Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Okrent, Krugman and the NYTimes

We noted last week that the inaugural NY Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, resigned. As casual readers we felt that Okrent did a decent job especially in trying to remediate the egregious inaccuracies of the NYTimes opinion page. His valedictory was entitled "13 Things I Meant to Write About But Never Did." #2 was the following:

Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.

... some of Krugman’s enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn’t mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn’t hold his columnists to higher standards.

Donald Luskin, one of Krugman's chief antagonists, fleshs out the story. According to Luskin, in his eighteen months on the job the constant stonewalling by Krugman, editoral page chief Gail Collins as well as pressure from the Angry Left (and possibly Times' management) drove Okrent out of his job.

Okrent knows all these things. I know he knows them, because I’ve met with him and corresponded with him about just these matters since he became the Times’s “public editor” 18 months ago. Our e-mail correspondence on Krugman totals almost 40,000 words (some of which was “off the record,” so I’m using my judgment here in determining what portions are fair to reveal now that Okrent’s tenure as “public editor” is over). Yes, I’m the one Okrent was talking about when he referred to “Krugman’s enemies.”
Okrent wasn’t always afraid of pressure. When I first met him in early 2004 he was full of the burning zeal of the reformer, and eager for intellectual allies. His first words to me were, “You’re much better looking than Paul Krugman.” He told me that the Times didn’t deserve to be called the “newspaper of record” and vowed, “When I’m done with this assignment, I want everyone to know that.” (Okrent later wrote on this theme.) We had a long discussion on accuracy and fairness on the op-ed page, which led a month later to the Times’s new policy on columnist corrections.

This was all very hopeful, as well as flattering. But I knew it wouldn’t last. Okrent ended our meeting by announcing that a limo was picking him up to take him to a dinner party with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., and executive editor Bill Keller. I wondered how long Okrent could maintain his independence as a reformer if he was getting sucked into the glittery social world of Times management. The pressure had begun.
And as for the Times’s columnist-correction policy, the paper’s columnists and their boss, editorial-page editor Gail Collins, stonewalled it from the beginning. When corrections to Krugman’s columns were made, they were snuck into the text of subsequent columns, hidden in the form of what Okrent has called a “rowback.” Or they were appended to subsequent columns without the designation “correction,” with the original erroneous columns remaining uncorrected in the Times’s web archive.

And that’s only when corrections were made at all. For the most part, corrections were not made. Why? It appears that as Okrent went to Gail Collins for corrections, she quickly learned she could get away with stonewalling him. I faired no better. When I couldn’t get Collins to even acknowledge my e-mails, I sent corrections to her under a false name, but she didn’t respond to those either. I learned that at one point Okrent went directly to Krugman himself for corrections, but the whole exercise soon proved worthless. Okrent apparently gave up on Collins and Krugman, and I gave up sending them corrections as well.

Barney Calame, ex WSJ, will be the Times' next Public Editor. From the picture that Luskin paints, sounds like they need Ann Coulter.

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