted or not, I think it’s probably wanted … is something that the rest of the journalism world accepts. You read it in the Times … “ohhh, this might be important.”

HEFFNER: The, the agenda-setting business, I didn’t mean setting the agenda for other newspapers, more importantly setting the agenda for the nation. What should be of concern for Americans?

OKRENT: Well, to the degree that I know the nature of the consideration … of, of the discussion that goes into deciding what’s on the front page … which is where the agenda is set … it doesn’t get framed like that. It may be “What must our readers know, and maybe that is itself a, a stand in for ‘what must the nation know?’.” But it is, in terms of “what should our readers know?”

HEFFNER: Now, you’re a long-time magazine person. What about the strange position of the New York Times magazine?

OKRENT: Well, it’s, it’s odd … because “strange” is the right word. It is … if you listen to people who work on the daily paper, it is only this, this kind of horrible accident … and I shouldn’t say “horrible”, it’s this accident that these two things have the same name on them because they operate by different rules, different standards, different sets of people.

HEFFNER: The magazine and the daily paper.

OKRENT: The magazine and the daily paper. I think the magazine’s … some weeks it’s absolutely wonderful … I’m not knocking the magazine when I talk about the distinction between the two. But it’s like having a cousin with your name, but who believes in a lot of things that you don’t believe in. And you say, “Well, you know, that’s another Okrent over there, but it’s not MY Okrent.”

And, and the standards of the magazine, the way the magazine goes about doing what it does is very different, as magazines are.

HEFFNER: Is that true? As magazines are?

OKRENT: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think that I cannot think of a magazine in this country that we take seriously that, that it isn’t saturated in point of view. That’s why it’s fun to write for magazines. That’s, you know … maybe I chose to write for magazines rather than newspapers because I was not good enough to be in newspapers. But believe me, the freedom of magazine writing … to be able to have … to be encouraged to have a point of view. There’s something that’s very gratifying for many writers.

HEFFNER: I remember … I began Channel 13 as its first General Manager, it’s Founding General Manager, my first guest on my own program, which was a take off on The Open Mind, was Lester Markel and I wondered what’s the difference … is Lester spinning now?

OKRENT: From what I know of Lester Markel, he’s spinning for a lot of reasons. You know, he had his own separate world, which was the Sunday newspaper. And the people who were responsible for the daily newspaper had no influence. It was, you know, this, this absolutely Markelian universe that he ran by his own rules.

Now the paper’s much more consolidated. The difference between the magazine and the rest of the newspaper is the distinction between magazines and newspapers. The rest of the Sunday sections, I think are operating very much under the same rules and the same precepts and cultural beliefs that the daily newspaper is.

HEFFNER: Do you think that his notion of the newspaper or the magazine and he would say … put it that way, I think, as an explanatory device that you had. Giving a story was meaningless unless you gave background; unless you explained. Is this, does this prevail now, this point of view at the Times?

OKRENT: Well I think much of the explanatory writing has moved in with the daily paper. Much more so than in Markel’s time. And if you go back … this is really something … I’ve been reading the Times almost exactly 40 years and, of course, there are changes that I notice because you know, it used to be just two sections. And so and so forth.

HEFFNER: In the good old days.

OKRENT: In the good old days. The crossword puzzle was always below the Book Review, you know, a number of things like that. It’s astonishing how different the paper is, that you know, the typical news story of 1964 compared to a news story of 2004 … different planets. And the explanation, the explanatory journalism is present in the daily newspaper. I think this is going to become more so as newspapers re-define themselves in an era of 24 hour news. That if you’re getting something electronically, you’re getting the events, you know, it’s like sports’ writing. All innovation in newspapers begins in the sport pages, I do believe that.

When you could finally get the score at night, from ESPN and you didn’t have to wait until the morning, that forced the, the story of the game to change.

And I think that the same things happening right now. As we get the breaking news from Yahoo or from whatever, you know, from the NYTimes.com … whatever it might be, then what I read in the morning had better be explanatory. And it’s becoming that.

HEFFNER: And what will that do to the position of the Times? I would think it’s going to enhance the importance of the Times.

OKRENT: Yes, I think it will. I think it has and will enhance the importance of the Times, but it will also create more enemies for the Times. Because explanatory journalism perhaps doesn’t directly have an opinion, but it reveals nuance that will offend those of strong opinion. They’ll say, “Well, this is agenda driven, you know.” You take this position because you’re for Kerry or you’re for Bush, or whatever it might be. When you get into explanation, you run that risk of, of opening yourself up to that kind of criticism.

HEFFNER: James Reston wrote a piece about … in his book “Footprints in the Sands of Time” in which he talked about Nixon using the old cigarette commercial, notion, “it’s what’s up front that counts”. And the press has no right, really, to intercede between a political candidate or a President of the United States and his public in interpreting, in giving the background, you obviously …

OKRENT: Yeah. I don’t think that … I just don’t think that that can work today. First of all, politicians have direct access, as they didn’t in Reston’s time. That the opportunity that Bush or Kerry have that they each have to speak directly to their audience, unmediated by what the Times or other journalistic institutions do is so, so much greater than it was before.

