I'm glad Daniel Okrent will be giving up his position as ombudsman of the NYT in May. He just doesn't have the stomach for the job. Okrent himself dispelled any doubt of that in his year-end column on Sunday:
Several weeks ago I decided that I'd write a year-end column enumerating a bunch of The Times's crimes and misdemeanors over the past 12 months - the ones I never got around to writing about because they seemed of insufficient interest to support an entire column, or because they were replays of transgressions I had already addressed. Or because articles I'd clipped, notated and misplaced months ago suddenly showed up in my sock drawer.
He's folksy, our Dan. And lazy. I know why I have piles of old NYT cluttering my house. But I don't have an office and unilimited access to the NYT archives. I also don't get paid for enumerating a bunch of NYT crimes and misdemeanors - even in only one area of their reporting - so it's hard to justify the time that takes to my family. What's Dan's excuse?
Apparently he's not lazy. No, he's been blinded by the "daily miracle" that is the New York Times. It was this story by Robin Toner that led to his convenient epiphany.
It addressed an extremely contentious issue without betraying the writer's own views. It avoided the euphemistic use of those specious and self-serving slogans "pro-life" and "pro-choice," and instead used "anti-abortion" and "abortion rights" to describe people who are, as it happens, against abortion or are supporters of abortion rights. It explained the nature of abortion-related legislation to be debated in the coming Congressional session, examined the strategies apt to be employed and weighed the likelihood of passage. People on each side of the issue were given a fair hearing. From reading Toner's piece, I learned much about an important public issue.
Dan's right about the balance and completeness of the story. Her choice of labels though was a mistake. "Anti-abortion" covers plenty of people who are pro-abortion rights. "Anti-abortion" also sets up the Dems as "pro-abortion," which the party is not, although the GOP would like it to be labeled just that way. The better name for the GOP opposition would be "anti-abortion rights." I'm not sure why Dan caves on the "pro-choice" label since it simply emphasizes the private aspect of the abortion issue, which has been established as crucial to the debate. He seems to have forgotten his own law here - The pursuit of balance can create imbalance, because sometimes something is true.
So instead of a hard look at the many dire failings of the NYT, which would have been especially meaningful in the wake of the latest violence in Iraq and an election that was marked by abysmal campaign coverage, we get a column about the continuing daily miracle of putting out a national paper, 'cause, you know, that's hard work.
Okrent ends his column by listing all the good things that NYT is doing: assigning a reporter to cover political and social conservatives to balance all that liberal bias at the paper, doing better with using anonymous sources (I haven't seen any evidence of this at all), implementing an op-ed corrections policy, improving communications with readers, and the formation of a panel to study all of the above. It would have been great if Okrent could have helped us remember why the NYT thinks they need to do all of those things.
Related Note: The non-evil Roger Ailes found this story that captures Okrent's attitude about his job. Read what Roger says, but also read the article because it includes some really good insights from media watchers who understand that they aren't employed to be cheerleaders.
My favorite three:
Geneva Overholser, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in public affairs reporting, Missouri School of Journalism, Washington bureau
"This was the year when it finally became unmistakably clear that objectivity has outlived its usefulness as an ethical touchstone for journalism. The way it is currently construed, "objectivity" makes the media easily manipulable by an executive branch intent on and adept at controlling the message. It produces a rigid orthodoxy, excluding voices beyond the narrowly conventional.
"And it leads to a false balance of `on the one hand, on the other hand' stories that make the two `hands' appear equal even when factual weight lies 98 percent on one side. Objectivity's most effective use today is as a cudgel in the hands of those who wish to beat up on the media."
Steve Lovelady, managing editor of Campaigndesk.org, and former newspaper and magazine editor
"I think the most important media story of the year was the way in which the press was so easily manipulated by spin machines all the way through the election campaign, partly thanks to the fact that it was hopelessly hobbled by some of its own outdated conventions and frameworks. And that, in turn, is related to its embarrassing performance in 2003 on weapons of mass destruction and on the question of an Iraqi tie to 9/11.
"[It is also related to] its inability to be as nimble or fast on its feet as some blogs, and to continuing media consolidation, which invariably leaves editors with less staff and less space to make sense of the world for their readers. In some fairly scary ways, it all dovetails together."
Barry Sussman, editor of NiemanWatchdog Project and former newspaper editor
"We learned two main things about the news media in 2004: First they do some great work, large organizations and small ones both. Second, get past the great work, and the rest tends to be mediocre to poor to a disservice. No sense of what's important, what's not. One- or two-day stories that became regular beats; stories of immense importance ignored altogether. Network TV disappeared from view."
"But one great story stands out in my mind so vividly was a joint effort by the Washington Post and [PBS's] `Frontline' in which a number of Post reporters and `Frontline' spoke about the Iraq War. It was just a stunner. I'm not used to seeing things that good, and TV is such a marvelous vehicle for reporters who are knowledgeable.
"The problem is that what sticks in the mind isn't the good work, but rather the failures. I think the failures are systemic. It's the way the owners and chief editors want it. They don't want to rock the boat. They set the tone, and reporters are quick to understand. They won't do better until the publishers and chief editors want to do better."