Daniel Okrent’s Revealing Closeout as Public Editor of the New York Times

In his final column as Public Editor of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent discusses "13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did" (May 22, 2005). His list is interesting for what it tells about Okrent’s biases, and indirectly those of  his bosses, who knew what they were doing when they selected him as public editor.

In his first item, he mentions his newly discovered reservations about the First Amendment, which he still prizes but wishes that journalists did not depend on so much. He would rather see them "invoking more persuasive defenses: accuracy, for instance, and fairness." He goes on to discuss the legal problems of Judith Miller, Matthew Cooper and others, who have been relying on the First Amendment in the Plame case but may end up in jail. Nowhere in his list of 13 does he mention Judith Miller any further, and it is interesting that his list of defenses (accuracy, fairness) fails to include scepticism and unwillingness to use sources that are contaminated and not subject to cross-examination and independent verification. In short, he excludes the fatal weakness of Miller and other Times personnel that allowed them to be managed by the Bush administration and to be collaborators in disinformation contributing to an illegal war based on lies.

His second item is a denunciation of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, and to a lesser extent William Safire. Krugman, he says, "has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults." He is also "ideological" and "unfair." Dowd is chastised for citing Alberto Gonzales’ use of "quaint" as applied to the Geneva Convention limits on torture, long after it had been shown that he used the word only about "commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments." Safire "vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess."

It is interesting that Okrent gives not a single illustration of  Krugman’s abusive use of statistics, so this is a cheap-shot, hit-and-run attack, and perhaps a bit ideological. While calling Krugman ideological,  Okrent never explains what the word means. Krugman no doubt has a set of beliefs that underpin his work, but to an extraordinary extent for a regular columnist he appeals to fact and builds an argument based on fact. This is in contrast with a columnist like Thomas Friedman, obviously highly ideological, but whose ideology-to-fact ratio is vastly greater than Krugman’s. Friedman is not listed in Okrent’s 13-apparently his ideology is OK, and his regular call for the United States to commit war crimes doesn’t bother Okrent either (see my "Thomas Friedman: The Geraldo Rivera of the New York Times,"  Z Magazine, November, 2003 ).                                                            

What this tells us is that Okrent simply doesn’t like Krugman’s views. And I suspect that Okrent is expressing the views of his bosses here. When they brought Krugman on as a columnist Times officials thought they were getting a free-trade-friendly economist who would stick to his free trade guns and possibly offer some modest criticisms of  rightwing economics. But Krugman blossomed, and became a liberal-left critic of broad scope and exceptional intellectual force. It would have been hard to fire him, so one compromise solution was to add the rightwing David Brooks as an offsetting regular and perhaps hope that Krugman would some day make an error that might justify termination. He hasn’t done that yet, but Okrent’s smear may be an early step in a termination process.

In criticizing Maureen Dowd Okrent makes a tiny technical point. The Gonzales language reads: "In my judgment, this new paradigm [the war on terror] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip,…athletic equipment, and scientific instruments." So Gonzales is only calling the Geneva Conventions bearing on torture "obsolete" rather than "quaint," although he is designating some feature of the Convention quaint. Dowd’s error is therefore small and does not distort the essential fact that Gonzales was denigrating the Convention and rationalizing  setting it aside in questioning prisoners. I suspect Okrent just doesn’t like Dowd’s tone and perspective, so he  finds a technical error to criticize.

But to show balance he also criticizes Safire, who "vexes" Okrent for following a Bush propaganda line for which there is no evidence. This would seem like a far more serious journalistic crime than any he attributes to Dowd or Krugman, but it gets only equal space, no more severity of tone, and lower ranking in the Okrent listing. Safire is not described as "ideological."

Okrent’s third item is about characterizations that are "gratuitously nasty"-he mentions "peremptory voice," "semicelebrated hustler," "jackass." He doesn’t include as gratuitously nasty calling somebody "ideological" when you don’t like his general thrust and don’t want to take him up on substance.  Actually, the possibilities for locating gratuitous nastiness among Times writers are vast, and a serious concern here would soon find that demonized targets of U.S. power are especially prone to such attack. The table below showing Marlise Simons’ word usage in the Times in describing Milosevic and his judge and prosecutors affords a pretty example of  a double standard and gratuitous nastiness, but this case didn’t impress Okrent and he has never referred to it (he got a copy of  the article from which this is taken: "Marlise Simons on the Yugoslavia Tribunal: A Study in Total Propaganda Service," Edward S. Herman and David Peterson [ZNet, 2004]).

                                             MARLISE SIMONS’ WORD USAGE

Slobodan Milosevic                              Prosecutors Louise Arbour and Carla
                                                         Del Ponte; Judge Richard May

Infamous                                             Forceful (Arbour)
Sniped                                                 Resolute (Arbour)
Scoffed                                                New assertiveness (Arbour)
Smirk on his face                                  Very capable (Arbour)
Speechmaking                                      No-nonsense style (Arbour)
Badgers the simple conscripts                 Tough crime fighter (Del Ponte)
Carping                                               Unswerving prosecutor (Del Ponte)
Blustery defense                                   Natural fighter (Del Ponte)
Loud and aggressive                             Unrelenting hunter (Del Ponte)
Notorious                                            Finding the truth (Del Ponte)
Defiant                                                Keeping tight control (May)
Reverted to sarcasm                              Patiently repeated questions (May)
Contemptuous                                      Sober, polite and tough (May)
Outbursts                                             Expert on evidence (May)
Face often distorted with anger               Among the best suited (May)   


Okrent’s fourth item refers to and discusses his own earlier article with the headline "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" He stands by this description, but notes how this oversimplification provided a ready target for the rightwing. He says that the paper is "the inevitable byproduct of its staff’s experience and worldview, and that its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues." In short, its news coverage is ideological, although we won’t use the word except to put down somebody with whom we disagree.

The fifth item quotes a reader who asks "if ‘Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative’ in the Times, then why is ‘Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers’? Good question."  There are two remarkable things about this item. One is that Okrent doesn’t even bother to verify whether the "good question" is based on fact. It isn’t. An examination of  the New York Times’ references to the two men in the prior six months shows that each was given the label (liberal or conservative) four times. A second problem is that it violates a principle that Okrent stresses in his item 9, where he criticizes an analysis of  the public schools which quotes "a parent, apparently picked at random, [who] testifies that they haven’t improved. Readers are clearly expected to draw conclusions from that." In the Moyers-Carlson case Okrent expects readers to be impressed with a single case comparison that he hasn’t even verified as true, and which he could have found to be untrue by a simple check of his own newspaper.   

Let me conclude with a comment on Okrent’s item 8, where he chastises the journalists in the Travel and Escapes sections of the paper for always finding  restaurants "almost always delightful, the hotels hospitable, the views glorious, the experiences rewarding. This is a form of crypto-journalism; if the theater critics were so chronically uncritical they’d be hooted off the stage."  But doesn’t the same problem arise for the paper’s journalists, who "almost always" find U.S. efforts abroad carried out with benevolent intent, damage inflicted by them "collateral" and "tragic errors," and their claims and perspectives featured heavily and uncritically as they describe, for example,  official worries about Iran’s nuclear threat while paying no attention to the U.S. and Israeli nuclear threat? The need for accuracy and fairness that Okrent calls for too often means accurate transmission of  claims that should be treated with intense suspicion and which should stimulate a search for alternative sources. Isn’t hyper reliance on officials who are proven disinformationists with an ideological axe to grind, with commentary by Kenneth Pollack and Colin Powell, and people like  Glen Rangwala and Scott Ritter frozen out, a clear form of crypto-journalism that should be hooted off the stage?



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