Sunday, December 26, 2004

Daniel Okrent, Step Down

Daniel Okrent is the public editor of the New York Times (see previous entry, and the Times has refused to do the obvious, ask him to leave. At this point in time, the only hope is that Okrent's own heart and head will tell him it is time to step down.

And it is past time for Okrent to take such an action.

For those new to Okrent, we're dealing primarily with an October 10, 2004 column. In it, Okrent elected to take a private citizen to task for an e-mail they sent to a reporter (Adam Nagourney) at the paper. We're going to call the person "George" because he is a private citizen or was until Okrent elected to use the power of his column and the New York Times to turn George into a public figure.

Here's Okrent:

But before I turn over the podium, 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, ''____*" a limit has been passed.
That's what a coward named _____ ["George"], from _____, 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.

With that column, Okrent started down a road that went beyond the ridiculous (his previous columns) to the shameful. I want you to pay attention to Okrent's remarks above. How he quickly associates "George"'s remarks with "threats" and "sexual insults." What Okrent elected to quote was not a threat. [*We're not printing the line because we do not have George's permission. The Times shouldn't have printed it for the same reason and we'll address that shortly.] A threat is, "I will harm you" in any variety of words. When someone, as George did, uses the word "hope" in a statement (no matter how "vile" it may appear to Okrent) it's not a threat.

But Okrent quickly moves on to threats and sexual insults to attempt to build a case against George through inference. Let's be really clear here, what Okrent quoted wasn't a threat, it wasn't a sexual insult. It was a stated hope. To call it anything else is a flat out lie. Let's repeat that because the press has a problem using the "lie" word: To call it anything other than a stated hope is a flat out lie.

In a "letter" from Okrent that ran in his own column, Okrent admitted he was wrong to use the word "coward." That's the least of the wrongs that Okrent committed. He's been far more vocal about this in other sources. Such as in Business Week:

. . . even Okrent had doubts about his own course of action. "But I thought about it, and I decided that someone who goes out at night and paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue doesn't want it written about either," says Okrent. "There have to be consequences. (What the blogger wrote) was vile. No one should ever wish that on another person."

[Business Week's link for this story does not load properly; however, you can view the story on Yahoo at]

I'll agree with Okrent on one thing, there do have to be consequences. But not for George who didn't threaten anyone. (Had he done so, of course, the Times could have turned the e-mail over to the police if they were seriously bothered by it.) There do have to be consequences for Okrent's actions.

Let's toss around a word here: hypocrite.

Is Okrent a hypocrite?

In a December 7, 2003 column, Okrent elected to self-describe (as he so often does -- he is his own favorite subject):

By upbringing and habit, I'm a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When you turn to the paper's designated opinion pages tomorrow, draw a line from The Times's editorials on the left side to William Safire's column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I'm an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O'Connor was a great man. I believe it's unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action. I'd rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O'Reilly or Michael Moore. I go to a lot of concerts. I hardly ever go to the movies. I've hated the Yankees since I was 6.

An absolutist on free speech? Really now? I guess that absolutist stance sails out the window when you disagree with the speech? It's either that (which means he's not an absolutist on free speech) or Okrent is indeed a hypocrite.

Despite Okrent's conjuring up of sexual threats and swastikas, the reality is that George offered a hope. Not a pleasant hope for what might happen to Adam Nagourney's children, but a hope none the less. Not all that different from someone saying, in a passionate exchange, "I hope you die first so that I can come to the funeral and dance on your grave." Is that a threat?

No, not by any legal understanding can that be construed as a threat.

Okrent can fog up the issue all he wants to make himself look better. That's his choice. But it makes him more vulnerable should legal action be taken because his comments reveal a malice towards George. As a professional writer he should understand the concept of malice and he long ago should have tempered his remarks.

Let's go legal for a moment. "United States law states that letters are the physical property of the recipient; the writer owns only the context, not the paper on which his/her words are written" (Bair, Deirdre. Anais Nin. Penguin Books: New York, NY. 1995. P. 604, footnote 16.)

What does that mean? I'm not a lawyer, but I think it means Adam Nagourney owns the digital copy (and any print-out he made) of the e-mail George wrote. He does not own the words. George retains the rights to the words he wrote. (The rights to the words Okrent quoted not only without George's permission but also over George's objections.)

Why does that matter?

