Monday, May 23, 2005

Daniel Okrent, Cokie Roberts' Janus Twin entwined with the same set of faux pearls

The Third Estate Sunday Review has done an editorial on Daniel Okrent's last column (the farewell or kiss-off to the readers). Bob Somerby addressed it today at The Daily Howler and intends to address it further.

We'll note Somerby's closing paragraph in today's Daily Howler:

We criticized Okrent at several points in his reign, but we would have liked to let it all go as he departed his post at the Times. For us, his major problem seemed to be one of temperament. By the time he wrote just his fourth column, Okrent seemed more intent on knocking Times readers than on critiquing the paper itself; in this continuing impulse, he displayed a temperament that’s fine for most jobs but ill-suited for a public editor. But in Sunday's closing (cheap) shot against Krugman, he showed himself again as a cheap, petty thug--and as a flyweight for the ages. How does America’s most important newspaper have such a flyweight in such a high post? We'll examine that important question all week, starting tomorrow with Okrent’s Topic 5--an item which is almost perfect in its pure unalloyed dumbness.

Here's Okrent's bullet six:

There are few traits more valuable to a great cultural critic than a consistent aesthetic viewpoint. But a consistent aesthetic viewpoint inevitably fosters blind spots in the field of vision. If a critic just doesn't like the work of a particular playwright (or painter or singer or novelist), both the playwright and the readers lose out. He never gets a fair chance; we never get a fresh take. How about term limits -- say, 10 years -- for critics?

Brad: What utter bulls**t! Okrent's been reading this site and he knows he's being slammed for never addressing the arts except to drop his stink bomb on the way the Times covers "the racket" as he calls the Tonys. So here he is trying to address the valid criticism that he blew off all issues and questions about the arts. I never wrote Okrent saying, "Oh Stephen Holden is so mean!" Or "Oh A.O. Scott is just bitter!" Or whatever. I did note that many reviews by many reviewers contained "facts" that were simply not "factual." This was especially true of book reviews that slammed writers for not covering X in their books when in fact X was in the damn books. This isn't an issue of "aesthetics," this is an issue of them not doing their basic job. The issue isn't that someone's upset that a reviewer didn't like David Brock's book. The issue is that the reviewer slapped Brock down for not knowing that Chris Matthews opposed the war when in fact that's in Brock's book. The issue isn't that a reviewer hated Grayden Carter's book, it's that he slammed Carter for saying Phil Donahue was fired because of his anti-war stance. The reviewer said it was over ratings. The reviewer is an idiot. The Times own David Carr reported on what pushed Donahue out the MSNBC door. And Donahue was the highest rated program MSNBC had. The reviewer is flat out wrong on the facts. That's an issue and Okrent never touches those issues. This bulls**t "oh people have different opinions" nonsense is nonsense.
And let's talk about opinions for a f**king moment. Thomas Friedman's been boring Times' readers for how long now? By the logic of Okrent (always an iffy thing), Friedman should be gone after ten years. Okrent doesn't even grasp that. He's just tossing out his usual half-baked nonsense. If a set of beliefs or tastes restrict a critic's use to ten years, then the same is true of an op-ed writer. Okrent is an idiot. As a Times subscriber, I feel he did nothing but piss on me each time he wrote about "what I want to write about" and shame on anyone who praises him.

Brad's covered every aspect of bullet six that I could think of so I'll just say, "Well said."

Here's what caught my eye. Bullet three:

Question: What do these characterizations have in common?
"At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights." -- Television critic Alessandra Stanley on Katie Couric, April 25. "A semicelebrated hustler Ms. Lakshmi may be." -- Fashion writer Guy Trebay on Padma Lakshmi, Feb. 8.
"Le mot juste here is 'jackass.'" -- Book reviewer Joe Queenan on writer A.J. Jacobs, Oct. 3.
Answer: Each is gratuitously nasty, and inappropriate in a newspaper that many of us look to as a guardian of civil discussion. I'll put the chart that appeared in the Feb. 20 edition of The Times's T: Women's Fashion magazine, touting oxycontin as a status symbol, in the same repellant category.

Okrent wants to play gatekeeper. Clutch the pearls, Danny!

I didn't read Trebay's piece (I don't read the fashion reporting). "Hustler" isn't necessarily a pejorative (or inappropriate) term. If Lakshmi is at the top of the garment game (or near it), she's going to have hustle which, were it used about a sports player, Okrent would grasp isn't necesserily pejorative.

