Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Editorial/op-ed: Shining on Daniel Okrent

First off, this is a linkless post. I'm not in the mood to steer anyone to happy talk about what a great job Daniel Okrent did as the "readers' representative" or "public editor." (Or to steer you to supposed reporters who give him the title of "ombudsman." The Times doesn't have an ombudsman. They could have created that position, with that title, but the Times chose not to.)

In the last two weeks, e-mails have come in about the shining on of Daniel Okrent. Here, we noted that would happen. It's not surprising. It's the end of Okrent's tenure and some feel the need to tie a bow around it and call it a gift, a wonderful gift.

That's not what it was. And people making those claims in their various articles aren't just having opinions that I personally disagree with, they're writing about something they know very little about. When I read an item shining Okrent on that someone's sent to the site (today it was Ryan), I read it and think, "Oh someone didn't pay attention."

Now no one's sent anything on by Jack Shafer of Slate. I'm sure that he'll write something if he hasn't already. And I'm sure he'll praise Okrent. But I'm guessing, and I could be wrong, he'll know Okrent's record.

Anyone can have an opinion. And if they're informed, that's fine. Shafer will emphasize the positive. He will know what to emphasize because he has followed the columns. I'll disagree because I don't think Okrent's done anything that worthy of praise. But Shaefer will be informed.

The things I'm being sent, the people don't know what they're talking about.

They might know of one column, but it's obvious they haven't sat there and read everyone. Please understand, I'm not suggesting that they do. I read them in real time and then in December when we did the two entries on Daniel Okrent ("First of All, There's the Continuing Daily Mistakes . . ." and "Daniel Okrent, Step Down") I spent several hours going over each and every column that he'd written up to that date. What I learned was that Excedrin Tension Headache tablets could almost get rid of the headache that would induce. Almost.

So the last thing I'd do with the misinformed is recommend that they go through Okrent's columns and read them all.

There are a number of problems with Okrent's tenure as "public editor" or "readers' representative."

The most obvious is "George." Sorry to repeat (I know all members are aware of what was done to George), but I don't think you can discuss Okrent's tenure without noting this.

George and Adam Nagourney (reporter for the Times) exchanged e-mails. (Plural.) In one of George's, George offered the hope, after Nagourney's reporting, that Nagourney's children would die in a Republican war.

George is a private citizen. Okrent's policy was that he would print e-mails to his office with the permission of the e-mailer. George never e-mailed Okrent. Adam Nagourney (who apparently scares easy -- Ava and I get far worse than that anytime we review a TV show over at The Third Estate Sunday Review) slides it over to Okrent.

It was truly none of Okrent's business. Okrent made it his business and refused to communicate with George. George did communicate to Nagourney and Arthur Bovino that he did not want his e-mail printed, his name used or his city given. Okrent was too busy to communicate with George but his office was aware of George's wishes. (And the panel's comments last week, they refute the action that Okrent took.)

As the readers' representative, there was no reason for Okrent to inject himself into the matter.
A reader didn't raise the issue. Okrent was there, or supposed to be, for the readers. When he outed George (giving his full name, his location, quoting from a private e-mail . . .) he let his feelings be known.

They weren't private feelings. Bob Somerby had pointed out for some time (long before the outing of George) that Okrent was dismissive of readers. That he handed out scorn in his columns. (Go to The Daily Howler and search "Daniel Okrent.")

So these people trying to shine it on, trying to tie a pretty bow around Okrent's "accomplishments" don't know what they're talking about. They mention the WMD (and don't even the back story). And then they talk in generalities because they don't know what he did in column after column (and what he didn't do -- what was his infamous quote -- "What I wanted to write about?" "What I want to write about?").

Let me correct that, maybe they do know. Maybe they're just being "polite."

Regardless, Okrent did a lousy job and to say otherwise, you better have some concrete examples. (I'm sure Shafer can make a case for Okrent. In that case, it will be a disagreement of opinion. But, again, Shafer knows the columns and these people shining on Okrent don't.)

Granted, I'm probably a little more up to speed on the readers' reactions than the people shining it on. I've read hundreds and hundreds of e-mails to Okrent (members have forwarded them). These e-mails cover his entire tenure. The early ones, especially, are very polite to Okrent and politely explaining the problems that they have with a factual error not being corrected, or a question about something.