Here's Okrent explaining to Times' readers his "policy":

My policy: I consider all messages sent to me, or forwarded to me by Times staff members, to be public unless the writer has stipulated otherwise. Every message sent to my office gets an instant response asking if the writer wishes his or her name to be withheld.
No signed comments are published without confirmation of authorship, either by telephone or e-mail.

Okrent can implement whatever policy he wants; however, that doesn't make it legal. He can implement a policy that he's going to track me down and kill me. That could be his "policy," but it still wouldn't be legal.

According to Okrent's stated policy, "unless the writer has stipulated otherwise," the message is public. He notes that "every message sent to my office gets an instant response asking if the writer wishes his or her name to be withheld."

What Okrent doesn't tell you is that George spoke with both Nagourney and Okrent's assistant (Arthur Bovino). In his public letter to Daniel Okrent (posted online), George states that he asked both Nagourney and Bovino not to publish his name or the city he lived in.

Okrent leaves that out. I wonder if a good lawyer would?

I wonder if a good lawyer would note that not only is Okrent's "policy" not the law of the land but that, in this instance, he didn't even follow it. He leaves readers with the impression (from the "policy" discussion) that no one would ever be named without that being there desire. He fails to alert them that, in George's case, he threw his policy out the window.

Make no mistake, Okrent's "policy" isn't the law. George is, or rather was, a private citizen.
Courts have been full of private citizens suing the press and often they win. Does anyone at the Times ever worry about that?

In the case of Arrington v. The New York Times Company, the Times emerged victorious. That was many years ago in a much more press friendly environment. (It was also over the unauthorized use of a photograph taken in public and then used to highlight a story that the photograph's subject did not agree with and did not feel represented him.)

Fair use applies to published words. George's words weren't published prior to Okrent publishing them. There was no fair use clause that allowed Okrent to print George's private e-mail.

Has the Times legal department looked into the matter? Do they feel that violating the privacy and express wishes of a private citizen, tossing out federal law regarding the ownership of the contents of a letter and holding a private citizen up to public ridicule has placed the paper on strong legal grounds? Or maybe they think that since Okrent acts independently of the paper, the paper's not responsible? (He's written that he's an "independent contractor." Maybe the Times, should George sue, could offer up the Iraqi prison defense?)

The latter would be a legal argument that might prompt many chuckles from the bench. The Times hired Okrent. They gave him this platform. They continue to grant him this platform even after his actions with regards to George. With that in mind, attempting to label Okrent as an independent agent that the paper has no responsibility for might be an amusing legal argument to hear.

[A lawyer would will rightly recognize that's there's no approbation issue at stake here. However, tort law also recognizes privacy invasion based upon intrustion, private facts and false light. All three seem to have some bearing on the "outing" of George.]

Those are legal issues that this non-lawyer wonders about. What of ethical ones? Was it ethical for George to be "outed" over his objections? Okrent might argue it was. But if he has a policy in place and he doesn't use that policy, even his ethics can be called into question. (Yes, Okrent, I'm calling your ethics into question.)

But let's deal with another ethical issue -- Okrent is the readers' representative. Is it ethical for someone holding such a title to betray readers? That's how people writing this site feel: betrayed.

In Dallas: "I now put at the top of any e-mail I send to anyone at the Times 'THIS IS A PERSONAL E-MAIL. IT IS NOT TO BE PASSED ON TO DANIEL OKRENT OR PUBLISHED OR QUOTED IN THE PAPER.'"

J: "How can I trust Okrot to represent me after he trashes ___ ____ in print? ____ ____ is a reader, just like me. I don't trust him, he's betrayed the position he holds. He should step down immediately if the Times doesn't have the guts to fire him. And how does the Times justify taking my money as a reader while allowing their public editor to attack a reader?"

Erika: "He has done nothing but ridicule the readers since taking on the post and he crossed the final line when he made a reader's name and location public over that reader's objections. He's made himself unfit for the position he occupies. It's time for him to bow out."

Rob: "Say I have a serious problem but don't use the language Okrent likes. If I contact him about my problem does that give him the right to name me and ridicule me in the pages of the Times? Even if I beg him not to? I don't know. That's why this subscriber doesn't have a public editor that he can even present a problem to."

