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June 1, 2005

Filed under: journalism»ethics»newspaper

Just what did they pay him for?

I know when I leave a job, the last thing I do before waltzing out the door is slander the most competent people I can find. No, wait--actually, that would be incredibly stupid. So why is it that Dan Okrent, the laughably ineffective former Public Editor for the New York Times, decided to do just that? In his last column for the paper, Okrent unleashed a torrent of bitter little jabs at some of the paper's op-ed columnists, namely Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, and Paul Krugman. The first two, he simply portrayed as partisan bickering. Krugman, a world-reknowned and well-regarded economist, was accused of actually cooking the numbers for his columns.

Okrent is best known, previous to his days ruminating on the liberal bias of the NYT crossword puzzle, as the inventor of fantasy baseball. And he has the nerve to tell Krugman that his math might be suspect. Brad DeLong, another skilled and well-written economist, annotates the resulting back-and-forth in the Times Public Editor weblog, and does a professional's job slicing Okrent's few economic points here I am not qualified to comment on that matter, because my own economic background is accumulated and theoretical, doubtless filled with holes. What I can discuss, and with relish, is the incredible audacity of Okrent's original statement--specifically, when Okrent talks about his own role in (not) correcting the mistakes he saw after his daily martini lunch with whiskey chaser:

I laid off for so long because I also believe that columnists are entitled by their mandate to engage in the unfair use of statistics, the misleading representation of opposing positions, and the conscious withholding of contrary data. But because they’re entitled doesn’t mean I or you have to like it, or think it’s good for the newspaper.

I'm sorry? For those who are perhaps unaware of how the news business works (a number which apparently includes Dan Okrent), allow me to elaborate. The role of the public editor, also known as the ombudsman, is to be the representative of the paper's readership to its staff. They are responsible for a level of fact-checking, of bringing issues to the management's attention, and explaining to the public why coverage is what it is. If there are gross mistakes and exaggerations in the text of a paper, it is the public editor's job to correct them. He or she is like a high-level copy editor, in a sense.

But that's not how Okrent sees it. To paraphrase that quote, columnists can lie, cheat, and write whatever they want, and he feels no need to address the problem. He never talks to Krugman, Dowd, or Rich about the questions he has. He thinks it's bad for the paper, but Okrent does nothing about it--as if it's not his job!

Okrent's always been bad--he's published a reader's address just to settle a score, and his columns generally read as whining. He lets the conservative pundits, like David Brooks and William Safire, go almost completely unscathed, even though they lie like threadbare bathmats. But the admission by Okrent that he didn't think it was his job to be, in effect, a public editor is the most stunning thing yet. Honestly: what did he do all day? Did he spend his days playing fantasy sports instead of (oh, I don't know) working? And why didn't anyone in the Times upper management notice that they were employing this slacker? It makes me furious that I have to hunt for writing or editing work, but Okrent can sit back and relax, confident that the only thing he's edited in years was his own job description.

Where did they find this guy?

And what, exactly, were they paying him for?

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