Daniel Okrent is a veteran journalist and editor who has worked for a
wide variety of magazines and newspapers. From October, 2003 until May,
2005, following the Jayson Blair scandal, he served as the New York
Times's first public editor. He is also credited with inventing
Rotisserie League Baseball, and is one of two people who have been
inducted into the Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame. He is the author of four
books, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist "Great Fortune: The
Epic of Rockefeller Center" and "Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball
Game." His most recent book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of
Prohibition" was published by Scribner in May, 2010.
Question: How can journalism organizations prevent
Jayson Blair-style scandals?
Daniel Okrent: You know, I think that there will always be small
scale scandals. There will always be plagiarists. There will always be
people who didn’t make the phone call they claimed to have made, but
the chronic repeated abuse that Jayson Blair was engaged in, I don’t
think could happen at a newspaper that has a public editor, or
Yes, there was a phone number published in the newspaper in The Times
every day for people to call if they had something that they objected
to. And when I got there, I thought I’d try out the system. Well, it
said mailbox full. Nobody had been paying attention to it. If you have
somebody whose job it is specifically to respond to readers who are
complaining or are pointing out error, or pointing out misbehavior on
the part of reporters, it’s very hard... I can’t imagine that it would
not be caught after the second or third time because somebody’s reading
that mail. Somebody’s paying attention to it.
Question: What ethical issues do today's journalists face that
previous generations didn't?
Daniel Okrent: My biggest concern about the digital
technology as it’s coming to the newsroom is it’s anonymity of writers;
whether that’s the person who’s writing a blog, or who’s commenting on a
signed blog. We don’t know who those people are. And one thing, and
this is not an ethical issue, this is a question of civility and taste.
I mean, it allows cowards to hide behind that scrim while they have the
freedom to say really awful and disgusting things. And I can’t stand
that. It’s very upsetting to me.
But beyond that, there have
been a few instances where that person whose been commenting on this Web
site or that Web site, in fact is a principal in the story, is in fact a
figure who has a self-interest, but is hiding that self-interest. I
would really be delighted to see the Web sites of the world just
suddenly declare, put on your real name or we don’t care what you have
to say. And in fact, I don’t care what you... you shouldn’t care what I
have to say unless I’m willing to put my name behind it.
Question: Were journalistic standards better in the
Daniel Okrent: I think that the peak years for quality journalism
in this country were 1970’s and early 1980’s. If you go back before
then, I mean, pickup a copy of the New York Times in 1965 some day. It
was unbelievably dull. It was official-ese. If the new Peruvian
Ambassador appointed, there it was in the paper, the shipping news, just
the sort of the kind of deadly required drone of news in those days was
really pretty awful. The paper got much, much better after that as did
all of American journalism. And I think that Watergate, obviously, had
a great deal to do with that. Watergate and also the magazine writers
of the ‘60’s, the people like Gay Talese and David Halberstam who both
came out of The Times, but then moved to other arenas to be able to do
more than simply chronicle. They could write. They did more.
together, that and the great victory for journalism that was Watergate
created a, I think in the ‘70’s attracted better people to the industry,
it was a more exciting thing to do and people did their greatest work
then. And the standards were very, very high. As we get into the
‘90’s, and we begin to have economic trouble begin to show up, Time
Magazine, where I worked for quite a while, in 1990 had eight full-time
critics on staff doing different things. Today, I think there’s one
full-time critic and that’s not that criticism is not the most important
thing in the world, but I use it as an indication of how things have
shrunk back because of the economic problems.
Recorded on: April 16, 2010