2005-06-10 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The New York Times Public Editor Speaks Up
by Stuart W. Mirsky

It’s not often you find vindication in print, especially from those you’ve criticized, so its worth noting when it happens. Recently Daniel Okrent, the departing “Public Editor” of the New York Times, wrote his final piece and managed, at long last, to address one of my pet peeves concerning his newspaper.

Okrent, of course, was hired by the Times about 18 months ago to help restore their credibility after a series of scandals and revelations had rocked the eminence grise of American journalism. With the sacking of two of their staff for false reporting, amid continuing revelations of Times journalistic bias, the old executive managing editor and his number one subordinate were summarily replaced, even as the Times was announcing a series of steps to regain public confidence. One of those steps was the addition of a readers’ ombudsman: the so-called Public Editor.

 Daniel Okrent, a self-professed liberal, took the job, announcing in his very first column that he would become the watchman for Times readers concerned with bias, poor reporting practices and assorted other deficiencies. When I read Mr. Okrent’s introductory article, one of the first things I did was knock out a letter to him, calling his attention to the disingenuous and gratuitously nasty articles of several Times columnists, including Maureen Dowd who, I suggested, often played fast and loose with the truth in order to savage the Bush administration. Mr. Okrent never responded to me in print, though, over the course of his term, he made a valiant effort to address many other reader concerns that came to his attention. But finally on May 22nd, in his final column, he hit the jackpot.

“Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman,” Okrent abruptly informed us, “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.” I straightened in my chair as I read this. “Substantive assaults”? In other words, he was intentionally misstating data in such a way as to be wrong?

Krugman, a liberal economist, has been a leading assailant of the Bush administration’s policies and has repeatedly impugned the president’s integrity in his numerous attack pieces. Many who oppose the current administration, including some in these pages, have cited Mr. Krugman’s “facts” repeatedly in making their case. What a revelation then, for the Public Editor to tell us that Mr. Krugman engages in “shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers.” Many of us, of course, have been saying this about him for a while, but it’s always more credible coming from someone on the other side.

But our industrious Public Editor didn’t stop there. “Maureen Dowd,” he went on (my heart skipping a few beats as I read the name), “was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales called Geneva Conventions ‘quaint’ nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments.” So Ms. Dowd had taken a narrow statement made by Mr. Gonzales and presented it out of context? Was this any different than the time she took a quote from President Bush, conveniently dropped its middle part, thus changing its meaning, and presented it to her readers as proof the President had said something he never really said? Or when she had misstated conditions concerning the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to make it look like the U.S. wasn’t doing everything it could?

Ms. Dowd, of course, has routinely excoriated the Bush administration in some of the most sophomorically vitriolic terms imaginable. But misquoting and misstating facts are a lot more serious than the cheap shots about the president and his testosterone levels she’s made her reputation on.

Of course to true believers who already embrace what Dowd and Krugman are promulgating, it’s all music to their ears. But falsehoods and vituperation are a poor substitute for journalism and those who rely on them only undermine their own credibility. So Okrent has done us a service in his final parting commentary for the Times, albeit one that’s long overdue and that he carefully crafted so as not to offend liberal readers who hang on the words of Dowd and Krugman.

Seeking to be evenhanded, Okrent threw in a quick swipe at a former conservative Times columnist as well, noting that “Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.” But Okrent’s effort at balance is itself unbalanced since there really is evidence of contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam in the form of high level meetings between representatives of the two parties and sanctuary provided to al Qaeda leaders and operatives in Iraq (see the 9/11 and Senate intelligence reports).

So, unlike the misstatements of Krugman and Dowd, Safire’s assertion of generalized links is certainly not false and, even if it were taken to imply operational links (for which there is still, manifestly, no evidence) it hardly rises to the level of what Krugman is accused of doing (i.e., slicing and dicing his data to bolster his arguments) or to Dowd’s persistent disregard, or outright alteration, of facts.

But, at least Okrent seems to recognize where the real problem is, despite his obligatory nod to criticizing at least one conservative. “No one,” he concluded, “deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd’s way and some of Krugman’s enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But this doesn’t mean that their boss, Arthur O. Sulzberger, shouldn’t hold his columnists to higher standards.” I couldn’t agree more. My only question for Mr. Okrent is why it took him the full 18 months to actually admit all this (or did he merely choose to reserve his comments until he was heading out the door)? And why should Maureen Dowd, who has made character assassination standard operating procedure in her columns, be spared the same level of angry vituperation she routinely dishes out to those caught in her own sights?



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