What then is the press to do? Sit by in the sidelines and say, “Well, this is what he said last night?” If the, the print media, the daily newspapers, particularly, are to remain vital, they have to do something more.

Back to the sports analogy, they have to go into the locker room and tell me what the players had to say or explain what, you know, the thinking of the coach might have been. That if newspaper … if the Times did today what it did when Reston was the Editor in the 60s. I would be out of business in a year. I really believe that. There would be no patience for it.

HEFFNER: And what’s the transformation going to be between the beginning of this century and 20 years, 40 years from now.

OKRENT: Well, I think it will be moving more and more toward … you know, explanatory journalism. You know, just as … this is happening all throughout the journalistic food chain. And the, the nature of what Time magazine did 40 years ago related to what it did today … you know, it has to change because the circumstances, the competitive reality … the technological reality has changed. The same thing will happen here. I think the daily newspapers will become more magazine-like, in fact.

HEFFNER: I was just going to ask you, if, in fact, you’re going to come full circle?


HEFFNER: You’re back in the magazines.

OKRENT: Well, I’ll be gone by then. [Laughter] I’m gone from the newspaper business in May of 2005, so it’s not going to be …

HEFFNER: That’s a silly business it seems to me.

OKRENT: What’s that.

HEFFNER: You mean it.


HEFFNER: It’s really the arrangement?

OKRENT: It is the absolute arrangement when, when I signed on I wanted 12 months, they wanted 24 months, we settled on 18 months. I think that’s what they had in mind all along and they just out negotiated me.

And there were two things that played there. One was my own selfish wish to go back to writing books. But the important reason and why the Times is absolutely right and why I swear by this … if I were possibly to get an extension, a second term, then readers would have reason to doubt whether I’m being totally honest with them. In other words, “Am I being nice to the management of this newspaper because I want to keep my job?”

HEFFNER: Because it’s so easy?

OKRENT: Is it so easy to …

HEFFNER: Because it’s so easy to do you job?

OKRENT: No, it’s really hard to do my job, but if I did want to do it longer I could, obviously, pull punches. And maybe I am pulling punches, I don’t know. Readers can decide that. I don’t feel that I’m pulling punches by, you are certainly, if you want to keep your job you are less reluctant to criticize the boss. And I can’t keep my job, and the Boss knows that, and I know that. And therefore, I think readers can trust that I’m saying what I believe.

HEFFNER: We spoke between the tapings of these two shows about the National News Council. And I ask whether it was true that the Times had opposed it so and helped bring about its demise. As CBS …

OKRENT: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … did the same thing. Will there continue to be a Public Editor?

OKRENT: They have … they determined, the people who run the Times, that they would give it … it’s an 18 month experiment, and after a year they’ll begin to decide whether they’re going to extend it. I could be wrong about this, as I have been wrong about many other things. I would be stunned if they don’t continue it. If I mess up, if I do something egregious, if I commit a felony, that would give them an opportunity to discontinue right away. But presuming that I remain relatively respectable, that after 18 months, to shut the office down … an office that’s getting, you know, 1,200 – 1,500 E-mails from readers every week and to eliminate that criticism that appears on the page of the paper, is to say “well, our problems have been solved, we don’t need this any longer”.

And The Times, as arrogant as many people perceive it to be; it can’t be that arrogant.” I, I think the institution is here to stay, but it’s not my decision.

HEFFNER: If your colleagues were to take a vote, if the Times, let’s say fairly Senior people were to take a vote now, up or down?

OKRENT: Well, I think that the more senior, the more likely up. I think that the higher you move on the mast, the higher you move in the table of organization, the more people support this job.

And one, you know, one reason for that might be, well, they’re the ones who are most secure in their jobs, I suppose. But they’re also the ones who were involved in the decision to create the job, so they have a little bit invested in it, as well.

HEFFNER: Is the Times protected as you suggest, by this office?

OKRENT: I think in a way that, that it’s good for the Times, it creates a little bit of protection in the sense that it creates some credibility and also that the people who work at the Times who might not want to deal with this complaint, they could say, “Well, I don’t have to deal with it, Okrent’s over there, it’s his problem they’re paying him to deal with it.”

HEFFNER: We have 30 seconds left, I waited to this point to ask you what basic change you think would be most important.

OKRENT: I, I think it is an issue of sources. I think that the Times should either stop … you can’t stop using them entirely. But I think the Times owes it to its readers to say, not only who, what kind of person, who it is who’s saying this, but what that’s person’s motivations are. And I think that that’s a change that we’re going to see happen.

HEFFNER: You do?


HEFFNER: How soon?

OKRENT: Don’t know. Can’t guess.

HEFFNER: Daniel Okrent, I really appreciate your joining me today and I hope you’ll come back before those 18 months …

OKRENT: Absolutely. Be delighted to.

HEFFNER: … have gone by. Thanks again for coming to The Open Mind. 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.