December 11, 2003

Stuck in a Rutten

Tim Rutten, the media columnist for the Los Angeles Times, responds to Daniel Okrent's introductory column as public editor of the New York Times with a ringing Bronx cheer.

Rutten takes offense not only at Okrent's display of personal history (Democrat, anti-Yankees), saying, "Why does any of this matter?," but at the very creation of Okrent's position and that of all other ombudsmen, whom he views as evidence of the industry's creeping belief in a "deeply mistaken notion - that editors can outsource responsibility."

As I said the other day [ Read: Welcome, Daniel Okrent ], I liked Okrent's openness about himself. I found it refreshing and not, as Rutten puts it, an assertion that the "Times' real problems have to do with issues of political bias rather than the gritty - and far less sexy - matters of accurate reportage and sufficiently tough-minded editing, the absence of which seemed to be at the heart of the Blair affair."

Okrent's role is to represent readers, whose viewpoint is rarely found in newsrooms despite all efforts by well-intentioned academics such as those at the Readership Institute and some industry leaders to instill one. Much of readership woes of newspapers can be attributed to the isolation of reporters and editors (especially editors) from readers. If by sharing with the Times' readers that he was a mediocre college correspondent or that he thinks the wealthy shouldn't whine about taxation Okrent can make a connection with them - and thereby gain at least their attention and possibly their respect - I say confess away.

More worrisome, and less defensible, is Rutten's contention that the installation of Okrent equals the abdication of editorial responsibility. He could not be more wrong.

Responsibility to readers - and to the larger public trust - is not a zero-sum game. I agree completely with Rutten's paraphrase of Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld that "fairness, accuracy and consideration of the readers' interests were the responsibility of every reporter and editor on the paper."

Of course they are. I've argued many times here that acceptance of that responsibility - and the obligation of higher editorial standards and day-to-day newsroom work that accompanies it - is the first step toward lifting the shroud of mediocrity that hangs over too many newspapers, but editors and reporters and copy editors and other journalists aren't always fair or accurate or considerate of readers, and then readers become confused or angry or frustrated with the newspaper. That's when they need someone like Okrent to step up for them.

Rutten and I share some common ground. I, too, don't care much for most ombudsmen columns. The culture of the American newsroom is defensive by nature and, to me, the tenor of most ombudsmen columns reflect that. Often, they seem to be writing from back on their heels, defending the practices of the paper or the exercise of the traditional forms of journalism against the accusations of the reader.

That's not representing the reader, that's mollifying the mob.

I wish ombudsmen columns were bolder, took more chances, challenged the notions of traditional journalism and carried the voice of the reader, not that of the newsroom.

Okrent promises to do that. I'm for giving him the opportunity.

 Los Angeles Times: Tim Rutten Shouldering responsibility

Posted by Tim Porter at December 11, 2003 07:35 AM

I found it interesting that Rutten quotes a Times staffer who said he always thought the paper loved its readers. In fact, many papers, consciously or not, view their readers with suspicion. I was guilty of this as well as a reporter--I wanted a lot of people to read my stories, but was less interested in hearing from them if they thought I had done a poor job, or was unfair, or biased. Newspapers think they know what's best for their readers, and what their readers want, without actually bothering to test their assumptions.

And while bias may not have been at the heart of the Blair scandal, it is an issue the media has to address. People don't think many media outlets are biased just because Rush Limbaugh tells them so. There are plenty of well-read, well-educated people who feel alienated from the mainstream media because they don't think the media reflects their lives or interests. That's a much bigger problem, and harder to fix, than Rutten seems willing to acknowledge.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on December 11, 2003 09:06 AM

Rutten misses the point.

The Times has been notoriously disinterested in hearing from its readers. In my experience, a call to The Times corrections desk used to engender questions like "who are you with?" or "do you have an axe to grind?". In the pre-Blair days readers WERE treated with suspicion.

My experience - which I documented last week - is that Okrent has already proven to be a breath of fresh air.

Posted by: Robert Cox on December 11, 2003 10:49 AM

Great response Tim. I don't know the business, but as a reader, I appreciated Okrent's openness including his personal touch.

Posted by: db rabin on December 11, 2003 01:20 PM

No matter where happens to read newspapers, most ombudsman, editors and writers sooner or later sell their soul in order to serve the almighty dollar. Readers, like any consumer group, have limited power ... lobbyists are lobbyists because every door is open!

Who runs newspapers? In Australia Ministerial Machinery
Some spinners like Secord didn't like this report, but no one likes the way truth is written about. And of course some are blogger's wet dream, in the sense that they have absolutely no instinct for morality.
But again Labour is lucky as no one is more down to earth than Knows or Breadroll.
· It is easy fall under the spell of extreme curiosity about what the spinners actually do. [ courtesy of Dr Bill McKell, NSW Parliamentary Historian]

Posted by: Jozef on December 12, 2003 12:40 AM

Any Times staffer who believes the paper's relationship with readers is a mutual love fest obviously is out of touch, which suggests that an ombudsman might indeed be necessary, if only as a first step toward permanent change in the newsroom culture.

Posted by: Lex on December 12, 2003 07:07 AM
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