Okrent dismissed those. Sometimes he replied (in the early days, he appeared to do the replying, these days what I'm forwarded are replies from Bovino).

If you're going to say he did a great job, maybe you need to speak to the readers?

He was the "readers' representive."

So before the next person shines it on, maybe they shouldn't think about how they reacted personally to one column on WMD and wonder what readers think?

They're praising him like he's a columnist (and Okrent's writing seems to suggest he also thought that). He wasn't. He was heading the complaints department, to be very basic about it.
It's as though they're praising him because they saw him in off hours smiling. They never saw how the complaint department was run. They have little basis on which to base their shining on.

Translation, it's called ignorance. (Again, Shafer will praise him -- if he hasn't already -- and Shafer has followed the columns. I don't think he's polled readers, I could be wrong, but he'll be able to offer some things, concrete things, that Okrent did.)

Writing out of ignorance, they not only shine on Okrent, they reveal an eagerness to flaunt their stupidity.

Does that sound harsh?

Good. There are ombudsmen (former and current) who weighed in to members about the issue of George. Their opinion? They thought it was unethical. We're not going to out them here, that's not our policy. But the reality is four people who have held similar positions think Okrent did a lousy job because of what he did to George. They're keeping silent publicly.

I won't do that. What he did to George was disgusting and vile.

And for a self-identified "free speech absolutist" (or however he worded it) to confuse a "hope" with a "threat" is really sad and goes to his stability or at least fitness for the job.

Okrent was never fit for the job. He was a magazine boy. Readers had to put up with him trying to learn the job (the workings of a paper) as he went along. Right there his praisers should realize there was a problem.

Let's talk about (again) some of the problems readers had. The paper printed titles for people.
Including in obits which are supposed to be factual. They would complain to editors. Editors would write back with a response to the effect of "that's what the person prefers to be identified as." Well that's not their damn title. It doesn't matter what they prefer, what matters are the facts. And that would then be taken to Okrent and he would reply or not but it never popped up in his columns.

Let's be real clear here, the Times gave a title to someone because they wanted it, not because they held it. That goes to factual. That was brought to Okrent's attention. Okrent took a pass.
Guess it wasn't "what I wanted to write about?"

Well it's not really what he wants to write about. Though he seems to never have grasped this, he wasn't hired to do op-eds. He was hired to address the readers' concerns -- hence "readers' representative."

With Nagourney, for whatever reason, he decided to play My Body Guard. That wasn't his job description.

He's praised for writing his WMD thing. Under pressure, he wrote that. Pressure from readers. He notes, in that column, that he always avoided it because he'd stated from the start that he'd only cover what happened under his watch. And shiners say, "He's so brave!"

No, he's not. Immediatley prior to the WMD, he broke his own word. He decided to tackle the coverage of the Tonys. (Again, we've been over this and over this.) Here's a new development. In one article sent to this site, a new one, he notes that no reader asked for that.

Did you grasp that? It's not surprising (we even mocked him over that with something like, "Hey Danny, love you, love your sweater, could you tackle the Tonys!"). It didn't mention any readers in the column. But besides churning out yet another op-ed on a topic that readers didn't ask for (and according to one person at the Times, one that readers complained about in significant numbers), he broke his rule.

The Times had yet to cover the Tonys under his watch. It's right there in the column, one the shiners miss. It's a pre-emptive attempt on his part to make sure that the Tony coverage doesn't do like it did in the past -- the past being before he was with the paper.

In that snide little column, he used words like "racket." If there's anything he can heap more scorn on than the readers, apparently it's the Tonys. What a brave soul. What a patron of the arts. How lucky we are to have Okrent blowing the lid off the "racket" that is the Tonys.

So here's what happened, and let's get this straight because the shiners can't, he broke his guidelines. He covered something from before he was public editor. Readers had been wanting and wanting him to address the WMD issue. He refused to and hid behind the safety of "I only write about what's gone on since I've been here." He blew that excuse out of the water. And sharp readers caught it and called him on it repeatedly in e-mails.

Some were nice, some used words like "hypocrite."

Now those shining it on don't seem to get that fact. Probably you'd either have to know his work or you'd have to speak to readers. And apparently either option is too much for the shiners.

Let's talk about something else. His recent column on the Middle East. Okrent's admitted that he delayed and delayed that. Not for a month, not for two, not even for half his tenure. He delayed it from the start.

