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.

  • Jeff: Every media organization should have an ombudsman. Those that don’t are holding themselves to a lesser standard than they hold the subjects of their news reports.
    I thought this quote from the WSJ piece was equally telling:
    “Even reporters are becoming accustomed to having an outsider peer over their shoulder. ‘Lord knows, we get a little puffed up sometimes,’ says Gardiner Harris, a reporter for the paper’s business section. ‘Having someone who can puncture our over-stuffed egos is a really good thing.'”

  • Michael Zimmer

    “Every media organization should have an ombudsman. Those that don’t are holding themselves to a lesser standard than they hold the subjects of their news reports.”
    So should blogs.

  • Michael: I think readers are the ombudsmen (and women) for blogs. :-)

  • Tom

    Howard – I think you’re dead on. No one calls out bloggers or keeps an eye on what they’re doing more than…other bloggers.
    There are enough really smart, talented, and efficient blog readers (and probably bloggers themselves) to assist in such a capacity.

  • Jeff,
    Not only does “The Times comes off terribly: still pissy, still deaf to criticism, still opaque to the world, learning no lessons,” but they are still spinning.
    In the paragraph where I am quoted, The Times spokesperson claims that the The Times Op-Ed columnist correction policy was “not new”. This is flat-out untrue. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., The Times publisher, admitted in an e-mail last fall that the policy at The Times had always been that the decision on whether to issue a correction was left up to the indivudal columnist – and, if so, how to do so. The new policy is (a) the Editorial Page editor, Gail Collins, makes the final decision on whether to issue a correction; (b) all corrections must appear at the bottom of the column so that they are clearly indicated and will be carried as part of the column in syndication.
    I have more on that on my site.

  • Tom

    You can read the article here at the cleveland.com website…looks like the AP picked it up.

  • Joe O

    Okrent is usually very good, but the NY Times editor has a point about the Hendra story. The Hendra story is news. Hendra wrote a best selling book about his moral progress. The Times printed accusations of his daughter along with Hendra’ denials. Okrent admits that is just what he would have done if he was the NY Times editor, but he wrings his hands anyway. I would be more concerned if the NY times sat on stories like this.

  • dan bloom

    i think the nytimes did a good investigative story on the hendra book and molestation charges by his daughter, now 39, alleged done when she was 7-12, and i think okrent did a good job of dealing with the issues. question is, after andrew sullivan glowingly reviewed the hendra book in the nyt on may 30, what does he have to say now that we know a totally different hendra than the one he paints in his review……
    the sad thing about the hendra affair is that an adult had hurt, for life, someone who was at the time of the events, a child. just like the neil goldschmidt affair in oregon, he was 35 mayor, she was 14 year old babysitter, when will the truth come out about these terrible terrible crimes against children and teens by men who should know better. hendra is now a catholic. god grant him peace of mind and forgiveness in the coming days and weeks and years. he has sinned badly. why doesn’t andrew sullivan address this in his blog. why don’t you.