The last time Daniel Okrent worked for The New York Times , he was a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a plum stringer assignment and a bad attitude.
“Watch out! I’m from The Times !” he said recently, making fun of his 19-year-old self from the comfort of his airy Upper West Side apartment. “I had hair down to my ass and I was incredibly lazy and I never made the third phone call when I should have, but I was from The Times !”
This is the ombudsman-or, in Times parlance, “public editor”-of the new New York Times . The 55-year-old has learned a lot since his days as a stringer-he’s written a book about the building of Rockefeller Center, and another about the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles. A scion of Norman Pearlstine (who recommended him for his current gig), Mr. Okrent has held top editorial positions all over the Time Inc. mothership. But the old days at Ann Arbor taught him things about The New York Times that have been very much on his mind since the Jayson Blair affair.
“Collectively, they’re a bunch of journalists who are trying to do the same thing bunches of journalists are trying to do,” he said of Times staffers. “They may have a different standard or a different aim, but I think as a group they’re not that different from the groups of journalists I’ve been exposed to.”
“They’re self-conscious of the role that is The New York Times . Look, I knew that when I was 19.”
Which is why it was so hard to take-not just for Times staffers, but for people like himself who had been reading the paper every day for decades-when the Blair affair erupted. The spring of 2003, said the slightly schlumpy and gray-haired Mr. Okrent as he slouched back in a leather Mission chair in his rumpled polo shirt, was like one of those moments in a close-knit neighborhood when the most successful, happiest family on the block suddenly explodes.
“It was like Mom took an ax to Dad,” Mr. Okrent said, and he began to see what was going on behind the picket fence. “It’s shocking; it’s really shocking.”
Beside him was the crumpled copy of The Times he’d pored over that morning, the same one that heralded his coming as the first “public editor” in the paper’s history.
(On Oct. 28, The Times named business editor Glenn Kramon associate managing editor for career development and William E. Schmidt associate managing editor for resources and planning; they are both new titles created in response to the Siegal commission.)
If The Times meant to have its newsroom staff falling off their treadmills in Montclair when they heard the news, they certainly succeeded. In Mr. Okrent, the paper had tapped a man whose daily experience at newspapers adds up to that Ann Arbor stringer stint in the 1960’s and his time as a copy boy for The Detroit Free Press .
An award-winning magazine editor who held myriad top-level positions at Time Inc., Mr. Okrent is the ultimate outsider yelling with a megaphone at the world’s toughest clubhouse, and his dissections of The Times will themselves be chopped, minced, sliced and diced by the people on 43rd Street.
“I don’t know if ‘weird’ is the right word,” Mr. Okrent said. “You feel the weight of history. I have-like everyone else-my fair share of ego, so it’s gratifying. Now my obituary won’t say ‘Okrent died’ and ‘He invented Rotisserie baseball.’ Now my obit will say: ‘He was the first public editor of The Times .’ It’s a huge step forward.”
(By the way-Daniel Okrent did indeed invent Rotisserie baseball.)
It’s another world, isn’t it? A year ago, the bullying by former executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd had riled the Times newsroom and transformed it into an angry, downright petulant shop. But that was on the inside. As the two men made their questionable story and personnel choices, Mr. Okrent was evaluating the paper from his perch on the Cape-where he spends five months of the year-and his apartment in New York. There were things he actually liked about their version of The Times . The writing. The photography. Front-page choices that he never imagined on the paper’s front page. He said he found the whole product “lively.”
But there were things he didn’t “much like” about the revamped, zone-flooding Times . Foremost, Mr. Okrent said, he loathed the paper’s hog-wild treatment of the Augusta National Golf Course, whose refusal to allow women into its membership ranks last year came under a harsh light in The Times -made harsher by Mr. Boyd’s decision to kill off sports columns by Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton that disagreed with the paper’s own editorial-page stance on the issue.
Mr. Okrent deemed the campaign a “humiliation for the newspaper, even before the spiked columns. Just the relentlessness of it-O.K., enough.
“The spiked columns,” he added, “were inexcusable.”
The columns, of course, were kindling for the inferno to come. Beginning with the disclosure that young Jayson Blair had plagiarized and fabricated pieces for the paper, and growing stronger with news that Mr. Raines’ pet, national correspondent Rick Bragg, had misused uncredited stringers, Mr. Okrent watched the embers flare.
“I thought it was pretty appalling,” Mr. Okrent said of Mr. Blair’s deceptions. “I think anyone in our business would think so. But, also, it was so clearly self-destructive. You have to want to get caught; you’re just doomed when you do things like that. When the Bragg thing happened, it didn’t surprise me at all.
“I think Bragg is a wonderful writer,” Mr. Okrent continued. “But I always thought the quotes he had were just too perfect. When I interview people, they don’t say things quite that wonderfully. Everyone talked brilliantly, and they had names. Or nicknames.”
