Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Was Daniel Okrent censured? Randy Cohen (The Ethicist) says he was

On March 21, 2005, The Majority Report (hosted by Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder) featured Randy Cohen of the New York Times as a guest. Cohen writes The Ethicist for the Times' Sunday Magazine. An archived episode of the program can be heard at Air America Place.

The interview is of interest for a number of details. We're focusing here on Daniel Okrent. Hopefully, Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler will listen to the interview and weigh in on another feature where Randy follows in the foot steps of Gail Collins and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. by refusing to address an issue raised by a caller. (As both did on CSPAN, Collins claimed to be unfamiliar with any problems with Jeff Gerth's reporting and to have never read Gene Lyons' Fools for Scandal. Ochs claimed to be similarly in the dark and brushed off a caller with 'call back later to the program when Howell Raines is on.' Somerby covered both CSPAN appearences at The Daily Howler. We noted this on President's Day and in that entry you'll find quotes from and links to Somerby's analysis of Collins and Sulzberger's appearences on CSPAN.)

But what we're focusing on in this article is the Daniel Okrent comments.


A halo seems to be surrounding Okrent as he prepares to step down from his post at the Times as public editor (in May). Editor & Publisher did a piece that we didn't comment on here (except to note it would be going up) because it was such a puff piece. Find it yourself, I won't contribute to the rotting of your mind. We did comment on a piece in CJR (the magazine) by Gloria Cooper.

From that entry:

She [Gloria Cooper] 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.

So while Cooper's rushing to praise Okrent (again, see that entry) as he winds down his tenure, one of many people rushing to praise him, we learn this week on The Majority Report that Okrent was censured over "George." That's the claim Randy Cohen makes. That's what he says ("I think") and certainly an ethicisit wouldn't make such a claim on national radio without some strong information, would he?

On The Majority Report, you learned more than the Times ever bothered to inform the many readers that objected in letters, e-mails and calls.

You also saw Randy Cohen dance around the issue and around many issues. It was a very irritating performance by Cohen -- Janeane Garofalo bails on the interview out of frustration and that's more than understandable. Again, you can hear it at Air America Place, just go to the audio archives, select The Majority Report and download the March 21st episode.

I don't know if Cohen thought he was being humorous. I have no idea what was going on. At first, I thought he was attempting to flirt with Garofalo but he acted the same with Seder so unless he's a bisexual flirter (which he could be), I have no idea why he acted in the annoying manner he did. But it was irritating. (And if Somerby doesn't grab the second part, we will address it here.) Forget for a second what Cohen was discussing, just his manner was irritating.

Back to the issue, we're focusing on is, no surprise, Daniel Okrent and his outing of "George." For anyone late to the issue, "George" is a private citizen, a reader of the New York Times. "George" wrote an e-mail to reporter Adam Nagourney, sent to Nagourney's e-mail address.
This was an e-mail from a private citizen. It was sent to Nagourney. At his e-mail address.
This was not a letter sent in to be mailed, sent to the "letters@" to the Times.

But Nagourney elected to share it with Okrent (according to Okrent) and Okrent used it in his "analysis" of the political coverage by Times reporters. (Somerby's dealt with Okrent's lack of analysis regarding political coverage over at The Daily Howler.) Okrent printed the real name of "George," quoted a line from the e-mail and gave out the state and city "George" lived in.

Hopefully that brings everyone up to speed. We're now going to address what was said on The Majority Report Monday the 21st. This is a transcription I did, so check it against the audio.
(I won't be surprised to learn that anyone finds errors. If you do, note them in an e-mail here -- errors in a quote from that broadcast -- and I'll correct them. E-mail address is

They've touched on what ethics were (ethics and legality are two different things, Cohen informs) and we've heard Cohen proclaim, "Are there moral questions in this country? There are at my house." So we'll assume that Cohen considers ethics to be very important.

That said, Cohen talk about the "right to human dignity" in one breath, and then sarcastically trash a caller who's attempting to verbalize an issue. Human dignity rights appear to be limited to only those who can speak in a manner similar to Cohen.

Seder: When we come back I want to ask you a question of ethics about someone at your newspaper. You remember Daniel Okrent?

Cohen: Has something happened to him? Is he not there anymore?

[Cohen's attempting to be funny in the above statement.]

Sam Seder goes over the basics. He states that Adam Nagourney was involved in three e-mail exchanges with a private citizen ("George").

Cohen: (interrupting) -- This is so inside baseball.

The Times loves their sports allusions, don't they? They also love to mock.

Seder: You’re not aware of this?

Cohen implies he's not. If Cohen's attempting to state, at this point, that he's never heard of the situation, he's wrong. I'm looking at an e-mail from community member Dallas sent to Cohen where Dallas outlines the entire events. We would quote from that e-mail (with Dallas' permission) were it not for the fact that Cohen's memory suddenly returns.