He said it was one of the things he'd received the most e-mail on.

Okay, shiners, what does that mean? It means the readers cared about this issue. And Okrent was too busy writing "what I want to write about" to bother to address the concerns of the readers. Get it straight, shiners, he's not an op-ed columnist. He wasn't hired to sub for Friedman. He was hired to be the readers' represenative.

With his statement about delaying the Middle East issue, he revealed that he was negligent in his duties. It's a little hard to reconcile that fact with the shine so many are buffing him up with.

Remember the "what I want to write about" column? He was so proud of Dexter Filkins' article (six days old was it when it appeared in the paper?). Now he could have dealt with the campaign coverage (something he promised readers in print that he would do) but "what I want to write about" was more important than dealing with the readers or with keeping his printed promise.

How do you shine on that?

Am I angry? Yes, I am. I don't like people who pretend to be experts on something but don't know what they're talking about. And these shiners don't know what they're talking about. They cherry pick the WMD column and one other (if readers are lucky) and act like they've done the work required to evaluate him as an "ombudsman" (they love to use that term even though it's incorrect -- possibly had they done the minimal required reading they'd know that term is inaccurate).

We've got a member who kept all his e-mails to Okrent. He wrote Okrent from the start. (Okrent and Bovino can fire up their automated e-mail program and look up "Subscriber on the Verge" as a title. That's revealed with the member's permission.) He said he would try to stick to facts and not opinions. And in his e-mails he did. And Okrent, early on, replies that these are issues. But they never get addressed.

How can you write about whether or not Okrent made a good public editor without knowing what the readers think? You can't. But the shiners sure try to.

They evaluate him based on a column or two that was printed. They have no idea of the topics he avoided. Factual and opinion. They have no idea of how many issues he refused to address.
Or the issue of recipes, or entertainment or sports, or you name it.

Maybe those topics weren't glamorous enough for him? (I'm finding that hard to believe since he worked for lifestyle magazines.) But when serious factual errors are brought to his attention, when they haven't been corrected (and still haven't), don't shine on that he did a good job.

You quite frankly don't know what you're speaking of.

That might be fine. You might want to flaunt your ignorance and play insiders club. That's your choice. But you don't know what you're talking about. He's not Maureen Dowd or Adam Cohen or anyone contributing op-eds. He's the "readers' representative." And to determine how well he did or didn't do his job, you need to know what issues he ignored and what issues he addressed.

The shiners are ignorant. It may be willfully ignorant. But they don't know what they're talking about. They're reading an op-ed or two and thinking, "Hmm, I would've written that." Really?
As an op-ed writer or as a public editor? Because there's a world of difference between the two.

It's as though they're telling you a program worked, a social program, because they heard Okrent say he ran it well. They're not checking with the people on the social program, they're not determing whether their needs were met.

It's quite honestly either arrogance or ignorance but it needs to stop.

It won't. We noted here that halo would be placed on his fair head. We noted that the shine on would start.

And it's a sorry indication of the quality and level of our press that they can't do the basic homework. They can't read the columns and apparently can't be bothered by the great unwashed (readers). It's disgusting, but it is, to use Bill Keller's term, a circle jerk.

They all line up to praise him as though they're participants at a celebrity roast. They're forgetting that they're not sitting on the dais, they're using their reporting space to shine it on.
It says a great deal about the level of journalism in this country.

They even shine on his mini-war with the Business section. A war he created with his own ignorance.

To judge this as a wonderful tenure and shine it on really calls to question what passes for journalism in this country. And shiners should be ashamed of themselves.

A web site or a community shouldn't have to raise the issues that big "brave" press doesn't want to address. So shame on you shiners. You've declared that it's okay to be an uniformed journalists. You've declared that there's no need to do any leg work. You've "circled the wagons" (as one ombudsman put it) around Okrent for some time now and you continue to do so.

Did you even speak to Bill Keller before you started the shine on? If so, did you ask him about his e-mails? The ones from readers who complained repeatedly about Okrent? I've seen some of those as well.

There seems to be an attitude of "Well he's stepping down so let's say something nice." Are you a talk show host or are you a journalist? There's a world of difference. We expect Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, to emphasize the positive and keep things light. But when an actual journalist elects to write on to the topic of Okrent's tenure and you throw out objectivity and every other principle that you're supposed to hold dear (basic research for instance), there's a problem.

