October 10, 2004

Reading the Times: Okrent & Baghdad

Warning: This post may induce dyspepsia in critics of Mainstream Journalism.

Today's New York Times contains two pieces that reinforce my belief that whatever institutional imperfections are diminishing the quality and undercutting effectiveness of American newspapers the best of these papers continues to draw well-meaning journalists who are committed to doing the best they can in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

First, Times public editor Daniel Okrent proves once again he has redefined for the better the role of ombudsmen. His columns are personal and self-revelatory, focus on the meta instead of the minutiae and not only challenge the reflexive thinking of the paper's editors and reporters, but also confront, sometimes gently, other times forcefully, similar knee-jerk perceptions proposed by readers.

Questionable decisions and substandard journalism deserve criticism, and Okrent has delivered it. But good journalism must be defended. It is too often under attack these days by partisans who declare the journalism to be flawed when the reporting doesn't match their view of the world.

Okrent today rises to the defense of the Times' coverage of the Bush-Kerry contest, answering the question "is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate?" with the simple declarative: "No."

You can read Okrent's arguments yourself and draw your own conclusions, but what I liked were his observations that state elemental truths about journalism and human nature:

"Newspapers today and especially this newspaper are asking their reporters and editors to go deep into a story, and when and where you go deep is itself a matter of judgment. And every judgment, it appears, offends someone.

"It is axiomatic that the facts or characterizations a journalist chooses to include can tilt a reader's impression. So can the choice of articles, the prominence they're given, the immense weight of the entire, cumulative chronicle of a too-long campaign.

"But it is equally axiomatic that the reader who has already tilted toward a particular candidate or position will instinctively view the world and The Times - from his or her own personal angle." (Emphasis added.)

I am not interested in the false debate about journalistic bias - false, because every thought we think and every action we take reflects a lifetime of impressions, experiences, preconceptions, and interpretations of the world around us. What is more important to journalism is the ongoing examination of our work, a continual reflection on quality, on efforts to be inclusive in coverage and viewpoint and on our doggedness in pursuit of truth. Our results will always be imperfect; our effort doesn't have to be.

Okrent's hackles are raised by attacks on those intentions, which he sees as high-minded at the Times (and I agree, displaying my own biases). Challenge the work, if you like, he says, but allow some credit to the journalists and, certainly, don't threaten them simply because you disagree with what they like.

Is it a surprise, in these days of political nastiness between candidates, that displeasure with journalists descends, enabled or perhaps encouraged by the easy and anonymity of email, into personal debasement? Okrent writes:

"But before I turn over the podium," he says, referring to giving space in his next column to critics of the Times' political coverage, "I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, 'I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,' a limit has been passed.

"That's what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don't think they'd dare." (Emphasis added.)

Strong stuff -- and rightly said (although Okrent is overly focused on bloggers. The mistrust and hatred runs much deeper the blogosphere).

Reading the Times II

Perhaps prompted by the telling email made public last week by Wall Street Journal Baghdad correspondent Farnaz Fassihi, Times reporter Dexter Filkins writes his own note from the Green Zone, detailing the danger there and the limitations it places on his role as a reporter.

Filkins echoes Fassihi's lament at being "house-bound," saying "even in areas of the capital still thought to be relatively safe, very few reporters are still brazen enough to get out of a car, walk around and stop people at random. It can be done, but you better move fast."

The journalistic implications are clear:

"The real consequence of the mayhem here is that we reporters can no longer do our jobs in the way we hope to. Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners, and if we can't leave the house, the picture from Iraq, even with the help of fearless Iraqi stringers, almost inevitably will be blurry and incomplete." (Emphasis added.)

Filkins' observations are less personal than Fassihi's, who expressed frustration at her inability to fulfill the "reasons that lured me to the job :"

" a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference." (Emphasis added.

But they are no less real - and therefore more valuable to readers looking to understand a conflict that is too often reported in incremental stages and written about in language frozen in the iciness of faux objectivity.

Fassihi's email - written to friends, then forwarded to the world - contained the intimacy and personal connection deliberately missing from news stories, and provided an alluring peek behind the curtain of journalistic process into the mind of a reporter. Wrote Jay Rosen of PressThink:

"It's really journalism, an eyewitness report, giving impressions and conclusions about the struggle to prevail in Iraq. Not intended for the public, but that's different from being unfit for public consumption.

"There are millions of e-mails from Iraq about conditions in country. No one would be talking about this one but for two things: it was the work of a correspondent for the Journal, and it was brilliantly expressive in its quiet, detailed way." (Emphasis added.)

Filkins offers a similar viewpoint on the resonance of the email:

"Part of the fascination with Ms. Fassihi's e-mail message may lie in its personal nature; it's one thing for a reporter to describe a country in anarchy, but quite another thing - far more immediate and tactile - for the same person to say she can't leave her hotel room for fear of being killed." (Emphasis added.)

American journalism needs more of this kind of reporting - personal, instinctive, emotional, connective.

Remember how Filkins sees himself: "Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners." I would add that reporters are also impressionable. Tell us what you see, tell us what you hear and, at times, tell us how those things makes you feel. Why? So that we, the readers, can see, hear and feel what you do - and perhaps, through those simple human actions, understand better. Perhaps with a little more understanding, angry readers may be less inclined to suggest that the proper penalty for imperfect journalism is the death of the reporter's child.

Posted by Tim Porter at October 10, 2004 09:42 AM

All well and god for the Times, but do you see such candor and connective reporting (in hard news) in other American newspapers?

Posted by: Peg on October 10, 2004 10:22 AM

Sorry- meant "well and good." Freudian slip, perhaps?

Posted by: Peg on October 10, 2004 10:23 AM

Wow. I seem to have read a completely different column by Okrent from the one you did. I read a nasty, reflexively defensive bit of hackwork: shoddy, whining, and mean-spirited.

I'll also be interested to find out how Okrent verified that the email he quoted was actually written by the person he attributes it to. I'm betting that, in the great tradition of recent _Times_ "reportage", he did nothing.

Posted by: Ed Gaillard on October 11, 2004 01:03 PM

Well, Tom, last time I had a letter to the editor printed--long ago, admittedly--I sent my address and phone number with the letter (as the paper required, and still does) and they called me to verify it was legit before printing it. Of course that was a different New York daily paper.

So do papers now not actually bother checking? If so, that's certainly knowledge that could come in handy. Oh my, yes.

Posted by: Ed Gaillard on October 11, 2004 06:26 PM

Cone piece (very good) here -

Posted by: Anna on October 15, 2004 01:12 PM
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