Seder: There was en e-mail with a reader who was exchanging correspondence with Adam Nagourney about his coverage and the e-mailer said something about ‘I hope if you have kids they get sent to Iraq and --"

Cohen: (interrupting) -- Yeah, yeah I remember that. I think it was even saltier and meaner.

Seder: It may have been a little saltier and meaner, but not much. But let’s stipulate that it was.

Once again Cohen has to interrupt and treat the thing as an amusing incident. For those not familiar with The Majority Report, Sam Seder has never felt this was an amusing incident and have been very vocal that he found the treatment of "George" to be outrageous.

But Cohen's off topic, and interrupting, with comments as to whether Seder was a law student.

Seder: So Daniel Okrent wrote a piece about how --

Cohen:(interrupting) -- Is this the facts pattern that you’re giving me now?

Seder: Yes.

Cohen, The Ethicist, continues to treat the subject as laughable by interrupting. In a very non-Socratic manner. But hey, it pays the bills at the Times, apparently. It gets so bad, that Janeane Garofalo has to interrupt Cohen. (Listen to the archived interview and you won't blame her.)

Garofalo: Hey will you stop with your humor and let the man [Seder] tell a story! God.

Sam: So he – he, wrote a piece about how contentious the election was and he singled out this one e-mailer gave his name, full name, both names, and where he lived, what city he lived in. The guy ultimately got phone calls and his family was harassed– -

Cohen: (interrupting) Right right, I remember this guy.

Then we get overlapping dialogue while Seder tries to keep the interview focused.

Seder: I want to ask you (a) was it ethical of Daniel Orkrent to do this? And (b) my assumption is that Adam Nagrouney must have forwarded it to Daniel Okrent because I would assume Daniel Okrent doesn’t have access to Adam Nagourney’s e-mails.

Cohen: That last assumption I’m not so sure on, but go ahead.

I have no idea if that last remark was an attempt at a joke. Cohen treats the entire situation, the entire interview (including a caller) a something to be mocked. Possibly he can address the ethics of that at some point?

He also apparently mistakes himself as Alex Trebek on Jepordy as he begins to lecture Seder on phrasing his remarks in the form of a question. (Something he'll do later, in much harsher terms, to a caller.) He also wonders if "this is building to a question?"

Seder: Is that ethical for a public editor to have called out a critic who has had an ongoing correspondence with one of the writers?

Cohen: Um, I think Daniel Okrent was censured for this, and, um, agreed that it was imprudent but I’m not so sure it’s such a terrible thing frankly, that, that, that a letter sent to the Times, a letter sent to me uh, uh, uh is generally sent for publication, you’re writing to a newspaper and the assumption is you’re generally looking for publication it’s Times policy that letters would be read signed.

(That may be "run signed." I can't take listening to it again. "Run signed" makes more sense.)

Okrent was censured? That's news the Times didn't tell you. That's news they didn't pass on to readers. The idea that he agrees it was imprudent isn't something that's been shared by Okrent.

But this letter was not for publication. And the policy of the Times is not to print run private e-mails. Nor do they note it in their directory of e-mail addresses (thanks Dona).

There's nothing there to suggest that your e-mail to a staffer is public. There's no notice that your e-mail becomes property of the Times. (Other publications do note that -- for letters to the letter page.)

Sam: Any, any letter?

Cohen: People get a call to confirm the facts of their letter and, and to reconfirm their permission.

Did people call "George?" George had contact with Arthor Bovino and with Adam Nagourney (Okrent was too busy to be bothered apparently). In that contact? He didn't give his consent.
Cohen should be aware of that (he was informed of it in the e-mail I'm looking at). George, in fact, implored that his identity not be revealed. That was ignored. Cohen should be aware of that because besides the e-mail to him that I'm looking at, he's obviously had some conversations at the Times regarding this topic.

Sam: But this, this is an e-mail correspondence to a reporter, it’s not --

Cohen: It’s not a personal correspondence.

It's not a personal correspondence, Cohen? Should I start running all the e-mails I've received from the Times? I could do that. Much to the embarrassment of many. Our policy at this site, however, is that your comments are private unless you state that you want them shared.

Cohen: I grant that it was imprudent but I think you’re making it more of a transgression than it actually was. [. . .] He ought not to have done it. We agree with that but I think, I think it’s, you’re making it sound like they picked out a private individual in the midst of a private dispute and, and put, put a map to his house on on on TV and . . .

On TV? Is Cohen attempting to be intentionally dense or is he just trying to distort the events that happened? The Times is a newspaper (with TV holdings), it is not a network. And yes, they did out George who was in the midst of a private correspondence with Adam Nagourney.
Okrent knows it was imprudent? Then why hasn't he apologized for outing George? Why did he brag about his actions (and further distort George's comments) to Business Week?

