Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Dart for Gloria Cooper at CJR

Prior to the hand injury, a "mag report" was going to be done. It's not going to happen now. But we do need to address an article in CJR's January/February issue.

My thoughts on CJR Daily are well known, but I do respect CJR proper. So I was distressed to read Gloria Cooper's "State of the Art." Background, Cooper is the "deputy executive editor" and she does Darts & Laurels which is a quick review of things worthy of criticism (positive and negative). For "State of the Art" she should give herself a "Dart."

Had this been written as an essay by someone not with CJR, fine, no problem. I would have differed with the opinions of the article, but that would have been it. But for anyond with CJR (let alone the deputy executive editor) to write "State of the Art: Into the Breach . . . Ride the Nation's Ombudsmen" is really sad in my opinion.

This is a sort of group shout-out to various ombudsmans, public editors, et al. Where's the problem? She praises Daniel Okrent in ways that suggest she hasn't done the work needed to make an evaluation.

From the essay (not available online):

Okrent, for his part, had been steadily establishing his bona fides in all manner of significant topics unrelated to Iraq when he decided this spring to break his self-imposed rule against commenting on journalism produced by the Times before his tenure began. His May 30 examination . . .

Okay, Cooper doesn't grasp Okrent's record because he broke that rule prior to the May 30th examination. As noted here (and as Rob can tell you, and show you e-mails to and from the Times), Okrent had already broken the rule he imposed on himself. For some reason, Cooper feels she knows enough to write about Okrent but she doesn't know that basic fact.

The rule always seemed to some like an easy out to avoid dealing with the growing controversy over the Times lead up to the war reporting (specifically Judith Miller's articles). Then Okrent broke his own rule.

But he didn't break it on May 30th. He broke it when he did a column, a pre-emptive one, on the way the paper covered the Tonys. The nominations hadn't been announced (as he himself noted in his column) but he went into how they had been covered in the past and his hope that they wouldn't be covered that way when the nominations were announced.

Cooper is flat out wrong if she's maintaining that the May 30th column on the Times reporting re: Iraq was the first time Okrent waived his own rule. (Check the archives, May 9th is the date on the column Cooper should familiarize herself with.)

In fact, as Rob and others will note, when that pre-emptive column on the Tonys, one dealing soley with past coverage, went out, people e-mailed Okrent's office to point out that he had now broken his rule and as such had no excuse to avoid dealing with the Iraq reporting.

Were this Time magazine, I wouldn't be surprised. But this is CJR. More specifically, it's Cooper who covers the "Darts & Laurels."

She concludes her lengthy paragraph on Okrent (why he is covered more than the ombudsmen for The Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, I have no idea -- they at least deal with readers' questions and issues as opposed to telling us about their summer vacations) with this statement:

As the Times is learning every day, and as those other enlightened news organizations that support an ombudsman can testify, readers' trust does not come cheap.

No, it doesn't. And Cooper is writing about Okrent and readers' trust without addressing the issue of "George?" George [our name for the once private citizien] wrote a private e-mail to Adam Nagourney. It wasn't a fan letter. Nagourney passed it over to Okrent. Okrent elected to print it (over George's objections), to name George and to print which city George lived in.

Readers' trust, Cooper? You seriously want to talk about readers' trust and Okrent in the same article?

We don't print private e-mails here. But a number of you have been attempting to get other ombudsmen to weigh in. Two have in private e-mails against what Okrent did (in private e-mails they've been forwarded to this site). Okrent's column didn't appear in their paper so perhaps that's why they don't feel they need to go public with it? I don't know.

But CJR is held to a higher standard because it is so damn important. (That's not sarcasm, seriously CJR is pretty damn important. It's one of the most consistently strong media critics the country has.) Cooper hasn't done her work and she earns a dart.

Let's be clear that what was done to George (over his objections) also included smearing him as the equivalent of someone who "paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue" when Okrent elected to carry the issue over to Business Week.

George was a reader (may still be). Did he deserve that? He's a private citizen who wrote a private e-mail. That e-mail was printed over his objections and he was named and his location given. Cooper needs to seriously consider whether or not Okrent has earned readers' trust.

I spoke of the possible legal ramifications in the "Daniel Okrent, Step Down" column.

In case that wasn't clear to everyone, let's turn to Democracy Now! ("The Undiscovered Malcolm X: Stunning New Info on the Assassination, His Plans to Unite the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movements & the 3 'Missing' Chapters from His Autobiography"):

AMY GOODMAN: And what is he doing with them?
MANNING MARABLE: Well, they're sitting in his safe. And, I guess the conundrum -- I'm not an attorney or a person who does intellectual property -- but my understanding of the situation is that he owns the property, but he doesn't own -- he owns the physical texts of these chapters, but Mr. Reed does not own the intellectual property, the content of these chapters, so he cannot publish them.

