Being the New York Times's Complaint Department

Readers of the "paper of record" took issue with perceived bias in everything from headlines to photo captions. But they were most concerned about the use of anonymous sources.
  • Transcript


Question: What stands out from your stint as New York Times public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well, the thing that I learned while I was there, much to my surprise, was the—well there were several things.  One was the defensiveness of journalists, which I should have known having been a journalist myself for several decades.  Secondarily, the impact of what’s said in The Times is enormous.  And I think even moreso today, even though the paper is under attack, than it was five or 10 years ago. Because as other news organizations are weakened, as you see yet another cut in the staff of this newspaper or that television network, The Times, which has had very few cuts relatively speaking, becomes yet more important.  It’s the place where the rest of the news industry turns for its news.  It’s where the rest of the news industry goes to get its leads on what’s important to the day.  And that came on to me very, very clearly during the time that I was there.  

All the more reason why it is essential for The Times to do the best possible job and all the more reason for its journalists not to be defensive about it because as the best of them will say, if I make a mistake, I want to know, I want to be able to correct it.

Question: Did you encounter any hostility from the paper's staff?

Daniel Okrent: When I arrived, people were very, very dubious, and in some cases openly hostile.  A few remained hostile for the entire period I was there, but by and large, I think they learned that though I could say whatever I wished to say in my column in the paper, I was not speaking for their bosses.  I was speaking only for myself.  Though it could be embarrassing, it could be enraging, they’d come in, in the morning on Monday after my column would appear on Sunday and it was still their newspaper, it wasn’t my newspaper.  So, the more extreme hostility did begin to fade away, although, you know, no one likes a cop.  I was Internal Affairs, except I was not representing the institution.  I was internal affairs from the outside.  No one wanted to see my name on the caller id’s box because I couldn’t be calling about good news.  No one wanted to see me walk up to their desk; I wouldn’t be there because somebody had written to me to say what a good job the journalist did.  I was the bearer of bad tidings.

What was the toughest issue you had to deal with as public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well the toughest thing was not about something that had happened while I was at the paper.  The toughest thing was dealing with The Times’ coverage of the weapons of mass destruction and the Bush Administration’s reason for going to war in 2003.  I arrived at the paper in December, 2003, after the scandal, the Jayson Blair scandal.  I like to refer to myself as the unwanted love child of Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, after Raines was replaced by Bill Keller, they then created this job.  They brought me in.  But the thing that seemed to continue to nag at a huge portion of the readership and a very large portion of the people on the staff was what had happened before.  And I had established as a rule when I began: I can’t write about things that happened before I came to The Times, because I’d be writing about the coverage of the Holocaust, which The Times did a very bad job on.  I’d be writing about The Times’ coverage of Stalin, which they did a horrible job on.  It would disappear into the mists of history.  

Nonetheless, over a period of months, after I arrived there, I realized that the absence of The Times’ own coverage of its own mistakes wasn’t fair for me to comment on.  The Times should have been writing about what it had gotten wrong, what it and the press had gotten wrong.  So, the absence, The Times’ failure to cover that became, I thoughti justification for me to write about it.  And that was without question, the most controversial issue among readers and also people at the paper.  

As it happened, it was received pretty well at the paper.  There were very few people who are proud of that coverage.  It was also true that the management, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, they were gone from the paper. But there were still a few people in important positions who had been responsible for some for the bad coverage and they weren’t very happy with what I did.  

Then the next most consequential thing was when I was there during the 2004 Presidential campaign, and of my advice to all who had contemplated becoming public editor of The Times, don’t do it during a Presidential campaign because half the people are going to be displeased with absolutely everything that appears in the paper.  So, in one day, there would be this picture of John Kerry looking foolish, let’s say, a stupid grin on his face. And there would be this wave of emails and phone calls and people visiting the office saying, “this proves that The Times is anti-Kerry.”  They didn’t notice the picture of Bush looking foolish the day before because they expect Bush to look foolish, and vice versa.  If there were a picture of a smiling John Kerry, looking great and heroic, the Bush supporters would complain that, “See, you’re supporting Kerry,” not having noticed that they had run a similar picture of Bush the day before.  

So headlines, captions, photographs, everything displeased, angered half the people.  And I came up with kind of a philosophical construct about it, which is that people, particularly about things they care about, as they read the newspaper and encounter news from any other source, what they think, how it conforms to their view of the world, they accept as fact.  And that which does not conform to their view of the world they think is biased; not different, they think it’s biased.  And in these divided times, it makes it very, very hard to put out a newspaper and not be perceived as following one way or the other.

What issues were readers most concerned about?

Daniel Okrent:
There’s a great displeasure about anonymous sources, and though The Times has made an effort to put that phrase after, “according to a source who choose to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to make is boss angry,” or whatever it might be, or "didn’t have permission to talk."  That mitigates a little bit, but what I found, and this did surprise and dismay me—because even though I’ve always been suspicious about anonymous sources myself I have, in fact, used them in my career as a journalist—is that readers thought that the reporter was making that up.  Readers... "here’s a quotation about what went on behind closed doors in the White House and according to a highly placed source."  And readers thought, well that was the reporter wanting to get his or her thoughts into the piece.  It really didn’t happen.  

And that, if you stop to think about it, I mean I can’t imagine anything that is more destabilizing and potentially ruinous to the reputation of journalists than people thinking the journalist is making things up.  

I have come to believe that we’re much better off if the journalist puts it in his or her own voice.  Makes the assertion without quotations that this is what was discussed behind closed doors.  Then we know who it’s coming from and whom to blame.  I see that name at the top of it and I say, "Do I trust that person?"  Well, you know, if it’s David Sanger, for instance, you bet I trust it because he has a wonderful record of being right.  And I don’t need to have this invented... or not invented, I’m sorry.  I don’t need to have this ghost, this scepter, this unnamed source be there as an authority because that source is not an authority if he or she does not have a name. 

There’s a lot of questioning among readers about the relationship of journalists and their sources.  So that, for instance, when I was at the paper, two very senior journalists and the Washington Bureau Chief, several people at the Washington Bureau, had dinner with Condoleezza Rice.  And it was reported and I don’t know where it showed up, but it was a friendly dinner.  It shows up in a society column, a gossip column, whatever it might be.  And that led a lot of readers to say, "Wait, I thought you were supposed to be policing these guys.  I thought you were supposed to be holding Condoleezza Rice and her policies at arms length.  But if you’re palling around with them, if you’re buddy-buddy with them, then can we really trust you?"  So, there was a lot of anger from the left, from Democrats, over that, just as I imagined there would be if it were now, if it were Hillary Clinton sitting down and having a pleasant dinner with people.  

There is a lot of doubt among readers about whether journalists can really be honest about people with whom they had decent social relations.  And I think in some cases, they’re right to have that doubt.  Although generally not.  I think that it is a measure of a good journalist that you are willing to, not stab your friends in the back, but if you stab them in the front, that’s okay.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010