Seder: Well what is it?

Cohen: It’s not that!

Seder: Well what is the part that doesn’t make it an ethical violation and one that’s fairly egregious because what you have here is the public editor whose job it is to represent the public and –

Cohen: Shouldn’t have done it. Shouldn’t have done it. No-no-no one at the Times should have done it. Adam Nagourney himself shouldn’t have done it. Um. Um. Everyone agrees that they shouldn’t have done it. I think that all we’re arguing about is-is-is how um . . .

Sam: Egregious it was?

Cohen: Well it wasn’t egregious. [In what may be an attempt at a “fey voice” -- but it’s so hard to tell with Cohen -- he delivers the next sentence in a strange tone] He didn’t kill any puppies.

He didn't kill any puppies? That's your defense for what Daniel Okrent did? He didn't kill any puppies? He outed a reader (with apparent malice) and he's the readers' representative and the best you can do is "He didn't kill any puppies?"

Cohen: Um, and, uh, it was not a private correspondence . . . It was, it was someone who wrote a letter to a newspaper, the idea that they’re name would be used –

Again, it was not that. Cohen can spin and distort all he wants. It was a private correspondence.
It wasn't a letter to a newspaper. When it ran, it ran with the objection of George. (He objected to Nagourney and Arthur Bovino. Bovino is Okrent's assistant. Okrent was apparently too busy to speak to George.)

Seder: Is it possible to write to a reporter and have a private correspondence.

Cohen: Well sure . . . All you have to do is say "Please don’t publish this." I get mail like that too and they go "Don’t publish it, don’t publish it." And I don’t.

Community members will remember that Dallas implemented that policy on all e-mails Dallas sent to the Times after the outing. But Cohen's playing cute and playing listeners here. His e-mail address is printed with each column and the reason for that is he takes questions from readers. He's a Dear Abby offering advice. There's a world of difference between the e-mails he SEEKS out and the private correspondence that was exchanged with Nagourney. And I suspect he knows that.

Cohen: (con't) of course not . . I never publish anything without per -- without reconfirming the consent. We agree that it’s wrong . . .

Did you catch that? He cuts off at what appears to be "permission." Because there was no permission. And possibly we're on legal grounds here. He immediately falls back on "reconfirming." It wasn't "reconfirmed" with George. But it was never intended to be published in the first place. Possibly acknowledging the truth about what happened would put the Times on even weaker legal grounds should George attempt to sue them.

Cohen goes on to say that he thinks Seder is making too much of this.

Too much of this? A readers' representative did this to a reader. George was named and his location given in the paper with the third largest circulation in the country. Over his objections.
From a private correspondence that the Times had no permission to quote from.

And Okrent has never apologized to George. Okrent hasn't apologized to readers. This is their representative. In a post created to deal with their issues and concerns. And it was used instead to humiliate a reader publicly.

So before everyone gets taken in by the halo effect and CJR dashes off another glowing tribute to public editors, people might want to ask themselves at what point this issue will be dealt with? Will George have to bring a law suit against the paper for it to be dealt with?

I was told (before this site was started) that Okrent had been called to the carpet over this. I was told that the paper was going to ride it out and let him stay in the post because it would be too embarrassing, after the post being created in the wake of Jayson Blair, for Okrent to be asked to leave. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. That's what I was told.

Since the Times (and Okrent) have elected not to address this issue publicly, they're responsible for whatever information (rumor or fact) is flying around on this issue.

Will they address it? I doubt it. We're in March, Okrent leaves in May. But is it too much to hope that we can have a little reality outside of the Times? Is it too much to hope that someone writing at a watchdog like CJR might address the reality of what happened? If that's too much to hope for, then maybe they can just remain silent on Okrent period instead of writing hagiography on a myth of how wonderful his tenure as public editor has been.

It's hasn't been pretty. He hasn't dealt with readers' concerns. He's instead written op-eds about his vacations. He's trashed the coverage of the Tony nominations before the nominations were announced and before the coverage ran. That wasn't the result of a reader's concern. That column was the result of Okrent mistaking himself for an op-ed writer and not a public editor.

I haven't read the blog for the show (The Majority Report allows listeners to blog as they listen) but at the end of the show, Sam Seder mentions that Rachel blogged that Okrent broke his own policy. Rachel is correct.

From "Daniel Okrent, Step Down:"

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.

Cohen expressed his belief that Seder was "making too much out of it." Quite the contrary, the Times has made to little out of it. And those attempt to brush some glory on Okrent in his final days as public editor have made too little out of it.

Comment: 4-27 Daniel Okrent's office is stating that he wasn't censured. See "Daniel Okrent's office advises that he was not censured."