It's curtains for Okrent

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent reflects on the paper's "very bad journalism" on WMD, its liberal slant, and William Safire's wisecracks about readers.

Published May 12, 2005 11:27PM (EDT)

The Jayson Blair fabrication scandal in 2003 left the New York Times with little choice but to join the Washington Post and other top newspapers in hiring an ombudsman, a reader representative to provide more scrutiny of Times' news-gathering practices. In late 2003, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller chose Daniel Okrent as the paper's first public editor. This month, after an initially stormy and always provocative 18 months -- the set duration of the gig -- Okrent hands over the job to Byron Calame, a former Wall Street Journal editor.

Okrent was not an obvious choice for the highly visible role of second-guessing the Times in its own pages. He had only minimal newspaper experience, although he had been the managing editor of Life magazine and the editor of new media for Time Inc. He is also the author of "Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center" and the baseball book "Nine Innings." No Times public editor could escape criticism and confrontation, but Okrent never shied away from controversy.

In his first column, he wrote, "I believe the Times is a great newspaper, but a profoundly fallible one." His brusque style was not to everyone's taste, but there was freshness and bravery in his approach, and his biweekly dispatch, "The Public Editor," had a way of reinforcing a reader's insight into the paper's quandaries. Interviewed at his office in the Times Building on West 43rd Street, just before he packed up his books and belongings, Okrent made clear that the criticisms stung at times, but he also wore them as a badge of honor.

The Times took a lot of heat about the "White House Letter" articles by White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller. In one, she seemed to fawn over White House communications director Nicolle Devenish. In another, she wrote about Bush loving baseball. Why the uproar?

What was interesting was, the criticism was from both sides. Bumiller could write a paragraph that would make the Bushies flip out. "How could this person be so disrespectful of our president?" And in the same paragraph -- because it was not in the context of issues but of his personality or his hobbies -- the anti-Bushies would be screaming, "How can you publish such tripe by someone who is so clearly in the Bush administration's pocket?" It was ridiculous. Maybe there were things to criticize, but these two different comments displayed more about our culture and a lack of understanding of what that columnist meant to do. I think it's one of the Times' problems that they haven't made it clear to readers what various formats mean.

You wrote, "As for 'White House Letter,' it's part of a longstanding Times' practice of trying to provide a glimpse into the personal side of newsmakers' lives. I do think the paper could do a better job of labeling these pieces and making clear that they are not about, nor meant to be about, life-and-death issues."

I'm not so sure I should have included that last line, because those articles can be substantive. But it's about the individual reader. If you really hate George Bush, you don't want to read about his hobbies or that he's nice to his friends or that he's good company at dinner.

Or what he has on his iPod.

It just drives people who don't like him crazy. It would have been the same if there had been a "White House Letter" about Clinton 10 years ago. It's a misapprehension, I think, of the varied roles that a newspaper has. Now if that were the only coverage of Bush, yeah, sure.

In "Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?" you wrote: "To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable. Except, of course, it appears to have been mistaken." Do you think that the Times' prewar reporting on WMD could prove to be a longer-term embarrassment to the paper than the Jayson Blair scandal?

I don't know if I could speak to comparative sins. It certainly was a very serious case of bad journalism. It was not, to the best of my ability to determine, a case of "I know we're lying as I write this," which Jayson Blair was. Here was a guy consciously plagiarizing. Here was a guy who meant to break the rules. The Times did a lousy job on WMD, but I can't imagine there was anybody in the office saying, "Let's make up some things."

But an argument can be made that the paper's WMD reporting helped lead the country into war.

I'm not saying it's not a significant issue. I'm saying that the WMD reporting was not consciously evil. It was bad journalism, even very bad journalism.

In that column, you raised questions about Judith Miller, who wrote the controversial WMD stories, and other reporters, noting that they relied on unnamed sources, which can amount to "a license granted to liars." You continued: "The contract between a reporter and an unnamed source -- the offer of information in return for anonymity -- is properly a binding one. But I believe that a source who turns out to have lied has breached that contract, and can fairly be exposed." Do you think the Times made a mistake in not disciplining Miller?

