Okrent's good, bad -- and liberal -- Times

Did the ombudsman experiment succeed in reviving the paper's reputation after Jayson Blair and Judith Miller?

Published May 16, 2005 5:36PM (EDT)

This week is Daniel Okrent's last as ombudsman at the Times; NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen says Okrent has done a bang-up job in his 18 months. "Ultimately Daniel Okrent will have had more influence on the New York Times than the notorious Jayson Blair," Rosen writes. "His most intelligent move, in my opinion, was to define himself not as a colleague with the public editor's job, or as an outside critic, but as a kind of super-reader, or 'reader with access.' Meaning that unlike you and I, he could get answers, and put those answers in the paper." Rosen says Okrent became a "decisive symbol of accountability."

The Times' desperate need for some accountability was the reason, of course, that the gig became available in the first place. But Okrent also made a splash by weighing in regularly on the contentious debate over Big Media bias, calling the Times as he saw it -- decidedly left -- on more than one occasion. "One Sunday morning he called the New York Times a liberal newspaper," notes Rosen. "And even though he meant '...on social issues only!' it was still a profound moment in the history of the Times -- and I believe a liberating one. He said it was his most important column and he's right."

Okrent's tenure was impressive in a number of ways, not least in how he brought flair to subject matter that would've otherwise been mortally boring. And he brought important scrutiny to institutionalized laziness around the use of anonymous sources. (If he has trouble finding a next job, it looks like Newsweek sure could use him on that front.) But the Times still has a long way to go to rebound fully from Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. And while Rosen's take on Okrent's greatest accomplishment might leave at least one or two right-wingers snorting with satisfaction, even Okrent didn't really know his left from his right when it came to some of the nastiest misdeeds of the media landscape.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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