Shouldering responsibility

The latest installment in the scandal triggered by Jayson Blair's now-notorious deceit clicked into place this week, as the New York Times published the first column by a new "public editor," who will serve as "the readers' representative."Blair, you will recall, was the serial plagiarist and fabricator whose intellectual crime spree convulsed the Times earlier this year, ultimately forcing the resignation of executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. Among the reforms promised in the wake of those melancholy events was the creation of a public editor, which is another way of saying ombudsman. Ombudsmen are the flavor of the month in American journalism. On any given Sunday, they now can be found in newspapers across the country scolding, explaining, pointing fingers and soothing ruffled sensibilities. Some do a better job than others; all are in the service of a deeply mistaken notion -- that editors can outsource responsibility.

Not all change is reform, and in this case the Times has merely surrendered to fashion. The idea of installing an ombudsman there was first raised in the 1960s and rejected by then-editor A.M. Rosenthal with the firm support of his publisher, Arthur Sulzberger. In place of the ombudsman, Rosenthal introduced a rigorous corrections policy supplemented by more expansive editor's notes, a combination now standard in the industry.

More recently the paper's executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld -- who came out of retirement to serve as a caretaker after Raines' resignation -- sensibly argued that fairness, accuracy and consideration of the readers' interests were the responsibility of every reporter and editor on the paper. To locate those obligations on a single set of shoulders in some way lifts them from everyone else's. It was a sound argument then and it still is.

Some of the ombudsman's more obvious conceptual defects clearly were on display in public editor Daniel Okrent's first column, which appeared Sunday.

Okrent is a veteran magazine reporter and editor, who also has written books and worked in publishing. His tenure runs until the end of May 2005, and until then his appraisals of the Times' performance will appear unedited at least twice monthly. That's unfortunate.

For example, after a lengthy preamble concerning his selection, the perils of his assignment and his professional experience, Okrent wrote: "By upbringing and habit, I'm a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When you turn to the paper's designated opinion pages tomorrow, draw a line from the Times' editorials on the left side to William Safire's column over on the right; you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I'm an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O'Connor was a great man. I believe it's unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action."

Why does any of this matter?

It doesn't, unless you believe that, unlike everybody else in America, Okrent holds some views more strongly than others and that, novelty of novelties, some of his affections are internally contradictory.It does matter, however, if you think the Times' real problems have to do with issues of political bias rather than the gritty -- and far less sexy -- matters of accurate reportage and sufficiently tough-minded editing, the absence of which seemed to be at the heart of the Blair affair.

The bias issue, on the other hand, is at the very heart of the talk-show mentality that has come to dominate our discussions of the press and its place in society. It's appealing not only because it involves opinion rather than hard-won facts, but also because it suits our currently polarized politics and the culture of narcissism that dictates so much of our social thinking. According to the latter view, since internal objectivity and dispassion is impossible, so too is public and professional impartiality. It is this mindset that obliges every discussion of journalism these days to begin with some sort of confessional disclosure.

Confession of this sort may be good for the soul, as in the confessional, or for the psyche, as on the therapist's couch. There is no evidence that it's good for journalism -- other than the Fox News variety, which holds that it isn't the existence of bias itself that's objectionable, but the expression of bias other than one's own.

Matt Welch, an editor of the libertarian-inflected Reason magazine and a columnist for Canada's National Post, is a longtime critic of the ombudsman concept. He calls it a "Band-Aid, as opposed to a real fix in terms of newsroom culture and practices."

Welch found Okrent's debut "disarmingly open and honest" and a "strategically brilliant way of disarming the bias issue." The problem, said Welch "is that I don't regard the Times as a fundamentally biased newspaper. The proof of its willingness to make needed change is not to have a smart, funny guy write an occasional column, but to have editors and reporters who admit their mistakes and who go out and ask people what they think of the paper's work. That's hard, but important."

Within the Times, reaction to the public editor's first column seemed to range from watchful to perplexed or critical.As one editor, who asked not to be identified, put it, "Using the editorials and Safire as his jumping off point is beside the point, since they're supposed to have opinions. Starting there just makes his mission all the more murky. Is he concerned with accuracy, which was the center of the Blair scandal, or bias, which is something else entirely?"Conversations with a range of Times staffers, none of whom wanted to be named, revealed two schools of thought: One, depressed and exhausted by the paper's year of crisis, generally feels that, since Okrent's tenure is limited, no harm can be done. Another feels that a threshold has been irremediably crossed.

"This is being presented as if the Times and its readers are adversaries," a member of the latter group said. "Up to now, we thought the readers were a part of our family. We loved them and we thought they loved us. It was true bond and now it's as if we've abandoned it."

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