Now some of the shiners might argue, "You only saw e-mails from people complaining about Okrent!"

That's not the case. The e-mail address here is public and people use it all the time. If we write in praise of Katrina vanden Heuvel, you better believe some visitor who stumbled onto The Common Ills is going to e-mail (repeatedly) about some imagined slight that occurred years ago.
Or, "Amy Goodman only said hello to me and scribbled an autograph! She said she was 'busy!'
How can you praise someone like that!" (Presumably, Goodman was supposed to invite that woman to Outback and offer to pick up the tab -- I don't know.)

By the same token, when we register our objection to someone here, there are visitors who will e-mail about their experiences (wonderful) with the person involved.

One visitor bragged about how Okrent noted in an e-mail to her how important the topic she raised was and how it was worthy of addressing. He wrote that, she forwarded it. But it never made it his op-eds. The topic didn't.

Now she was thrilled with that. The readers' representative took the time to note how important her issue was. That was all the validation she required.

I don't think it's good enough. Her concern was valid. Her concern did deserve to be addressed. It never was. Not in the brief e-mail or in his columns.

She's not the only one who's praised him. (And some who have sent e-mail exchanges and there were times when he actually dealt with an issue raised.)

So I've seen exchanges people were happy about as well as ones they weren't. What have the shiners seen?

Apparently nothing. You couldn't speak to the readers (and limit it to subscribers if you prefer) and get the impression that this has been a glorious tenure.

I hate posting on Okrent because after Randy Cohen stated Okrent, he thought, received some sort of warning or action for outing George (Okrent's office denies Cohen's belief), anytime he comes up, the e-mails pour in. Posts on Okrent tend to reach a larger audience than our members and usual visitors.

So tomorrow I will once again (if the pattern holds) be wading through e-mails about Okrent.

He may feel I take pot shots at him (and he may or may not be correct on that). Yes, they are aware of what goes up here -- and probably not a good idea to claim otherwise the way some did with regards to Bob Somerby in the CJR article. As Wally pointed out, the actual policy of this site is not complete confidientiality. You toss that out if you lie. And with Okrent, who felt no problem quoting from a private e-mail, I doubt I'd rake my mind for days about whether or not to quote e-mails.

Jack Shafer is a friend of Okrent's. That's fine. He'll write something positive, no dout. You can do that. But Shafer will be informed in what he cites. These shiners do not know what they're speaking of. (Or if they do, they're being vary careful about what they emphasize.)

Rob was one of the first members to ask that Okrent be addressed. That started early on. And in the earliest days, I would reply that he writes op-eds and we don't address op-eds here. (Or I don't. Members can address whatever they want to.)

But as Rob pointed out, it wasn't supposed to be an op-ed. It was supposed to deal with issues of concern to readers. It was supposed to increase readers' trust in the paper. That went out the window long before a reader was outed. A reader and private citizen and, again, Okrent's really lucky George didn't sue. It's not a friendly time in the courts for reporters. George was a private citizen and Okrent used the weight of the paper to humiliate him. Not only that, Okrent's comments to Business Week boreder on evidence of malice.

But the shiners don't want to talk about that. Maybe they harbor some desire to go off on readers as well? I don't know. Or maybe they're just as ignorant on this topic as they are on other issues having to do with Okrent's tenure.

So Rob pointed out why it was important to address Okrent. Rob made a solid case. He had to wait for me to find time to devote to re-reading every column. But he was patient and we addressed it. And we've continued to.

And an Okrent fan will write in saying what gives you the right to write about Okrent. I believe it's called free speech. Beyond that, I do subscribe to the paper, I do read it. I did have hopes that Okrent would make a difference. That's not been the case. Panels have made a difference.
Keller's made a difference (I think he could do more but people who know him swear he's doing all he can and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt).

Okrent was too busy writing "what I want to write about" to make a real difference. There were far too many issues waiting to be addressed, for instance, for him to turn his space over to two professional writers debating whether or not the Times was "liberal."

