April 9, 2004
When The New York Times announced that it was appointing its first ombudsman, we were supposed to be relieved. The nation’s premier print-media outlet was finally opening itself up to public criticism. Goodbye, arrogance and complacency.
Do the job well, be bold and unsparing, and you’ll have enemies in every corner of the newsroom. Do it poorly, and you’ll seem an apologist, a coward. Most ombudsmen wind up in the mushy middle, by following the recipe for tasteless ombudsman oatmeal: 1) assiduously track and tally reader complaints, like an accountant; 2) conclude that some “make a good point,” while others are “less convincing”; 3) sprinkle with pronouncements of a highly conventional sort, such as: “Our readers expect accuracy, and we owe them nothing less”; and 4) write drably, as if you were praying not to be noticed.
This last habit is mysterious, yet persistent. Sometimes, browsing the work of the national ombudsman corps, you have to wonder if newspapers don’t cannily choose some of these folks precisely because they’re so style-impaired. Why have a lucid, expressive critic when you can have a wooden, pedestrian one? Thus, when The Times filled its ombudsman post last fall, naming its first “public editor,” the appropriate response was not relief but sympathy: for the public, faced with another dreary ombudsman’s column to trudge through regularly; and for the poor guy who took the job, an accomplished editor and writer named Daniel Okrent, who, no matter how good his intentions, could hardly be expected to break the ancient ombudsman mold — or even survive. It was like a sadistic schoolboy’s science experiment: Let’s drop this little white bunny in this big tank of piranhas and see what happens.
But here’s the surprise: Okrent hasn’t merely survived; in just a few months of columns, which run every other week, he’s turned out to be an exotic new kind of ombudsman, thoughtful, subtle, original, and memorable. He’s thrown out the old ombudsman’s styleless stylebook in deftly written, well-argued columns full of insight and personality. Have you read Okrent on that “squirrelly journalistic dance step known to old-timers as a ‘rowback’ “? That’s when a news outlet tries to cover up an erroneous story with a new story that conveniently neglects to mention the first one. In one column, he adroitly explored the dark media art of ignoring or downplaying stories broken by the competition. And there was this recent point about the way some opinion columnists twist facts: “The more scurrilous practitioners rely on indirection and innuendo, nestling together in a bed of lush sophistry.”
Okrent’s first column, way back in December, hinted that he wasn’t going to be your standard ombudsman. It was just an introduction, not so different at first from those offered by new ombudsmen through the ages. But a few paragraphs in, things started to veer off wildly. Okrent talked about what a lousy, partisan journalist he’d been in college, and how he’d later practiced “a form of attack journalism that today fills me with remorse — picking a target and sending out a reporter to bring back the scalp.” On one level, the self-deprecation served a useful, disarming function. Here was The Times’s new watchdog confirming that the public’s worst nightmares about media outrages are true, and that he’d committed them himself! This passage also established Okrent in a role that many journalists, and elite journalists in particular, are uncomfortable assuming: that of an actual person.
I say this only half in jest. Journalism has a way of dehumanizing its practitioners, forcing us to pretend we’re not really people, or rather, that we’re a superior kind of people: smarter, more objective, capable even of a godlike neutrality. The public knows this is all a canard, which is why the refusal of powerful media outlets to forthrightly admit their human flaws, their biases, errors, and agendas, can be so enraging. When ombudsmen write like robots, it doesn’t help matters.
In the next paragraph, Okrent gave the back of his hand to those media ideologues who, in another kind of dehumanization, would herd us all into two polar tribes, Left and Right: “I’d rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore.” Since I feel exactly the same way, maybe I’m just the perfect audience for this ombudsman, and not representative. I hear that Okrent is already unpopular at The Times, that various angry staffers have issued fatwas. Some feel that he erred in making the column so personal and stylish, that when it comes to a task this serious, duller is better. Meanwhile, outside the paper, one hears scattered complaints that he has not been tough enough, pulls punches.
Hmmm, writes like a dream and drives all kinds of people nuts? I say drop the every-other-week shtick — make this man go daily.
William Powers is a staff correspondent for National Journal magazine, where “On The Media” appears.