Monday, May 23, 2005

It's hard to say goodbye

The New York Times first public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote his valedictory Sunday (registration --and soon a whopping $49.95 fee!--required), titled "13 things I meant to write about but never did."

Two of the 13 are direct is-the-Times-biased-against-conservatives points. The first is hilarious. The time Okrent most concisely told his clearest truth ("Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is"), is the time he regrets. Why? B ecause all the people who have been shouting this obvious truth for years shouted about it: "I handed them a machine gun when a pistol would have sufficed."

Yeah, don't want too much of that truth-tellin' goin' on, and we certainly don't want the victims of our bias to be able to complain about it.

Then Okrent turns around and makes the point again, quoting a reader, "If 'Tucker Carlson is identified as a conservative' in the Times, then why is 'Bill Moyers just, well, plain old Bill Moyers'? Good question." Yes, and the answer is, The Times is a liberal paper run by liberals who simply don't understand there is an opposing view out there.

A third point Okrent presents as more a neutral, good-journalistic practice question, which it is, but you add to it a monolithic liberal viewpoint, and the results are predictable: "In the first paragraph, [a quoted-by-name source], apparently picked at random, testifies [about some aspect of the story]. Readers are clearly expected to draw conclusions from this."

Okrent correctly identifies this as shoddy journalism. It's one thing to include an illustrative quote; it's another to hang the story around it and build a shaky structure validating a contested worldview, or even a question of fact.

(Okrent also reveals his lack of understanding of polls, another topic journalists could benefit from overhauling: "If polls involving hundreds of people carry a cautionary note indicating a margin of error of plus or minus five points, what kind of consumer warning should be glued to a reporter's ad hoc poll of three or four respondents?" Trust me, Dan. Margin of error isn't the central problem with polls.)

Other points Okrent includes:
  • Krugman and Dowd stink, which he softens by saying people who say they stink are rude, and that Safire guy, well, watch out for him, too.
  • The Times is sucking wind when it comes to revenue.
  • Barney Calame might have a better idea of what the "public editor" job is than Okrent did.
Give the Times and Okrent both a B for trying, and a B-minus for achievement. I just have one question: Why is tenure in this job temporary?

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