Okrent had his say on that (and it was the sort of half-baked answer that you'd expect from someone with no intricate knowledge of newspapers -- which is why he and Keller so disgareed over that column -- and I belive that's public knowledge). To turn around and then give the space over to professional writers? That wasn't his space to give. That was the readers' space.
Had he wanted to give two (or more) readers the opportunity to weigh in, fine. But he farmed it out like it was an op-ed space and it was never intended to be that.

When the shiners start shining, they bother the community and that means I hear about it. Going through all the e-mails on the latest shining (Ryan was the first to send it in), I wish I could tell you that the shiners would wake up. But they won't. They'll continue to applaud Okrent. The halo will be placed, the shine will be waxed.

But there's a thing called truth and the truth is they don't write as though they know his record. The Washington Post, to give only one example, has an ombudsman who never forgets that he's there to serve the readers. Jeffrey Dvorkin may not go into the detail needed but he never tells us about his vacations or offers up interviews with himself or make himself the repeated topic of his space.

There are people who do their jobs. I may not agree with the outcome, but they do their jobs in terms of going through the e-mail, letters, calls, etc. and attempting to answer the concerns of readers or listeners. Okrent hasn't done that.

Readers felt the Times was biased in their campaign coverage. As Bob Somerby noted, Okrent responds to that by writing his "Back from Vacation" column where he tells you of his little test: he read nothing but the Times on his vacation. And guess what? He was pleased with the coverage.

How can he make that call? He's read only the Times. If there's a problem with the Times coverage, if things are being left out, how can he determine that if he's not reading anything else?

The only term for that is masturbation. It may not be a polite term, but it's what it was. It was as though partners had complained to Okrent that he was a lousy lay and he set out to prove them wrong by locking himself in the bathroom.

So-called journalists are going to continue to try to shine him on. That's the reality. I understand your frustartions on that. I understand why you feel he was a lousy public editor (and I share that opinion). But with the state of our printed press, let's be honest and admit that reality doesn't often make it into print.

I share the disgust you feel over his tenure. Maybe they would if you took the issue to them. To be honest, I wasn't taking him seriously prior to the e-mails. Rob's the reason I realized this was a serious issue. To me he was as useless as one of Bumiller's White House Letters. So I can understand that the shiners might not grasp how disgusting his work was.

I'm a huge fan of Bob Somerby's. That doesn't require that I agree with everything he writes. When he posted on Okrent's vacation, my thought was, honestly, "Well it's not that bad." It was that bad. I didn't get it until I had to read through one column after another. Somerby called it right and he saw things that I hadn't.

But the difference between the shiners and I (besides the fact that even prior to going through the columns I wouldn't have shined him on) was that I went through every column before writing a word. That was basic to me. And it should have been basic to them. That is what their job entails.

And due to the nature of his position, it also entails that they have some sense of what the readers think. He was their representative. It was as though they wrote "Tom DeLay is a great Congress person! They love him in Georgia!" Well who cares what Georgia thinks? (No offense to Georgia.) DeLay's not supposed to represent Georgia. By the same token, Okrent had a constituency he was supposed to represent.

Now it's one thing to argue that he did that but his evaluations weren't what readers liked. It's another to ignore whether or not he did it. He didn't do it.

And this isn't a secret. Sam Seder led the battle on the outing of George. Whenever an e-mail comes in praising our bravery on that issue, I reply that we've done nothing compared to what Seder did on The Majority Report. And that's the truth.

Bob Somerby has addressed the issue of Okrent. Those aren't the only two who've been public.
I hope we have contributed in some small way because I think what was done to George in the public editor's space was disgusting. But he didn't leave it there. He bragged about his actions and compared George (in Business Week) to someone who sprayed a swastika on a synagogue.
Do the shiners not get how disgusting that was?

Forget his policy of getting permission before printing something (his stated policy, check the columns before George is outed), forget his self-i.d. stance as a free speech absolutist, forget that he brought the weight of the New York Times down on a private citizen. Focus on the fact that the readers' representative interjected himself into a private matter between a journalist and a reader. Focus on that fact and then ask yourself how the shiners can go about shining?

It's disgusting and I understand your disgust. But it's not surprising and it goes to the state of the printed press today. Or as Mike Malloy put it, on a different press issue, last night, we don't have the press of the seventies. Considering what we have, it's really not surprising that the shine on goes down.

The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.

[Note: This post has been edited to add "Editorial/op-ed" to title to reflect what it is and to change "thing" to "belief."]