Let's move to Queenan. He's nasty? In that sentence? Try in everything he's ever written for any publication. The Times didn't find him under a rock and give him his first break. (Or at least they didn't give him his first break.) Queenan's nasty, he was nasty in Movieline (where he made a name for himself by being nasty). That said, our problem at this site has never been that he's nasty. We have had a problem that he's got a pattern (preceding the Times celebrating him by turning him into a regular book reviewer) of getting the facts flat out wrong. He also has a pattern of slamming women for no reason (and often, factually incorrect in his slams). His war on Streisand is legendary. But he first registered for many due to his obsession with Susan Sarandon's breasts. That's an issue only due to the fact that the Times doesn't regularly highlight a feminist. (Sexists, apparently, can have a platform.)

But we've never said, at this site, "Nasty! He mustn't be printed!" We've said he needs to be factual.

Note that Okrent didn't deal with sexism or racism his entire tenure -- what a brave little puppet editor, er, public editor.

Now let's turn to Alessandra Stanley. She wrote a piece on The Today Show that many misunderstood. This wasn't reporting from the set of Today. She was offering her impressions.
Why is Okrent slamming Stanley? What does he know about TV reviewing? Stanley writes in her own voice. Okrent wants to silence it. Wants it to meet with his approval.

The difference between Stanley and Okrent is that she's earned her applause. When speaking of the Op-ed Three, he notes that he didn't give them a chance to respond. Did he give Stanley a chance to respond? I doubt it. If he had, I'd assume her attitude would be "who the hell is this pipsqueak?"

See there's a thing here, something going on, that's not being noted. Okrent's written bad books.
Most of the time, because of the topic, they get praise. Every now and then, a serious book reviewer holds Okrent accountable for trivializing a serious topic.

So maybe someone wounded by the criticism darts might have an axe to grind against those who write reviews?

Maybe Okrent feels that reviewers shouldn't say anything if they can't say something nice? Or maybe he's just Cokie Roberts' Janus twin entwined with the same set of faux pearls?

I don't know, I don't care. (And if he wants to see nasty, check out The Third Estate Sunday Review this coming Sunday. Ava and I will be reviewing the crap that's on ABC right now -- haven't the soldiers suffered enough! -- Jessica Simpson & Nick Latchey's not-so-special special. Thanks to member Bernado for the heads up because neither of us had any idea that these two talentless wonders would be inflicting their harm on the airwaves tonight until your heads up e-mail.)

Let's break it down for the sad doofus Okrent. A review is not a report. Like too many idiots, he thinks that when reviewing a book, for instance, the reviewer you should note what the book says, for instance one of Okrent's looney books, by providing a summary. Synopsis are not reviews. A critic (remember his bullet six that Brad drew our attention to) needs to have a point of view. They need to write in their voice. Stanley did that. Okrent appears to take her to task for every brave and smart critic that's dared to suggest a writer, actor, singer, et al doesn't really have the goods.

By it's very nature, a review is an opinion piece.

Just like Okrent's written nothing but opinion pieces. And if we want to talk about "nasty," Okrent might want to apologize to "George" (the outed reader). Oh, Okrent would say he apologized for using one word. He'll never apologize for outing George. But might he not apologize for what he said to Business Week? Was that not "nasty?"

By the way, does anyone notice that no woman is praised as Okrent stumbles out the door? But two women are slammed.

Let's address Maureen Dowd because there were seventeen e-mails on his statements regarding Dowd.

I'm going to respectfully disagree with Somerby's take on Okrent's criticism of Dowd re: Gonzales. Personally, I don't care if there was a correction in the paper that clarified what Gonzales was speaking about. Warning, I'm climbing up on the social justice soap box here.

Maureen Dowd is slammed by Okrent for summarzing what Gonzales did say ("rendered quaint") and honestly whether or not it's clarified elsewhere, what exactly it pertained to, doesn't really matter. Gonzales said it. Gonzales can argue he was only speaking of sections, it doesn't matter. Did he say it or not? That's a yes or a no answer.

The answer is "yes" not, "Oh, he said it about some aspects."

I don't give a damn. He said it (and wrote an op-ed for the Times that seems to have gone down the memory hole). The Genevea Conventions aren't a buffet in Chinatown. You can't pick and choose. You can't say, "Oh, I'll have a plate full of fried this but I don't want any of General Uniforms." They're the "conventions." They were established for a reason.

Let's go to Wikipedia:

The Geneva Conventions consist of treaties formulated in Geneva, Switzerland that set the standards for international law for humanitarian concerns. The conventions were the results of efforts by Henri Dunant, who was motivated by the horrors of war he witnessed at the Battle of Solferino.
Accusations of violation of the Geneva Conventions on the part of signatory nations are brought before the
International Court of Justice at the Hague.

Set the standards. Treaties formulated. It doesn't say "treat it like a buffet."

I have no idea how Dowd would refute Okrent's criticism ("pistols or swords," maybe?) but I'd guess she'd say, "Did Gonzales say it or not?" Factually, Gonzales said it.

