Daniel Okrent

Readers of this blog may or may not recall my promise a while back to write about Daniel Okrent‘s visit to Stony Brook. (What? You haven’t been wondering about this? I can tell you it has been on my mind. The blog is a relentless taskmaster!) Okrent, the founder of New England Monthly, a longtime honcho at Time Inc., inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball and the first public editor at The New York Times, hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, had a lot to tell our students. Herewith, some high points of his visit, which included lunch with faculty, a talk to a journalism history class and a half-hour discussion with graduating seniors.

  • On anonymous sources: “It’s the single largest complaint that readers have,” Okrent said, harking back to his two years as the Times ombudsman. “They just don’t believe it” when reporters attribute quotes to that journalistic Zelig, Mr. or Ms. Knowledgeable Source. Readers think “the reporter just made it up.” He gently mocked the verbal contortions The Times inserts to defend its use of K.S.: “who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter” and  similar pretzel logic. The correct approach to protecting a source’s identity, Okrent said, should not be to tell the reader why the source wanted to remain anonymous but to explain why the reporter and editor “allowed this person to remain anonymous.” Ah, transparency: “to whom this newspaper granted anonymity to protect the reporter’s access …” Okrent also noted the English model, in which the reporter is assumed to have vetted thoroughly all the information he or she puts in print. “The byline stands in for anonymous attribution,” he said. “The authority of the institution” is put on the line. While this model is more in the nature of how news magazines or newspaper analysis pieces operate in the United States, he said, it would be a radical change for daily newspaper stories. Finally, Okrent said, there is the implied contract a reporter makes with a source when promising anonymity. He suggested that the following bargain be made explicitly: “‘I’ll keep it off the record,'” Okrent envisioned a reporter saying, “‘ but if you lie to me, the contract is broken.'” Makes sense to me.
  • On the Judith Miller affair: Miller was the Times reporter whose many front-page stories asserting the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq preceding the U.S. invasion in March 2003 turned out to be wrong. Miller later went to jail for refusing to name her source for unpublished information that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Miller was an aggressive, opinionated reporter widely disliked on the Times staff, Okrent said, but he felt that in the end, she became the fall guy for the paper’s wider lapses.  “I felt that to blame a reporter is to avoid placing the blame where it belongs,” he said. “Reporters don’t put things in the newspaper; editors put things in the newspaper. So who’s responsible?” In answer to a student who asked whether Times’ coverage of the debate over Iraq’s weaponry led to the U.S. invasion, Okrent said: “Did The Times lead the country into war? No. Did The Times make it possible for politicians to lead the country into war? Yes.”
  • On the iPad and the future of news: “Print has had a good 500 years, and it’s over,” he stated flatly. The future of news will be on portable devices, but the iPad, which had come out just before his visit, is far from the last word. “Can you roll it up?” he asked. The last word on mobile devices will be something that can handle the Three B’s: Can you take it on the bus? Can you take it to the beach? Can you take it to the bathroom? (There was a fourth B, but I don’t have it in either my notes or my memory.) The iPad is the stone-tablet-and-chisel version of what is to come, he predicted. My view? Print ain’t dead yet. Ask me again in five years.
  • On online news versus print: When he was at The Times, from 2003 to 2005, a piece of copy went through five editors before appearing in the newspaper but only two before appearing on the website. The safety net for accuracy has shrunk. “It’s not just grammar and spelling,” he said. With fewer eyes on a story, the news process “can’t be as reliable.”
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