I don't know that one can say she wasn't disciplined. They don't reveal personnel matters to me. For all I know, she was disciplined. For all anyone knows, she was disciplined. Only Judith Miller and Times management know for sure.

You wrote: "The editors' note to readers will have served its apparent function only if it launches a new round ... of aggressively reported stories detailing the misinformation, disinformation and suspect analysis that led virtually the entire world to believe Hussein had W.M.D. at his disposal." A year later, do you think the Times follow-up reporting has been up to that standard?

There was one really good long piece by Michael Gordon. But I don't think it was enough. I think they could have done more.

Should reporters show more skepticism about U.S. military claims? For example, Richard A. Oppel Jr. recently reported that a "Marine task force swept through a wide area of western Iraq near the Syrian border, killing 100 insurgents ... American military officials said." Shouldn't the reporter be more skeptical about whether those 100 people killed really were insurgents?

I would have to know who the officials were and Oppel's history with those officials, and whether they were reliable sources and whether he did cross-confirming with other officials.

But you read the piece.

Yes. There's not enough in the story for me to say that he wasn't sufficiently skeptical. Maybe he was.

Do you think the Times has reported aggressively enough on civilian casualties in Iraq?

No. I think on civilian casualties they could do more. It's actually something I've discussed with the editors involved. They're aware of it, and I'm hopeful that there will be more reporting on that.

This February, you wrote again about Judith Miller, mentioning her appearance on ''Hardball With Chris Matthews.'' On the show, she said sources were telling her that "the Bush administration 'has been reaching out' to the Iraqi political figure Ahmad Chalabi to offer him expressions of cooperation.'' She continued: ''According to one report, he was even offered a chance to be an interior minister in the new government." That column took a strong stand against reporters playing pundit. You mentioned vanity as one motivation. Is that enough to explain reporters -- who so often ridicule pundits for superficiality and pomposity -- wanting to become pundits themselves?

If such people exist! [Laughs.] I know there are reporters who ridicule pundits. I don't know if they are the same reporters who then want to become pundits. The Times' new credibility committee report that was issued on Monday very specifically said they will be putting in a policy that reporters must get permission from their department heads to appear on television, which I think is a really good thing. It was very loose in the past and now they're tightening it up. Under this new policy, Judy could not have gone on that show without asking permission from her department head.

Was the failure to nail down the fallacy of Saddam Hussein's WMD an institutional failure that transcends past ones?

That's hard to know. You can certainly go back to any number of stories -- early coverage of Vietnam, the Holocaust -- to show the press failing to tell the story. That sort of suggests that it's the DNA that the press can fail on big stories. Now, I think the likelihood of it failing on something like WMD again is very slight because everybody is aware of how we in the press blew it.

So what does the press do to guard against this happening again?

Keep public editors around, give readers more access to the editors of the paper, constantly challenge itself, and be aware of its own history. Is Jayson Blair going to happen again at the Times? I don't think so in the foreseeable future. But 50 years from now? Sure. Jayson Blair is going to happen again in the same way that planes are going to crash and volcanoes are going to erupt.

Let's go back to the "bulge" controversy. Robert Nelson, a photo analyst for NASA, approached the Times and said he was convinced that the bulge on President Bush's back during the presidential debates was more than "a poorly tailored shirt," as Bush said. The Times prepared a story and then spiked it. How come?

Well, I wrote about it in my online journal. But what happened is that three Times reporters did a great deal of reporting and had a piece about the bulge that was offered at a news meeting about 10 days before the election. Bill Keller decided not to put it in the paper. That led to a piece by Dave Lindorff that ran in Counterpunch and various other places about the Times spiking a piece that established that this authoritative person, Nelson, had established that Bush was wearing an amplifying device.

So I talked to the authors of the piece and they told me that Nelson never said that there was a listening device. Nelson said there was something there. And that's a very, very different thing. But the whole Web world went crazy. I made a rather intemperate comment about Lindorff, who I think is a good reporter, saying that he just had it wrong, and that created a response from him and from various others about how I was ignoring whatever I was ignoring.

