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Who's in the Video
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,[…]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

rn Question:
What was the toughest issue you had to deal rnwith as public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well the toughest thing was not about rnsomething that had happened while I was at the paper.  The toughest rnthing was dealing with The Times’ coverage of the weapons of mass rndestruction and the Bush Administration’s reason for going to war in rn2003.  I arrived at the paper in December, 2003, after the scandal, the rnJayson Blair scandal.  I like to refer to myself as the unwanted love rnchild of Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, after Raines was replaced by rnBill Keller, they then created this job.  They brought me in.  But the rnthing that seemed to continue to nag at a huge portion of the readershiprn and a very large portion of the people on the staff was what had rnhappened before.  And I had established as a rule when I began: I can’t rnwrite about things that happened before I came to The Times, because I’drn be writing about the coverage of the Holocaust, which The Times did a rnvery bad job on.  I’d be writing about The Times’ coverage of Stalin, rnwhich they did a horrible job on.  It would disappear into the mists of rnhistory.  

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

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

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

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

rn Question:
What issues were readers most concerned about?

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on: April 16, 2010