Okrent hasn't been totally useless. Reading all the columns in a row yesterday, I discovered a few things. First of all, that two Excedrin Tension Heache pills combined with one asprin can almost bring relief to headaches brought on by Okrent's writing and self-promotion.

There was also this discovery: ". . . Janet Elder (one of the editors who supervise The Times's polling operation) . . ." That was interesting to read. Nagourney and Elder summarized a poll. The poll had some problems with questions (as I read it) and the summary was selective (at best). Assuming Elder was a reporter new to the paper, I'd not called her actions into question as much as I would have had I know she was "one of the editors who supervise The Times's polling operation." There's no excuse now for what the paper printed with regard to their Times/CBS News poll.

[For discussions on this see:,,,,, and in that order. I also want to note that Kara pointed out that I used two figures: one (855) is the number printed in the paper, the other (885) is the number printed on the front of the polling report that was available online. I have no idea which one is correct. And honestly didn't even note it until Kara pointed it out to me.)

What else did I learn?

Okrent loves to talk about himself. In his February 15, 2004 column he "interviewed" himself.
For a full column. Apparently, making his history, thoughts and feelings the subject of a full column months earlier (December 7, 2003) wasn't enough about him. Apparently, he felt we need more information. From those two columns and other pronouncements, one wonders if Okrent believes the space is a column about him? That it's paramount to our enjoyment of the Times that we know various facts about him, his interests, his vacation, his career. And in the process of wading through all this junk what's missed is why the position was created, what's missed is Okrent doing the job he's supposed to be doing.

Keesha: "Reading his columns, I have to remind myself that this is supposed to be a public editor's space. Instead it comes off like someone auditioning to be the next Erma Bombeck."

Perhaps that's just Okrent writing about "what I wanted to write" about. [A quote from Okrent's column today. See previous entry.]

It's not doing the job he's been hired to do.

Melody: "I love how he drops Jack Schafer's name all the time. Jack's doing this. Jack said this. Jack, my buddy. Jack, my pal. I think Jack first became a regular in this column on Feb. 1st of this year. And he's mentioned Jack yet again today. [December 26, 2004] It's kind of like reading Suzy in Women's Wear Daily! Oh, but Danny's not supposed to be a gossip columnist is he?"

No, he's not. But comparisons to Bombeck and Suzy aren't surprising (though they are insulting, Bombeck was often funny) when he's strayed so far from the purpose that led to the creation of his position at the paper.

[I've never read "Suzy" but I understand from readers of WWD that the writers of that column are breezing and entertaining. Okrent fails on that level as well.]

Rob: "I want you to address his May 9, 2004 column where he attacks the Tonys. Okrent
got praise for addressing the Times handling of pre-Iraq war coverage. But what I hear is
that he only did that because he broke his own guidelines with this piece."

I don't know why Okrent decided to address the pre-war coverage. (But I bet if you asked, he'd be willing to turn it into a two part column! It would be, after all, about himself.)

Here's what he wrote in his column on May 30, 2004:

F[rom] the moment this office opened for business last December, I felt I could not write about what had been published in the paper before my arrival. Once I stepped into the past, I reasoned, I might never find my way back to the present.
Early this month, though, convinced that my territory includes what doesn't appear in the paper as well as what does, I began to look into a question arising from the past that weighs heavily on the present: Why had The Times failed to revisit its own coverage of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?

Rob's reasoning is based (besides what's been passed along to him in e-mails) on a stated Okrent "policy" that he alludes to above "From the moment this office opened for business last Decemeber, I felt I could not write about what had been published in the paper before my arrival. . . . Early this month, though . . ."

And it's true that early that month, Okrent addressed the Tonys:

U[nless] I acquire some unexpected clout around here in the next 48 hours, Times readers will wake up on Tuesday morning to read a prominent story announcing the nominees for an artistically meaningless, blatantly commercial, shamefully exclusionary and culturally corrosive award competition.
Let me put it another way: unless Times editors have overcome several decades of their own inertia, readers on Tuesday will find a prominent story serving the pecuniary interests of three privately controlled companies whose principals have earned the right to convene in what Damon Runyon once called ''the laughing room.''

What's Okrent doing? He's writing about something that the paper has yet to cover since the creation of his job. He's writing about how the paper has covered the Tonys in the past (before he was public editor). He's violating his own stated "policy." (Granted, that's not unusal for him.) If you read the column (and you might, insomnia can lead people to try many desperate measures) look around for any signs that readers have asked him to address the impending Tony coverage.