The issue was: Should the piece have run? Why didn't it run? What did it say? That's different from the assertion that it said X, when it did not say X, and was killed because of Y, when it perhaps wasn't because of Y. It always helps to make a charge when you don't know the details.

But the White House position was that it was a wrinkled jacket, and so the argument has merit because the NASA expert was saying...

No, no, no, the question was, "Should the piece have run?" I would argue that it should have run. I don't think it was killed for "we've got to protect the president" reasons. I know why it was killed. I talked to Keller about it. He just didn't think it was that central to what was going on in the last week before the campaign, and he may have -- though he wouldn't say this -- thought this is going to introduce something that is only going to make things more complicated, and the piece does not establish -- does not establish -- that he had it. Now if you ask the writers, they'll say they wish it had run. They said that on the record and they didn't lose their jobs. They just disagreed with the editorial decision that was made.

You've been pushing for Op-Ed columnists to run corrections. Has that met with resistance?

I'm going to be addressing this topic in my last column, which will run May 22, so I don't want to scoop myself.

Well, how much resistance did you get from Gail Collins, the editorial page editor?

I have to give you a little prehistory. Gail didn't want me commenting on the opinion pages. I was hired by the news department and, despite the rabid assertions of the Times' enemies and detractors, the two really have nothing to do with each other. But [publisher] Arthur Sulzberger decided that I should be able to comment on the editorial pages as well, so it began with Gail being understandably leery: "Who is this person who is going to pass judgment on opinions?"

Then pretty early on in the job, I began to nag a couple of the columnists and Gail about the question of factual errors, or the allegation of factual errors. When I told Gail I was going to write about it, I said, "I want a statement: What's the policy? Why don't you have a policy?" And then she gave me a policy and I quoted from the policy in my column and I ran it in its entirety in my Web journal.

It's a very complicated issue about when is a fact not a fact in the context of opinions. I'll illustrate it: William Safire continued to refer to an al-Qaida's leader's connection to Saddam Hussein. The various government reports said there was no connection. Safire kept writing that there was a connection. Many people challenged him on it. I went to him on it. He said, "I know there's a connection."

Well, who is to say? Just because this report said so doesn't mean that there isn't a connection. He was relying on his sources. Many people thought I was a total wimp for not challenging him and insisting that there be a correction. But if you turn it around, and put it in the context of a Paul Krugman column, when Krugman makes an assertion that he knows to be the case, then in that case the Safire critic would probably defend Krugman. So when is this being motivated by ideology and when is it really being motivated by a quest for accuracy? Those are two different things and so you have to be really careful.

What was the story about Safire's parting words to you?

It's about his welcoming words. Safire is sitting in the chair that you're in now. Arthur brought him in to introduce him to me and he was very friendly. He said, "By the way, feel free to send me any complaints that you get about my column from readers and I will take them in my hand and put them right into the wastebasket." He said it in a very pleasant voice with a smile on his face. I said to him, "Well, I don't want to put you to the trouble of doing that." It was fine. He answered me when there was a factual challenge. He would reply.

In your column "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" you answered, "Of course it is." Talking about the Op-Ed page, you said that "you need an awfully heavy counterweight to balance a page that also bears the work of seven opinionated columnists, only two of whom could be classified as conservative." What did you mean?

That the Op-Ed page is very important in readers' and the nation's perception of the Times, the perception of its editorial positions, and of its implicit editorial positions as expressed by the publisher's choice of people who are given the freedom to write opinion columns. That page is taken to be the Times and therefore is seen by many critics on the right as proof that the Times, in its news columns, is coming from the left. Those are two very different things and I always try to separate them and appraise them on their own.

But I think it's undeniable that the Times is a liberal paper. Gail Collins and Andy Rosenthal, the deputy editor, and I have badinage about it. "Oh, we're too liberal for you again?" Of course it's a liberal editorial policy and a preponderance of liberal columnists.

Can you address the work of the relatively new conservative columnists, David Brooks and John Tierney?

Brooks clearly lines up on the conservative side, but like Safire, he's a libertarian conservative, not an evangelical Christian. On First Amendment issues and a variety of other social issues, both Safire and Brooks, for instance, came out literally in favor of either gay marriage or civil union.

