Being the New York Times's Complaint Department

Question: What stands out from your stint as New York \r\nTimes public editor?

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

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

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

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

\r\n Question:
What was the toughest issue you had to deal \r\nwith as public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well the toughest thing was not about \r\nsomething that had happened while I was at the paper.  The toughest \r\nthing was dealing with The Times’ coverage of the weapons of mass \r\ndestruction and the Bush Administration’s reason for going to war in \r\n2003.  I arrived at the paper in December, 2003, after the scandal, the \r\nJayson Blair scandal.  I like to refer to myself as the unwanted love \r\nchild of Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, after Raines was replaced by \r\nBill Keller, they then created this job.  They brought me in.  But the \r\nthing that seemed to continue to nag at a huge portion of the readership\r\n and a very large portion of the people on the staff was what had \r\nhappened before.  And I had established as a rule when I began: I can’t \r\nwrite about things that happened before I came to The Times, because I’d\r\n be writing about the coverage of the Holocaust, which The Times did a \r\nvery bad job on.  I’d be writing about The Times’ coverage of Stalin, \r\nwhich they did a horrible job on.  It would disappear into the mists of \r\nhistory.  

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

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

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

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

\r\n Question:
What issues were readers most concerned about?

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

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.

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