None of it, cried nearly every journalism professor from Salt Lake City and nearly every basement-bound blogger, would have happened if The Times had a person in Mr. Okrent’s new job. An ombudsman-which the public-editor position really is-would have sniffed out the non sequiturs and put a stop to Mr. Blair’s self-slaying antics.
Could Mr. Okrent have stopped Jayson?
“What’s interesting about that is that the call that was made was not from a reader saying Jayson Blair had been fudging. It was an editor, a senior-level editorial person at the paper,” Mr. Okrent said, referring to the early doubts on Mr. Blair’s reporting accuracy. “Would that have gotten to an ombudsman? Naw. Would they need an ombudsman now if such a thing ever happened again? No. Believe me, if they did not appoint me or someone else to this job, and another editor sent a memo around upstairs, it would stop. You don’t need me for that.”
So what do we need Mr. Okrent for? For decades, as other papers-including The Washington Post -made the musings of their ombudsmen regular features in their pages, The Times held fast. Mr. Okrent’s position was a recommendation of the Siegal committee, the group assembled in the aftermath of the scandal to examine the causes behind the Blair affair. It’s a way, Mr. Okrent said, to help fully replenish the public’s faith in the paper, and it’s also “a sensible thing to do.”
“I was surprised from what I’ve heard secondhand-because the people talking to me firsthand are not going to say, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?'” Mr. Okrent said. “Secondhand, people seem to be very open to it. It seems to be part of a general glasnost at The Times . It’s much more glasnost than perestroika. It is still a top-down organization, as all news organizations must be. The structure’s got to stay the same, but the attitude is very different.
“The friends that I have there are very, very happy,” Mr. Okrent said, “including people who were big supporters of Howell.”
The author of, among other books, the essential Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game and Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center , Mr. Okrent did turns as the founding editor of New England Monthly and the editor in chief of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich before going to Time Inc. in 1991. A part of the Lucean mothership from 1991 to 2001, Mr. Okrent worked as managing editor of Life , lost a public bake-off for the managing-editor gig at Sports Illustrated , oversaw the company’s new-media operations, and then ended his Sixth Avenue run as an editor at large.
Norman Pearlstine, who recommended Mr. Okrent to Times managing editor John Geddes in September, said he did so because Mr. Okrent is “the most careful reader I know. There’s not a section of the paper he hasn’t read and won’t have an appreciation for.”
Mr. Keller, whom Mr. Okrent had never met before the interview process began, said that Mr. Okrent’s complete alienness to both newspapers and The Times began as a liability before morphing into a selling point.
“I found that people outside the paper tended to ask more interesting questions about the place,” Mr. Keller said. “You don’t want someone who’s completely naïve and someone who doesn’t have experience writing journalism. There are things people at The Times take for granted and might approach with an air of received wisdom that Dan might not.”
Mr. Okrent-whose term lasts for 18 months-said he had real hesitations before taking on the job.
“One is that I’m about to begin working on a proposal for my next book, which I’m really interested in getting to work on,” Mr. Okrent said. “Two is, I only shave three times a week, and I don’t go to midtown that often. It’s a really nice life. And third, there’s a real apprehension about the job itself. There will be times of great stress and strain, and you have to ask is it worth it for being on the ground floor of this noble experiment? And I decided it was.”
For the record, here’s what Mr. Okrent will do: He will maintain an office somewhere inside the Times building. He will sit in on front-page meetings and be in the newsroom before the job begins, but not after. He will report, talking to editors and writers for pieces. Beginning Dec. 7, he will probably write in the Week in Review every other week.
Here’s what he won’t do: He will not address everything. He will not write internal, ready-to-leak memos, à la The Washington Post ‘s Mike Getler, to the Times staff. He will not, at the insistence of Mr. Keller, have an editor at The Times , relying on the kindness of his wife and friends to deal with issues beyond mere copy changes.
Speaking on the same day that news broke of Mr. Getler’s internal rant on Tina Brown’s debut column in The Post , Mr. Okrent said: “The other thing I don’t want to do-even if I read a column in the paper that repelled me as much as Brown’s column repelled Getler-is, I’m not going by whether those people are good journalists, whether they write well, whether the story’s funny or not.
“It’s: ‘Do they practice their journalism as I believe journalism should be practiced, or how I believe their journalism should be practiced?'” Mr. Okrent said. “I’m not there to say somebody is right or wrong, whether a columnist takes a right side of an issue. That’s not my turf at all. I’ve got opinions about those things, but that has nothing to do with this job.”
And, Mr. Okrent said, he knows the people he’s writing for.
“I’m writing to the public,” Mr. Okrent said. “Now if the people at The Times want to read it for their own purposes, that’s fine. But I’m writing to the public. I think I’m in it for the readers-I’m their representative.”
Asked what his ideal ending to the story would be, Mr. Okrent envisioned a final day on the job where everyone in the 43rd-floor newsroom would rise, champagne flute in hand, and cry out, “Thank you so much!”