I think Tierney is also more libertarian than he is conservative in the conventional sense. Tierney is an oppositionist. He's a contrarian. And particularly in the atmosphere of the Times, I think he's made a very fine career out of being contrarian. He will write pieces that try to establish why automobile culture is good, why recycling is bad. He picked up Freakanomics for his first or second column because of that contrarian streak. Is he an ideological conservative? I don't know. I knew him before I came to the Times and I know he's a contrarian.

A gadfly?

In the context of that editorial page and that Op-Ed page and the general tone of the newspaper, I think that's an important role to play. It's very different from William Safire, who had a direct line to various Republican White Houses and to Ariel Sharon's home. He was deeply embedded in the ideological conservative community.

You have been on a mission to reduce anonymous quotes in the paper. Will that represent your legacy at the paper?

I hope so, I really hope so. Several days ago there was a briefing by a principal in the government, in which he said, as many principals will, very little. It was mostly cliché, empty and anodyne. Someone on his staff was going to give a background briefing and get into more detail. The reporters objected and the briefers decided, OK forget it. And the readers of those newspapers were deprived of what might have been learned. Now, that's a shame.

However, I think that if the newspapers and broadcast stations stick to their guns, those kinds of incidents will pass. Because those briefers want their story to get out, and if their only way to get the story out is to put it on the record, we will see, in time, their coming around and putting it on the record.

A point you've made in your column is that reporters should think more for themselves. Rather than just go to expert A and B, they should have room for some synthesis to draw on their own expertise.

Right, but there's expertise and then there's inside information. And I think we have to make a distinction. Let's say that you have somebody at the Treasury Department who is going to be briefing on changes in tax policy. It's not his expertise that you care about. You get the expertise from elsewhere. You pull that together as a reporter. But if he's going to tell you what the Treasury Department is going to do, or what the Bush administration is going to do, then that's important stuff.

Except the official is usually spinning you. Normally he's trying to set you up with a plausible scenario, hoping you'll bite on it.

Yes, there's much of that. But that's not all that goes on. Even your most maligned source, the one who wants only to spin, will at times have things to tell you that you want to know.

But, for example, in the case of the Bolton nomination, you definitely have reporters who will call their sources and report, "said one administration official," or "one Republican official." That's an anonymous source speculating on how the fight over the nomination is going to work out.

Right, I hate that. It's terrible. That's the thing that I think should end. You should at the very least indicate as much as you can about the source and what the motivation is. I'd like it to say, "said one Republican source who is carrying the administration's water for the Bolton nomination." Or, "one Democratic source who is doing whatever he can to sabotage Bolton's candidacy." Tell us as much as you can and tell us the motivation.

Sometimes reporters plug in quotes from an anonymous source to show they've made the calls and done their work.

And I think that just showing you've made the calls is a silly convention left over from much of old journalism because it doesn't really show that you've done anything if you have an anonymous source. I find this in reader e-mail over and over again: Readers don't believe it. They think that the reporter either made it up, or has made selections to serve the reporter's own interests. I don't think that's happening most of the time, or nearly most of the time, but if readers think it's happening, then you've got a big problem.

What was your first day on the job like?

God, do I even remember my first day? The first things that I have memories of is that I went to the department heads meeting. It was not unfriendly, but there was an edge. They didn't know me. I didn't know them. I was probably being a little cocky, which I do when I feel that I don't know what I'm talking about. There was a little bit of mutual posturing. That first week, I also went to Washington. That was really tough. I sympathize with those Washington figures who have to face 40 Times Washington bureau reporters. They ask hard questions and they're relentless. And they were quite suspicious and quite dubious about me.

And what do they think of you now?

Well, Phil Taubman, the Washington bureau chief, invited me back this March and said it was time for the exit interview. He told me, and I don't remember the exact words, "We all survived this. We don't think you're a horrible human being." Now I worry. If people ended up liking me, did I do the job wrong? So I decided they didn't end up liking me -- they ended up being able to deal with me.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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