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The Chastening of the Times | The Nation

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The Chastening of the Times

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The Blair affair ended disastrously for Raines and Boyd, but not for readers of the New York Times. The intense media scrutiny around Blair gave the Times a heavy, unprecedented dose of its own medicine, and the paper did something it had resisted for almost forty years: It hired an ombudsman (and gave him the title of "public editor"). "We are enormously powerful, and we are very scary," Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told the Associated Press in mid-2003. "And we only know that when actually we've been covered. How do we open ourselves up, make ourselves more accessible and make ourselves more accountable? We've got to do it."

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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And so it was done--but why did it take so long? As Professor Neil Nemeth points out in his monograph News Ombudsmen in North America, the Times itself helped to float the ombudsman idea in the first place: Writing in the Times Magazine in 1967, the great labor reporter A.H. Raskin urged newspapers to create a "Department of Internal Criticism." To its credit, the Washington Post hired an ombudsman in 1970, and has kept one on the payroll ever since. The Times resisted such a move, for reasons outlined by Raines's successor, Bill Keller, in his introduction to the Siegal report: "We worried that it would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale and, worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interests of readers."

This is polite nonsense. The Times resisted an ombudsman because it wanted to preserve its status as "the world's greatest newspaper" by projecting to the planet an aura of invincibility--what Raines calls "the Times's defining myth of effortless superiority." The paper has always had critics; and sometimes those critics took their complaints to the publisher's front door. In 1968, protesters from Columbia University, livid at the paper's coverage of the student strike, gathered outside Punch Sulzberger's Fifth Avenue apartment and chanted: "New York Times--print the truth!" But the Times has always endeavored, with almost complete success, to keep criticism of itself outside its own pages. Practically by definition, the ombudsman's job is to let the criticism in. At gunpoint, the Times hired one in 2003.

He is Daniel Okrent, and he began his career as a book editor at Alfred A. Knopf in the 1960s. He created the magazine New England Monthly, after which he found comfort and security as an executive at Time Inc. He has written a nimble history of Rockefeller Center, Great Fortune; he competes in the annual national crossword championship; and he belongs to a dining club called "The Innard Circle," whose carnivorous members nibble on dishes made of heart, kidney, brains and lung. Last December, in his first column, Okrent introduced himself to readers as a centrist Democrat who would rather spend his "weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore."

In his biweekly column, Okrent has posed searching questions about a wide range of specific subjects covered in the Times, including the Howard Dean campaign (why, he wondered, did political reporter Jodi Wilgoren aver in print that "Dr. Dean smirked his trademark smirk"?); the Tyco trial (why did the paper print embarrassing personal details about a crucial juror?); the Toledo Blade's series on US war crimes in Vietnam (why did the editors wait nine weeks to report the explosive revelations?); the Tony Hendra sex scandal (why are sordid accusations "fit to print"?); and the Tony Awards (why is the Times's coverage so full of sycophancy?).

On other occasions, Okrent has tackled more ambitious themes: Why do so many Times A-section stories--he suggested 40 percent--contain anonymous sources? Is the Times a "paper of record"--and should it be? Is it a "liberal" newspaper? ("Of course it is," he responded). A number of Okrent columns have contained apologies, half apologies and quarter apologies from Times staffers. (Asked by Okrent why it took so long to report the Toledo Blade revelations, Roger Cohen, who was then the foreign editor, replied that he was "focused on Iraq" and "did not give it the attention it deserved.") For Times staffers, scrutiny of this sort is no doubt humbling; for readers it is refreshing--not least because Okrent goes about his business with wit, elegance, precision and humor. One often disagrees with his judgments (if the paper is so "liberal" why, when John Leonard quit the Times, did Arthur Gelb inform him, "The Times is a centrist institution, and you are not a centrist"?), but he's almost always a pleasure to read.

Perhaps because he's been feasting on so many 43rd Street innards, Okrent, who has directed nearly 5,000 messages and inquiries to the Times staff, has been a target of guerrilla reprisals. In a cheeky self-interview published in February, Okrent wrote: "So tell me, Dan. How are they treating you at The Times? I'm glad you asked. It has been both better and worse than I expected--better because a lot of people here believe that the Times should be as open to examination as those the Times itself examines each day.... What's worse than I expected is the overt hostility from some of those who don't want me here." According to the Wall Street Journal, one Times reporter, David Cay Johnston, convinced that Okrent had slandered a colleague in a private exchange with a reader, urged Times people to gang up on the public editor at a January meeting: "Sometimes," Johnston bragged to the Journal, "you have to treat others like the Russians--you have to demonstrate strength." (Okrent said he faced a "lynch mob.") One Times editor drubbed by Okrent, Suzanne Daley, sneeringly questioned his credentials: "I think he suffers from not being a newspaperman."

"To open a window"--that's how Okrent has modestly defined his undertaking at the New York Times. The window is open, and gusts of fresh air are flowing in. Closing that window won't be easy: Three months into the job, Okrent had already received 11,000 e-mail messages from Times readers, many of whom clearly see a need for a Department of Internal Criticism. Okrent's contract expires in May. In the meantime, the public editor is busy tending to the interests of the public. His columns differ in tone, texture and content, but each one contains a powerful message: New York Times--print the truth.

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