BROOKE GLADSTONE: Got a problem with something in the paper of record? Make your grievance known.
RECORDED VOICE: Thank you for calling the reader comment line at the New York Times. Your message will reach a responsible editor very promptly. If you're calling to comment about news developments or an editorial...
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In many cases, that's the most that a troubled reader could hope for in the way of a response from the New York Times, but changes are afoot at the Gray Lady, and soon readers will have a real person to whom they can direct their complaints and whose job it is to respond. This week the Times named Daniel Okrent, long-time magazine journalist and editor, to the new position of public editor, or ombudsman. For years, the times has resisted calls to hire an ombudsman, but reversed its stance in response to the main recommendation that emerged from an internal review triggered by the Jayson Blair scandal. Daniel Okrent, congratulations.
DANIEL OKRENT: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, ombudsman, public editor, whatever you want to call it, your job boils down to serving as the official representative of New York Times' readers. What does that mean exactly?
DANIEL OKRENT: Well what I think it means is that when there's something that troubles a reader for reasons of unfairness, incompleteness, inaccuracy -- and maybe that reader who's troubled is me -- it's my job to choose which ones are worth investigating, investigate them and then comment upon them in the pages of the paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you any oversight over the corrections page?
DANIEL OKRENT:No. In fact, I may differ with the corrections page. The job, as it's constructed, leaves me outside of the operation of the newspaper. If I'm really going to respond as a reader and on behalf of readers, I shouldn't be part of their operation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you're in for eighteen months, and there's a period at the end of this sentence? You're not going to be up for renewal? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DANIEL OKRENT:There's an, there's an absolute period at the end of the sentence. It was something that I insisted on and that Bill Keller, the executive editor, was more than happy to agree to. If there were the possibility of a renewal, then could the readers really trust that I'm being impartial, or am I trying to please the people who might extend my contract? So we've already agreed on a salary; we've agreed on a raise; we've agreed on everything that's going to happen to me in those eighteen months, and then when they're up, I walk out the door.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're like a judge. [LAUGHS]
DANIEL OKRENT: Yeah. Al--well, no I think I can be a little bit straighter than a judge. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen -- the select, the few, the chosen -- only about three dozen newspapers nationally have an ombudsman, and most of them are tapped from within the paper. You, on the other hand, never worked for the New York Times. You're an outsider--
DANIEL OKRENT: Also not a newspaperman. Actually I did work for the New York Times when I was in college. I was a stringer in Ann Arbor, Michigan 150 years ago. But I think that coming from outside of the newspaper and outside of the newspapering profession gives me the opportunity to ask stupid questions. There are things that you take for granted if you're part of a culture, whether it's the newsroom culture of the Times or the news culture generally, that can give you a hermetic feeling. So coming from outside, yet being a journalist and knowing how to ask questions, I think I may be able to find out things and have a perspective that would be more parallel to the readers' perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It was a rough year for the Times, and I wanted to ask you about that. The creation of a public editor position represents at least part of the paper's coming to terms with the Jayson Blair scandal, and I wonder how does the creation of an ombudsman actually help to head off debacles like the one brought about by Jayson Blair?
DANIEL OKRENT: You know, I don't think it will, frankly. I think that they are so hyper-sensitized to this, and they've created new systems and new jobs, internal jobs, to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. They don't need me to do that, frankly. What I'm doing, I think, has to do less with the huge visible felony than with the ongoing perhaps unnoticed misdemeanors and sometimes smaller case felonies that inevitably happen in newspapers. Newspapers are fallible institutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Alex Jones, the former New York Times media writer and the current director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center told the Boston Globe that anything critical that you write about the Times now, quote, "will be amplified tremendously by the enemies of the Times."
DANIEL OKRENT: You know of all the coverage that I've seen of the creation of this job and my appointment, that sentence distressed me more than any other, because I think he's absolutely right. That hadn't occurred to me before. I certainly have learned, not just from a lifetime in New York, but since my appointment was announced, the intensity of feeling that people have about the Times is such that it is true -- if I find, you know, that there's a pimple on the Times, its enemies will turn it into a virulent case of measles. I think that that's inevitable. But it doesn't mean that one should shrink from saying what one feels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It doesn't mean that, but we're all human beings, and even if the New York Times editorial offices puts no pressure on you at all, won't you feel some within yourself to perhaps ease up if you think there'll be an echo chamber effect when you criticize the paper?
DANIEL OKRENT: I hope not. I'm entering this being hopeful about people operating with good will. If they don't, there's nothing I can do about that. Certainly I don't want to damage anybody or any institution carelessly. But they have asked me to be honest. They have asked me to offer my opinion, and I feel compelled to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you sought out any old, crusty veteran ombudsman to give you some advice?
DANIEL OKRENT:I've been in touch with a couple who have generously invited me into the fraternity, and it's a scary business for some of these people. I mean there was one woman whom I don't know, named Joanne Byrd who was the ombudsman at the Washington Post for two years, and when she left the job, she said she didn't have a friend left in the building. I go in with very few friends in the building, so [LAUGHS] maybe it's not that much of a damaging thing for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well may you remain friendless and pure. [LAUGHS]
DANIEL OKRENT: Thank you so much. Oh, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Daniel Okrent is the first public editor of the New York Times. He takes up his new post on December 1st. His new book is called Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a new state department glossy says Hi to Arab youth, and a Kabul bookseller cries libel.