Old dogs, old tricks: The Times and ombudsman Okrent

Old dogs, old tricks: The Times and ombudsman Okrent

: The Wall Street Journal takes a look at Dan Okrent’s tenure as the public editor of The New York Times … and The Times comes off terribly: still pissy, still deaf to criticism, still opaque to the world, learning no lessons.

Daniel Okrent, a veteran magazine editor, has been the Times’s public editor for seven months. But instead of bringing calm, the experiment has created fresh tensions within the Times about such subjects as the paper’s coverage of weapons of mass destruction….

Moreover, unlike some newspaper ombudsmen who weigh in on routine questions of style, Mr. Okrent is using his post to question basic tenets of journalism and longstanding Times practices.

Among its many anecdotes, the freshest and most telling is about an exchange between Okrent and Exec Editor Bill Keller over Okrent’s column this weekend regarding Tony Hendra.

Before Mr. Okrent finished the column, which concluded that the Times shouldn’t have run the story, Mr. Keller e-mailed to say he’d been briefed on Mr. Okrent’s interviews with the responsible editor. “and I’ve got to say: man, you need a vacation,” Mr. Keller wrote, defending the paper’s decision.

Mr. Okrent agreed he needed a vacation, and suggested Mr. Keller take one, too. Mr. Okrent added in the e-mail that he hadn’t made up his mind. “Sometimes, a question is just a question,” he wrote. “It’s called reporting, right.”

“sometimes reporting looks (from the other end) like a campaign,” Mr. Keller wrote back.

Well, precisely. Ask Bill Clinton how it felt to be on the other end of Times reporting; he is now talking about exactly what it felt like. Many others would be happy to join in. That email will haunt you, I predict.

What’s most troubling about the story is that The Times doesn’t seem to be learning the lessons of transparency it should be learning post-Blair and post-Internet. Or maybe it just takes time for old dogs to learn new tricks.

[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with both Okrent and Hendra.]

: This is supposed to be the Journal’s free link of the day; that link didn’t work for me yet; probably will later and when it does, I’ll include it here.

: UPDATE: Here is the fixed link to the full story, free, from WSJ.