Get it?

It's the same point I made regarding Okrent. Okrent (and the Times) did not own George's e-mail. Adam Nagourney may own a print out of it or a digital copy because the private e-mail was sent to him but that's it. It wasn't a letter to the Times. It was a private correspondence. And it was made public over the objection of the person who wrote it.

A private citizen. And I'm failing to grasp how making it public served any public interest.

If CJR doesn't grasp the concept of private correspondence, I'm shocked. But I don't think that's the case. I think Cooper wrote an uninformed piece and I think Cooper needs to give herself a dart for it and make up for it by now addressing the subject that no one appears to want to address publicly.

Addressing what everyone else is ignores is one of the hallmarks of CJR. Having now applauded Daniel Okrent for the wrong reasons, they need to address the issue of George. They need to address the ethics involved in outing a reader over his objections. They need to address the half-assed manner in which Okrent explained his actions (after complaints) to the readers which never included the fact that George begged that the issue be kept private.

I've exchanged e-mail with George since we posted "Daniel Okrent, Step Down." I don't know that Cooper's even aware of him. If she's not, she hasn't done the basic work needed to write her essay. That's substandard for any magazine but its especially disappointing coming from CJR.

Should she choose to address this issue, there are other things she might want to address. Bob Somerby (profiled in this issue) has noted the scorn Okrent heaps on readers. We've noted that he seems to think he's an op-ed columnist and not the readers' advocate. We've noted that he chases down stories based not on what readers want to know but on what media critics are doing and saying. (Or as Okrent so infamously put it "what I wanted to write about.")

We've learned a great deal about Okrent's vacations, we've learned very little about issues that matter to readers. (And we devoted an entire long entry to some of the problems with the arts section while Okrent has served as public editor and how he's never addressed them despite the fact that they've been brought up in phone calls, e-mails and letters -- including one that was over ten pages typed that refuted a story in the arts section point by point.)

Rob e-mailed on Cooper's story Saturday.

Here (with his permission) is his e-mail:

I hope you're going to address this because it blows my mind that anyone at CJR would print such nonsense. There are huge ethical issues pertaining to Okrent and Ms. Cooper doesn't note any of them. I realize that you've taken on a number of biggies and even if you didn't like CJR you might want to avoid this but I hope you'll take this up.

Absolutely we will. And the delay has been over the fact that on Saturday (as noted), I burned my hand (I've still got a huge blister on my index fingertip, the others have all popped).
It takes forever to type (sorry) because it's like having a ball glued onto my finger. (Only it hurts.)

But we're not a "blog." We don't worry that we'll lose "hits" if we take something on. There are no counters at this site. We don't worry that we'll lose visitors. (As I've stated before the community is now much larger than I ever had intended.) (Speaking of which, I have 15 e-mails that arrived today about Krista. If your comments were intended to be shared, you need to e-mail the site and say so: common_ills@yahoo.com. You don't have to resend your e-mails because I printed them up. But if you're wanting to be quoted -- they're all supportive of Krista -- you need to e-mail your permission to be quoted.) So we don't refrain from taking on something that might cause someone else to worry. (That's not to suggest that Cooper does. Again, I just think she was ill informed on the topic of Okrent.)

There are serious issues about whether or not Okrent has done the job outlined when it was created. (Hint, he wasn't hired as an op-ed writer.) There are ethical issues (and possible legal ones) over what he did to a private citizen, using the weight of the Times to publicly shame him.

At a time when reporters at the Times want to claim the right to protect a source, Okrent's public trashing of a reader is a huge embarrassment since readers should be making up at least half his "sources" (they're the ones whose issues he's supposed to be addressing -- the other half would be the people he has to speak to get answers to their questions).

And let's be clear again on what was done to George. He wrote a private correspondence to Adam Nagourney, not a letter to the Times, not anything for publication. Nagourney turned it over to Okrent. George made it clear that he did not give his permission for the publication of anything. Yet, Okrent published from a letter that was private (and by a private citizen) without George's permission and he published George's name and location.

It wasn't Okrent's e-mail to publish. It wasn't even sent to Okrent. Why he ended up with that is a serious question when he's written so often (in the early days) of the "wall" -- one that Nagourney could leap over apparently.

There was no justification for revealing George's name, there was no overriding public interest service done by doing so. What happened was Okrent used the power and weight of the Times to attack a private citizen. This is a readers' representative?

Cooper needs to grasp that and she needs to address that. She might also want to ask Okrent if, after outing George, he can still claim that he is "an absolutist on free trade and free speech" -- something he asserted in his column on December 7, 2003. (My guess? He'd still claim to an absolutist on free trade at any rate.)