December 07, 2003

Welcome, Daniel Okrent

I've read quite a few columns by ombudsmen and reader advocates since the New York Times, embarrassed by the subterfuge of Jayson Blair and chastened by the glaring failings of its editorial process, decided to name a public editor, but not one has spoken with the determined honesty Daniel Okrent displayed in his debut column as that editor in today's Times.

Certainly, Okrent's introduction carried the force of personal revelation - his politics, entertainment habits, choice of baseball teams - that most ombudsmen's column do not (although I can't recall reading the first column by any other ombudsman) and that made it easy for me to see him as just another reader who will be, as he put it, "reading the paper every day as if I, like you, were asking it to be my primary source of news and commentary."

More than his confessions, though, Okrent conveyed, in the elegant directness and unflinching language of his writing, his willingness to not only acknowledge, but also to explore the complications and contradictions of modern newspaper journalism and to deliver to readers as much transparency into that process as he can. He wrote:

"I believe The Times is a great newspaper, but a profoundly fallible one. Deadline pressure, the competition for scoops, the effort at impartiality that can sometimes make you lean over so far backward that you lose your balance altogether - these are inescapably part of the journalism business.

"Journalistic misfeasance that results from what one might broadly consider working conditions may be explainable, but it isn't excusable. And misfeasance becomes felony when the presentation of news is corrupted by bias, willful manipulation of evidence, unacknowledged conflict of interest - or by a self-protective unwillingness to admit error. That's where you and I come in."(Emphasis added)

The Times' late entry into the ombudsmen business (it's not alone; the Organization of News Ombudsman only has 27 members), Okrent's finite tenure at the Times (18 months) and the hierarchy that has him reporting to executive editor Bill Keller have been taken by some to mean the newspaper is not committed fully to the concept or that it is a tenuous experiment poised for extinction when the bones of Jayson Blair have been buried deeply enough.

I don't see any of that in Okrent's writing. Perhaps those who know him think otherwise, but judging from his first column this member of the Times reading public is pleased to have him on my side.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis is also impressed with Okrent's introduction and wonders why "every journalist shouldn't have a public paragraph such as that. For reporters not to reveal their backgrounds, interests and biases, he says, "is a lie of omission."

 New York Times, Daniel Okrent An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself
 First Draft How N.Y. Times' New Ombudsman Can Succeed

Posted by Tim Porter at December 7, 2003 08:42 AM

I don't have a problem with Okrent. However, I think the concept is obsolete. Rather have one person, the NYTimes needs to tap into the collective intelligence of its audience probably via a blog.

For More See:

Posted by: Leonard Witt on December 7, 2003 07:04 PM

Okrent's intro is wonderful. Great reading.

Posted by: drabin on December 8, 2003 11:33 AM
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