He was speaking of sections? Well maybe if the uniform section (to name one of the ones he dubbed "quaint") was followed some of the humilating nudity wouldn't have happened? Maybe it would have anyway. But when Gonzales and the Bully Boy decide what is valid in the Geneva Conventions (conventions we signed off on -- first, second, third and fourth -- before Bully was even a cheerleader in high school), it allows others to make that judgement as well. You either follow a set of standards or you don't.

This is a human rights issue and I disagree with Okrent.

The public record states that Gonzales was only referring to sections of the Geneva Conventions. Social justice says you don't pick and choose. (Contract law would say the same thing.)

Granted, Okrent lacks the ammo for a battle of wits with Dowd. Still, it amazes me that he who has been silent all along (that should be his tribal name) now wants to come along and battle opinion. (Or that we're resting our case on a correction the Times ran favoring the administration.) He who has been silent all along is differing with Dowd over a judgement call, an opinion. That's what it is.

Here, we exempted the editorials, op-eds and even the "White House Letter" from regular commentary. (Again, on Feb. 6th I broke that rule re: "White House Letter.") "It's going to rain!" "No, it's not!" I can't imagine anything more frustrating. (Tougher souls than I take this on and more power to them.)

But is anyone checking out Okrent's reference? Or checking out the "public record" other than what he loosely provides? (An alluded to Times' correction.)

Here's what Dowd wrote in November:

The president is putting his own counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who wrote the famous memo defending torture, in charge of America's civil liberties. Torture Guy, who blithely threw off 75 years of international law and set the stage for the grotesque abuses at Abu Ghraib and dubious detentions at Guantánamo, seems to have a good grasp of what's just. No doubt we'll soon learn what other protections, besides the Geneva Conventions and the Constitution, Gonzales finds "quaint" and "obsolete."

Here's what she wrote in Janaury:

Just to get things started on the right foot, though, Mr. Gonzales planned to go the extra mile and offer the quaint, obsolete Senate Democrats a more nuanced explanation of why he called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete."

(Times columns are only available free, at the Times, for seven days. I'm going by my clippings file. I'm sure you can track both columns down online and read for free at a site other than the Times. ) (Take any sentence, put quotes on both end of it in a google search and you'll find a view-for-free site, I'm sure. Which is why I felt there was way too much attention being paid to the issue of columnists when the Times goes to a for-pay site in September.)

What's Dowd speaking of? Well for one thing, and this is from Newsweek, so automatically suspect I guess (that's a joke):

So in July of 2002 the president's chief counsel, Alberto Gonzales, convened his colleagues in his cozy, wood-paneled White House office. One by one, the lawyers went over five or six pressure techniques proposed by the CIA. One such technique, a participant recalls, was "waterboarding" (making a suspect think he might drown). Another, mock burial, was nixed as too harsh. A third, the open-handed slapping of suspects, drew much discussion. The idea was "just to shock someone with the physical impact," one lawyer explained, with "little chance of bone damage or tissue damage." Gonzales and the lawyers also discussed in great detail how to legally justify such methods.
Among those at that first White House meeting was Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, who sat on a couch along the wall. And partly out of the discussions in Gonzales's office came the most notorious legal document to emerge from last spring's Abu Ghraib interrogation scandal. This was an Aug. 1, 2002, memo--drafted by Yoo, signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and addressed to Gonzales--which provoked outrage among human-rights advocates by narrowly defining torture. The memo concluded, among other things, that only severe pain or permanent damage that was "specifically intended" constituted torture. Mere "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment did not qualify.

And we're not done yet, sadly. Sadly because a lot of people who should know better (I'm thinking of someone I know who prides himself on his "military knowledge" but wanted to argue back and forth with me for two years on whether or not some JAG lawyers were in opposition to the changes under this administration -- they were) quite frankly don't know better:

Yet memos reviewed by NEWSWEEK and interviews with key principals show that Gonzales's advice to the president reflected the bold views laid out in the Aug. 1 memo and other documents. Sources close to the Senate Judiciary Committee say a chief focus of the hearings will be Gonzales's role in the so-called "torture memo," as well as his legal judgment in urging Bush to sidestep the Geneva Conventions. In a Jan. 25, 2002, memo to Bush, Gonzales said the new war on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." Some State Department lawyers charge that Gonzales misrepresented so many legal considerations and facts (including hard conclusions by State's Southeast Asia bureau about the nature of the Taliban) that one lawyer considers the memo to be "an ethical breach." In response, a senior White House official says Gonzales's memo was only a "draft" and just one part of an extensive decision-making process in which all views were aired.

The above Newsweek excerpts are from "Torture's Path" by Michael Isikoff, Daniel Klaidman and Michael Hirsh.

Oh, we're not on uniforms now, are we? No, we ____ing aren't. We're dealing with the "questioning of enemy prisoners." It's a little more complex. And people will have to decide for themselves whether or not Dowd's opinion over reaches. (I think Dowd's statements in the two excerpts above were accurate representations.) But we're battling interpretations here.