“That’s not going to happen,” Mr. Okrent added. “So I don’t need to hope for that. No, I hope I will have begun an intellectual stimulation. I hope that people both inside the newsroom and outside will believe I did this honestly, fairly and in good will, without prejudices and without ideology, and that the paper itself will be more loved-more respected by both its staff and its readers because we were able to move it an inch towards lovability. We all want to make it better. And when I talk about ‘we,’ I’m talking about the readers.”
How far is the paper from lovability?
“I don’t know,” Mr. Okrent said after pausing a moment. “How much do you love your wife?”
Now for a late-breaking report from Off the Record City Hall bureau chief Ben Smith:
A mere handful of New Yorkers are expected to turn out on Nov. 4 to vote in Mayor Bloomberg’s referendum on “nonpartisan elections,” and last Thursday the Mayor made his way up to West 43rd Street to court the small group that matters most: the New York Times editorial board, headed by editorial-page editor Gail Collins. While The Times ‘ endorsements are always influential in local politics, a few factors have conspired to make the paper unusually powerful this year, and Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters and foes alike are anxiously awaiting the paper’s verdict. The editorial board has heard from a host of Democrats seeking to derail the proposal, including City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., who stopped in a day before Mr. Bloomberg.
“People have certainly been reaching out very actively, but we appreciate that,” Ms. Collins said. “It’s a difficult issue to decide. We’re happy to have it.”
The proposed new system would have candidates of all parties running together in a single primary, with the top two finishers proceeding to a runoff election in November.
” The Times is obviously key,” said one Democrat involved in the fight to preserve the partisan system. “It’s worth 5 to 10 [percentage] points.”
That’s a lot, considering the recent poll showing that “yes” and “no” votes on the proposal to forgo the party system are in a statistical dead heat.
The expected low turnout further increases The Times ‘ influence over the ballot measure. Political consultant Jerry Skurnik, a veteran election-watcher, is expecting between 500,000 and 1.2 million “disproportionately more literate, more educated voters” to show up at the polls. In other words, Times readers.
And the issue is so obscure that people are likely to look to The Times for guidance.
“The average person doesn’t really have a strong opinion about the right way to elect somebody,” Mr. Skurnik said.
The Times has already admonished the Mayor on his proposal once. When Mr. Bloomberg first raised the issue last year, the paper of record warned him to dot his i’s and cross his t’s: “[H]aste makes charter trouble,” the column scolded.
Afterward, the Mayor’s first commission dumped the idea, earning it the paper’s gold star: “This commission also makes it much easier for Mr. Bloomberg to come back next year with his suggestion about nonpartisan elections in the city.”
The Mayor did come back the next year-but faced another admonition.
“It is clear that if the commission is intent on proposing a charter change, it absolutely must make it effective after the 2005 mayoral elections, when Mr. Bloomberg is expected to run for a second term,” Ms. Collins’ page insisted in a June editorial.
The next month, Mr. Bloomberg wrote a letter to the commission chairman suggesting that the proposal be modified to fit The Times ‘ specifications, which it promptly was.
Since then, The Times has run two editorials on the matter. One fretted that nonpartisan elections would disrupt the city’s campaign-finance program; the other, on Oct. 27, chided the Mayor for sponsoring campaign advertising anonymously. (“Very helpful,” chuckled the Democratic Party chairman, Herman Farrell, of the more recent editorial.)
Democrats are hoping that the page’s attachment to campaign-finance limits will bring Ms. Collins around to their side.
“No paper in America has come close to The Times in being a sustained, smart, principled voice editorially trying to get big money out of American politics,” said Mark Green, Mr. Bloomberg’s challenger in 2001. “I’m optimistic that they’ll oppose the proposal, because otherwise they would be validating a plutocracy where wealth buys law.”
On the other side is the page’s anti-machine stance, its consistent support for Mr. Bloomberg and the Mayor’s own vaunted salesmanship. Tea-leaf readers were delving into Ms. Collins’ early-1990’s Newsday columns, which ripped party bosses: “Why Won’t These Politicians Get a Real Job?” was a typical headline.
Last week’s meeting-which included Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., a Mayoral aide said-didn’t inspire a lot of optimism in the West Wing of City Hall. One of the Mayor’s staffers described it anxiously as “a spirited exchange.”
The best comparison for this year’s fight is Mayor Giuliani’s push to change the charter in 1999, in part to take the Public Advocate, then Mr. Green, out of the line of Mayoral succession. The Times recommended a “no” vote, labeling Mr. Giuliani’s commission “a waste of the taxpayers’ money.”
“It was a devastating blow to Giuliani’s chances,” said Mr. Schrader, the political consultant who coordinated the winning campaign against the changes. “After it came out, we used it in every mailing we did. We also went door-to-door and handed it out in the streets.”
This year’s endorsement could come too late for a mass mailing, but it will be influential nonetheless.
“It’s important to us, because there’s nothing we take more seriously than how people vote, how elections are conducted, how we ensure access,” Ms. Collins said.