Harry Evans’ review of Dan Okrent’s book about his time as the inaugural public editor at The New York Times is filled with agenda. Evans seems to be applying for the gig himself (I’ll be nicer and more understanding, he hints). He picks various old political scabs (from WMD to Clinton to Gore). And then he does what newsrooms do all too well: he snarks. It’s rather unbecoming. Full disclosure: I used to work with Okrent in various deals with Time Inc. and I like him. I also think he is a thousand times’ better ombudsman than The Times’ current tapioca chef. Rachel Sklar at HuffPost’s Eat the Press also thinks Evans’ review odd:
Sir Harold Evans ends his review of Daniel Okrent’s “Public Editor #1″ with this statement: “So let me conclude without equivocation: Daniel Okrent in “Public Editor #1″ represents a force for better journalism. I hope that somewhere he continues to scrutinize the wayward press.” It is the faintest of praise in an review that is all equivocation, characterizing Okrent as being “not in the business of being nice to anybody,” effectively targeting only “some” important issues, and having “supported the newspaper as a rope supports a hanging man.” It comes at the end of an article which tries, not very subtly, to undermine Okrent’s contribution to the New York Times and the stinging conclusions he often drew. . . .
Indeed, the piece reads like a ringing apologia for Bill Keller, for whom there is not a whisper of criticism in the review (though that is surely not the case in the book!). . . .
The second-last paragraph opens with: “Still, substantively Okrent makes many points.” This is only after Evans has archly accused Okrent of falling in love with his own writing ability, to the detriment of his product and mission. He makes “easy to read” sound like a flaw – a sneaky trap for the hapless reader.
Early in the piece Evans writes what is, I think, the most revealing and encapsulatory statement about Okrent’s tenure: “It is a relief to know the combative Okrent is not breathing down my neck.” Of course it is — merciless scrutiny is not comfortable for anyone. For journalists, however, it is essential.
The ombudsman’s ombudsman needs an ombudsman. Maybe The Times should have assigned someone with less of an agenda in the news biz to review the book. Maybe Rachel.