To turn to Safire, he's repeatedly pushed a claim that goes against everything that is known. An opinion that even the Bully Boy has had to disown (only to push it again). Dowd's making a judgement call that may or may not stretch what is known (I don't think it does). Safire's pushed a false claim long after it was disproven. There's a distinction between the two. They are not equivalent and a public editor should grasp that.

Is anyone noting that two "liberals" have to be called to the woodshed for Okrent to mention, in passing, one conservative. That passes for "balance." And I'd think some people would take a moment to notice that. Or to point out that Safire's gone. Why is he being addressed right now when there are two conservative columnists at the paper (Brooks and Tierney) who have been the topic of e-mails to Okrent?

Okrent's op-ed criticism can be read as "We had a conservative op-ed writer who had a problem with the facts but he's gone now. We have two 'liberals,' Dowd and Krugman, who have serious problems and are still here."

Anybody want to touch on that?

Three op-ed writers have done wrong, according to Okrent. They are Krugman, Dowd and Safire. The other writers apparently aren't a problem. Intended or not (and I'd be the last to give Okrent the benefit of the doubt), the message is the unnamed columnists are doing a fine job. That would be Herbert, Friedman, Brooks and Tierney. But two flaming "liberals" who are currently writing need to be watched.

Anybody want to touch on that?

Safire left in January. It's May now. Why is he even being mentioned if the message isn't that the current cons do a wonderful job? My opinion, he's a sacrificial lamb on Okrent's part to get to trashing Krugman and Dowd. That's why Safire's mentioned in passing.

Here's another point. If Okrent wants to address a wrong "quote" from Dowd, last summer she "quoted" John Kerry. Bob Somerby's addressed that. The quote spread out to the rest of the paper (including news stories). Now if Okrent's trying to be "balanced," it probably doesn't serve his "of course it is!" liberal v. conservative construction to note that a Dowd column had a false quote from John Kerry (one that spread throughout the paper). I mean to address that, he'd have to not only be willing to address the workings of the paper but also address the fact that "liberal" Dowd is hardly a "liberal." But just as he misled the nation with his cry of "Of course it is is!" to the question of whether or not the Times is a liberal paper, it's possibly far more useful to present Dowd as someone who's grinding her axe against the Bully Boy with trumped up claims.

Had Okrent dealt with the issue Somerby raised (and readers raised it as well), we might be addressing a more serious issue that goes beyond one individual (Dowd) and goes to the "systematic" nature of the paper. Maybe Okrent's choice is just an example of his usual half-assed manner of doing things but I think someone can argue (and I would) that his choice of focus for Dowd is in keeping with his earlier (and embrassing) "Of course it is!"

Who's being nasty, Stanley or Okrent? Alessandra Stanley is evaluating public work. What was Okrent doing when he outed "George" the private citizen? And why he has still never told readers (or interviewers) that he did so he did so, in violation of his own policies, over George's objection?

And how honest is the claim by the public editor's office that Okrent wasn't censured? An e-mail from someone at the Times alleges that, Okrent's statements to the contrary, he was censured and Randy Cohen was right.* So far Randy Cohen's the only one who's really addressed the issue in a public form. Any of the shiners on even aware of what Randy Cohen said on radio? Are they even aware of that the public editor's office has responded to Cohen's stated belief of what happened with e-mails? (Among other proof offered in the e-mail is Okrent's apology for using a term -- cowardly? -- which, the e-mailer maintains, was part of the censure of Okrent by the Times.)

If someone really shines on Okrent in the near future, I may or may not have a comment for the site. We'll highlight any comments by Bob Somerby on Okrent because Somerby's an astute critic (even when I disagree with a point here or there). But frankly, I have to bite my tongue now when I write about Okrent due to a series of private e-mails. (This goes to his professional duties as public editor, not his private life -- of which I could care less.)

This entry has taken five hours because I've gone over every word and taken out many sections. (And thanks to Ava for agreeing to read over this last version.) That results from having to hold my tongue to protect confidences. It's very frustrating (which isn't to slam anyone who's shared something privately).

Somerby's critiqued Okrent's comments on Krugman (and Dowd) and we've noted here. We've noted The Third Estate Sunday Review's editorial. If Brad hadn't been offended by something and asked me not only to share his comments but to read the section to see if I agreed (I did but I wouldn't have had to agree with Brad's opinions for them to be posted here), I wouldn't have said a word on this topic tonight. If members want to share something (in private or for the site) please do.

The e-mail address for this site is

*The e-mail referred to came from someone who is no fan of this site and has frequently written in to complain about various things here. Never before has the person asked to have something noted. We are noting this because it was requested and it goes to the topic.