Posts Tagged ‘ Daniel Okrent ’

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. Continue reading

Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul, investigative reporters extraordinaire

The multiple exigencies of a waning semester pushed blogging — the lack thereof, more precisely — to the top of the stress pile in recent days, but a brief, probably illusory respite at 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, after a day spent swatting at the most pressing elements of the to-do list, offers a chance to relieve that particular pressure.

That pile of ungraded student projects in the corner? What pile?

Highlights of the past three weeks, the thoughts left unblogged, revolve around visits to the School of Journalism by four exceptional journalists: Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul of The New York Times; Daniel Okrent, the Times’ first “public editor,” and Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News.

Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul, a married couple, both of The New York Times investigative reporting team and possessors of four Pulitzer Prizes between them, spoke to 300 news-literacy and journalism students as part of the school’s “My Life As…” series: renowned journalists discussing their careers and their motivation for the work they do. They got an exceptionally warm, enthusiastic reception, and I’ve been thinking about the reasons why.

First, their passion for reporting came through as essential to them, as essential as breath or water. Walt mentioned a recent three-month stretch when he worked, joyfully, every single weekend; one advantage of being married to another investigative reporter is that Stephanie understood both the work and the joy.

Second, like many Stony Brook students, neither came from a bastion of coastal or big-city privilege.  Stephanie grew up in a tiny Mississippi town where nothing, it seemed, ever happened — until the day a teacher assigned her to write reports about the high school for the local newspaper and she went to the newspaper offices, a hive of activity and purpose unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know it right away, she said, but she was hooked then and there.

Walt grew up, he said, in a working-class family in Gary, Ind., and attended the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s. Students’ demands at then-frequent marches and rallies went unanswered, frustrating him until he joined the campus paper–and suddenly, his calls were returned and he tasted power, the power of the press to hold authority accountable. From university administrators to railroad regulators to Big Tobacco and beyond, he’s been using that power ever since, as has Stephanie.

That both of them, raised without clout, could rise to demand accountability from the Man in all his guises because of their passionate focus and their belief in the power of the pen, spoke to the audience of its members’ own potential for achieving greatness through hard work and a cause greater than themselves.

A recollection of the study guide I must write for a class tomorrow has pierced the illusion of respite I mentioned at the start of this post. I’ll call this Part 1 of three, and I’ll write about Okrent and Heyward in my next two posts.

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