I see no sign of him indicating that any reader had written in: "Dear Dano, love you, love your words, love your cute sweater in the online photo. You know the Tony coverage is about to start. Pretty please could you use your way awesome power to stop it!"

There's no sign of that. Okrent wants to whine about the Tonys ("a racket" -- his words)
and, by his logic, that's all that matters. Sure he could use the space to deal with issues
that readers are raising but it's another case where that's not "what I wanted to write"

You get a lot of op-ed writing in this public editor's space. And you get to hear about his vacation. And his regrets about his professional life. (Maybe he shouldn't have been so harsh when he was working at magazines, he wonders.) Once he even turned the column over to two readers who held opposing views about the Times. Well, not exactly readers. Todd Gitlin and Bob Kohn, both professional writers as opposed to the average reader forking over hard earned money for the paper. Still Okrent did note in that column "Next week, comments from readers."

See, every now and then, Okrent can devote time to what his job entails. It's apparently not as interesting as telling us about his vacation or telling us what he thinks of the Tonys, or giving
"shout outs" to his buddy Jack, or (and I suspect he enjoys this most of all) sharing his life stories with us.

However, it should be noted that in that promised "Next week, comments from readers" column, he gave himself the last word. That's when he explains why he outed George and his "policy." Even when letting readers speak, Okrent needs the last word.

In the previous entry, I suggested you read an entry of Bob Somerby's The Daily Howler
( In that piece, Somerby addressed Okrent's vacation report:

It must have been great! The obits, then the sports page, and then the Fringe Festival! At any rate, Okrent passed August in this manner, vacantly gazing into salt air. He lounged in his deck chair, just as he vowed he would do in his pre-vacance column. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/04, for our report on that last hapless piece.)
But how thorough a lightweight is the Times’ public ed? Try to believe—just try to believe—the way he followed political news during his well-earned vacation. In yesterday’s column, he asks-and-answers this obvious question. Permit yourself to be amazed by this first part of his statement:
OKRENT: Q. What about the political coverage?
A. Sure, I read it. In fact, the day I hit my deck chair, I decided to spend August getting all my news only from The Times. I wanted to see whether total reliance on the paper would enable me to emerge into September with a view of the campaigns that accorded with reality.

What a trooper! Like Thoreau (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”), Okrent decided that, on his retreat, he would learn what the Times had to teach—nothing else. He wished to see if the Times, by itself, could keep him abreast of the news in the country. Of course, exhausted bus-boys at Wellfleet crab shacks could spot the flaw in Okrent’s logic. Duh! If he only gets his news from the Times, how can he know if he’s getting “a view of the campaigns that accord[s] with reality?” If he has no other source of news, how can he know if something is missing?

Somerby rightly took him to task on that. At some point the Times may take Okrent to
task over the outing of George but maybe he could do everyone a favor and step down
right now?

What he did to George was disgusting and there's no "bounce" back from that. It's over.
He's lost the trust of too many readers by betraying one of their own. (And, again, the way
this non-lawyer reads the law, he's possibly put himself and the Times in a very
questionable position.) It also leads to people mocking the Times and their defense of
Judith Miller to withhold from the court what someone told her and who the someone

As Kara noted, "She should just pass the information about the person on to Okrah! He'll publish the name and the location! Especially if the person was a Times' reader!"

And what of when the paper's editorial board calls for someone to step down from a position
of authority? How seriously do we take such an editorial when Okrent's been allowed to
abuse the power of his position and has not been taken to task for it? How can the editorial board ever ask for accountability elsewhere when there's no accountability for Okrent's

The smartest thing that could happen would be for Okrent to write an apology (and not just
for using the word "coward" -- however, having also compared someone's stated wish to
the action of painting a swastika on a church, he might want to apologize for his word
choices again) and end the apology with these words:

Due to the fact that my treatment of George has called into question my abilities to act as the readers' advocate, I have decided to step down immediately and not remain in this position until May of 2005 when my term would normally expire. My deepest regrets for the harm and pain I caused to George and his family and for the trust some readers feel I have betrayed.

[Note: corrections needed caught by Shirley. Thanks as always, Shirley. Note II: Also added missing link on NY Times/CBS News Poll. Thanks again, Shirley.]