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Hearts and Minds: Thoughts on Danny Okrent, the New York Times, and Time

Doug Henwood directs us to Bill Densmore, reporting on New York Times ex-ombudsman Danny Okrent:

Densmore: Blogs will overcome mainstream media as a source of news unless traditional media organizations successfully transfer the integrity of their brands onto the Internet, the former ombudsman of The New York Times says. Family ownership is the common thread among the three most prestigious newspapers in America, adds Daniel Okrent, the first “public editor” of The Times. Okrent was at Williams College tonight for a public talk.... Okrent also said poor news coverage allowed the Iraq war to happen, it’s a “horrible time - financially” for newspapers, and the death of print is happening more quickly than he predicted six years ago.

The three best newspapers in America — The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are each controlled via blocks of stocks owned by families, said Okrent.... [W]hatever the management failings of Sulzberger or other family owners, said Okrent, these three papers are managed for posterity and quality “rather than another two cents worth of quarterly earnings....”

Okrent... said poor press coverage lead to the Iraq war, because “in a time of war, editors being to wear epaulettes on their shoulder” and The Times was not exceptional in jumping on the bandwagon.... Okrent said he is fearful about the growth of Internet web blogs because of the difficulty in determining their credibility. He said the future of newspaper organizations lies in their ability to be seen as more reliable than blogs.... “The good news, I think - my fingers are crossed - is if the responsible, serious members of the so-called mainstream media live up to their own standards, when you see something by and you are more likely to trust these guys [] because their brand means accuracy and thoroughness and fairness,” said Okrent.... “[W]hat’s essential is that those brand names still mean what they mean or even more. If not, then we will not only have reason to fear these blogs - we will be beaten by them.”...

He told a questioner: “The general rolling over on the part of the American press allowed the war to happen. I do believe that is true, and I think the press is extremely chastened by that. I think we all know how bad it was.”...

Author: Bill Densmore,

Three things have crossed my desk so far this week suggest that Danny Okrent is behind the times: that the struggle for credibility--for "hearts and minds"--is not in the future but is largely behind us. There is no If there were, it would have moderately high credibility--Danny Okrent strikes me as a smart person who often gets it wrong, but is trying hard to get it right. By contrast, experience has taught me that I have no assurance at all that what is printed at is written by people who are trying hard to get it right.

Here's one example: as far as the Times is concerned, it has already lost the struggle for Lance Knobel's heart and mind:

Lance Knobel: In my naivety, I looked to this morning's New York Times to fill in the details of the Cheney hunting accident. More fool I. In an article that concentrated as much on the jokes of television comics as the substance, Elisabeth Bumiller took expert hunting advice from the following: two people who were on the hunt with Cheney, and Cheney chum and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. Is it any surprise that they all blamed the victim, Harry Whittington, and not Cheney?

Other sources do much better. Knight Ridder’s account makes clear that it is a fundamental rule of hunting that the shooter is responsible for knowing what is in his line of fire. The San Francisco Chronicle interviews a disinterested expert, who confirms that basic rules of hunting safety were ignored.

Of course, I learned all this yesterday from blogs that covered the story far more thoroughly than any of today’s papers. Firedoglake was particularly stellar...

Here's another example via, well, me: things like this mean that it would take a huge amount of work for the New York Times to regain my heart and mind:

Elisabeth Bumiller: White House Letter: Criticism of Bush leaves conservative in the cold - Americas - International Herald Tribune: One Republican, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, responded to Bartlett's book by e-mail message over the weekend. "Spending is coming under control," McClellan wrote, adding that in the 2007 budget submitted to Congress this month, "the president put forward the most disciplined nonsecurity discretionary proposal since the Reagan era."

Elisabeth Bumiller tells her readers that McClellan's email is a "response" to the accusations of gross moral fiscal turpitude that Bruce Bartlett hurls at George W. Bush. "Response" implies--and Bumiller wants her readers to think--that McClellan's email is a counter or a refutation of a correction or a qualification to Bartlett's claims that the Bush budget is out of control. But I know, and Bruce Bartlett knows, and Scott McClellan knows, and Washington insiders assure me that Elisabeth Bumiller knows, that "nonsecurity discretionary" spending only is 15% of the total budget, and the other 85% of the budget is running wild and free: highly "undisciplined." Bumiller, however, is anxious not to tell her readers that.

Anybody at the New York Times who wants their organization to have any credibility at all needs to think very hard about what is going on here. Why isn't "nothing in this story should mislead readers" the first commandment imposed upon those who write for the organization?

The New York Times is not alone in being eager to burn its credibility. My third example comes from Time magazine: its October 2003 relaying of Scott McClellan's declaration that:

McClellan: accusations of Rove's peddling information [about Valerie Plame to reporters] are "ridiculous." Says McClellan: "There is simply no truth to that suggestion."...

when at least three people who worked on the Time story--Michael Duffy, Matthew Cooper, John Dickerson--and quite possibly more knew that McClellan's statement was false: that Karl Rove had in fact peddled information about Valerie Plame to reporters.

I have asked why Time did not add a sentence like "Time reporters have good reason to believe that McClellan's denials are not accurate," in order to keep the story from misleading its readers.

The official, on-the-record response of Time is that adding such a sentence to the October 2003 story would have violated Time's pledge of confidentiality to Karl Rove. I don't see how. Nobody has been able to coherently tell how. And the assumption that the duty to go many extra miles to protect sources trumps the duty not to mislead readers is not one that Time can adopt and still expect to survive as an organization.

The off-the-record responses have been more interesting. They include, roughly and paraphrased:

  • It's well known that you can't trust what Scott McClellan says. There's no need to point out that you can't rely on White House spokesmen.
  • Everyone reading Time's series on Valerie Plame already knew that Rove was the source of the leak.
  • The pictures accompanying the story told everyone interested that Rove was the source of the leak.
  • It was an open secret in Washington that Rove was the leaker.

These suggest that Time is in a better position than the New York Times: Time, at least, has a guilty conscience--and understands, at some level, that its credibility to be in the business of informing and not misleading its readers is its only long-run asset.