BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years, the New York Times resisted calls to hire an ombudsman. Then, in October 2003, after an internal review triggered by the Jayson Blair scandal, the paper reversed its stance. Editor Bill Keller appointed longtime magazine journalist and editor Daniel Okrent to the new post of public editor or ombudsman. Okrent agreed to take the job for 18 months only, and since then, he has written a lively and widely-discussed column investigating reader complaints. Last Sunday, nearing the end of his tenure, he took on what he rightly calls "the hottest button" - how the Times covers Israel and Palestine. I wondered - was he saving this particular topic for last?
DANIEL OKRENT: Oh, absolutely - for a variety of reasons - good reasons and bad reasons. The bad reason - I was going to lose a big hunk of my readership whenever I wrote it. I feel that it's an issue of such toxicity and volatility that there would be people who would say that, you know, I can't read this guy any more, he's so wrong. The good reason - the one that was not simply to preserve my readership - was that you really have to be careful, and you have to study something like this over time, and I wanted to give it as much time as I possibly could, to read the coverage on a daily basis, to make it through the daily emails and report from the most considered position I could reach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you summarize what position you took in that column?
DANIEL OKRENT: Primarily that I don't believe that there is any active bias. I think that there are reasons why the Times does journalism that displeases people, and that is in many ways inadequate, that have to do with the nature of daily journalism. The Times is unable, and no newspaper is able, to include enough history in a given article to explain why something has happened. We can say there was an attack on this Hamas leader's house, because last week there was a bombing in Jerusalem, and then the week before that there was this, which caused the bombing in Jerusalem - but you can't take it back to-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Five thousand years.
DANIEL OKRENT: Yeah, which is really what you would need to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you say, that's one of the problems of daily journalism.
DANIEL OKRENT: Yeah. Daily journalism, as I said in the piece, is - it's absolutely essential, and it's wholly inadequate for a story like this one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You make the very good point in the column that just because everybody says you're wrong doesn't necessarily mean you're right.
DANIEL OKRENT: That's a fairly common defense that journalists use - well, they're screaming at me from both sides, so I must be doing something right, and you know, in a different context, I wrote that that's like saying that a man with one foot on a block of ice and one foot on hot coals is comfortable. [LAUGHTER] It just doesn't work that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the reaction?
DANIEL OKRENT: The reaction was instantaneous, and it was loud, and it was large. Through the first two days, which is the usual measurement I use, I had received 600 emails specifically about the column, and surprisingly, about 150 of them, maybe a little bit less than that, were very positive - supported the position that I took. About a similar number said I was horrible and, and they would never read me again. And the other half were mixed. Yeah, you're - this is a good point, but you failed to mention this. And I rarely get a positive response to what I write, [LAUGHTER] because, you know, you don't go to the complaint department because your shirt fits. You come to me because you don't like something in the Times or you don't like something that I've written, specifically. So, I was really gratified and surprised.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, what about your overall effectiveness, let's say, in your job over the past 18 months. I know that you told Bill Keller, the editor of the Times when you took it, that you wanted only 18 months on this job. You wanted there to be a period at the end of your sentence so that no one would think inside or outside the company that you had a stake in the New York Times.
DANIEL OKRENT: Yeah. I think that was very important. It's amazing how much freedom and authority you have if you're a lame duck, and I think it has been essential to my being able to do the job well. I really do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what did readers tell you? What did writers there and editors there tell you? Were they glad you were there or not so much?
DANIEL OKRENT: Well, you know, they were glad I was there, except for those people who were not glad that I was here. [LAUGHTER] If I were doing their job, I would find somebody like me probably very irritating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's state your humility as read here, and tell me where you've been the most effective.
DANIEL OKRENT: Oh, geez - I want to claim humility even if it's false humility. [LAUGHTER] I'd rather, you know, you ask other people whether they think I've been effective. There are two things that I'm particularly pleased about. One is, I am told that on Monday mornings, after I write, people come in and discuss what I wrote. They argue about it; they disagree with it. They say Okrent doesn't know what he's talking about - but they're engaged by the issues. And if that is indeed the fact, then I've made a real contribution, because these are issues that journalists should think about regularly, but like everybody in any job, you begin to run on auto pilot, and you stop thinking about them unless you're forced to. My other contribution is, I was the experiment. I was the canary in the mine. I survived, and the job is now on its brink of becoming permanent, and not just an experiment. So, I think that if my doing the job the way that I did made it possible for the Times to always have a public editor, than that's great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Part of your raison d'etre there was to serve as a sounding board for readers. Did they regard you that way? Did they feel that there was more of a give and take because you were there?
DANIEL OKRENT: I think so. I've found it exceedingly gratifying those times when I would get an email - Dear Mr. Okrent, That disgusting newspaper of yours did it again, slandering so and so who is an innocent person, and you just did it because of the bias and hatred that you've always shown for such and such, and your reporters are liars, and you made up a quote. Yours sincerely, Whomever. [LAUGHTER] And I write back, and I say, well, you know, you're wrong. Here's what happened. And I disagree with you, but thank you for writing. And they write back and say - oh, this changes my opinion of the New York Times so much, that you took the time to read what I wrote to you, to listen to what I had to say and to answer it seriously. That means a great deal, and it means that I trust you - I trust your newspaper more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What in your opinion was your most important column?
DANIEL OKRENT: Mmm. That's really tough. I guess I would have to say it was the one where I confronted the issue - the headline was: Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? And I probably did not do the paper as much service as I would have liked to with that column, because by the very headline, and the first line, which was: Of course it is, [LAUGHTER] I handed the paper's enemies something that could be taken radically out of context. I made it too quotable. I believe that, as I wrote at great length in that column, that the Times is on certain issues, social issues, a liberal newspaper as a result of the place that it is published from and the nature of the people, the backgrounds of the people who work at the Times. It's not because somebody is sitting upstairs and saying let's make this a liberal newspaper. It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it's really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived as a result of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks.
DANIEL OKRENT: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Okrent's last column as public editor will appear on May 22nd. He'll be succeeded in the post by Byron Calame, who recently retired as a top editor at the Wall Street Journal. Calame has agreed to stay 2 years. [MUSIC]