Former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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"Old Jews Telling Jokes" Off-Broadway Cast Photo Call
Daniel Okrent.Photo: John Lamparski/2012 John Lamparski

Is it fair to say that more people have more doubts and distrust about the media than ever before?
I would guess it’s fairly accurate. But I think they feel that way when they’re reading or listening to a media organization who they don’t trust, or who disagrees with their position, and don’t feel that way when they’re listening to one that they want to hear. To me that’s the biggest issue: In the atomization of media, audiences find the one that’s most gratifying to them, the one that tells them what they want to hear rather than what they don’t want to hear.

If the Times ran a picture of a smiling George Bush on the front page in the summer of 2004, I would hear from readers who were outraged that this was evidence that the Times was favoring Bush — they were giving him this great position above the fold on the front page of the most influential newspaper, and he’s got this broad smile and he looks like a leader. And I would ask such people: Did you see yesterday’s front page that had a smiling picture of John Kerry on it? “No, I didn’t notice that.” Well, they didn’t notice that because that conformed to their view of the world.

Well, there’s something about outrage involved, too, I think. People note things that get them angry.
That’s the same thing. What makes them angry is that which does not conform to that which they already believe. And you don’t say, “Isn’t that good that they’re running a picture of John Kerry?” You just turn past it — that’s the normal world. It doesn’t make you trust the media more. That’s like saying, “I trust air.”

Do you think the coverage at the Times is balanced, by and large?
I’m not following it professionally, but during my time at the Times — “Your paper only wants to support Democrats,” people would say. Well, who made a story out of Whitewater? It was the Times! But nobody noticed that. Who brought down Eliot Spitzer? It was the Times. But if you’re a Republican, you don’t notice those things.

When did you first see that happening?
The simplest answer is the breakdown of the network broadcast system. America got its news from ABC, CBS, and NBC, overwhelmingly. If you look at the ratings numbers, the total audience for the national news broadcasts, say in the 1980s — I’m not exactly sure of the numbers, but it was something like 40 million per night. And today it’s under 20 million a night. And the limited supply of news put everybody on the same page — we’re all listening to [Walter] Cronkite, we’re all listening to [David] Brinkley, so we all have something in common. With the advent of cable news and then the internet, it breaks up into a thousand suppliers, so we don’t have a set of facts in common any longer.

And a lot of media organizations are devoted to disputing the facts put forward by the other side.
Not just disputing but ignoring. I think that’s a really important part of it. By way of example: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. I think she’s accurate in what she reports, but it’s what she leaves out, and what she doesn’t say. In Democracy Now’s coverage of world affairs, the United States is always the bad guy — always. And she’s citing cases where the U.S. was probably the bad guy. But she leaves out coverage of those places where the U.S. was the good guy.

So you think the disappearance of network news is a bigger part of the story than the arrival of the internet?
I think it’s the same thing. Network news becomes the fractured, atomized news of cable news and the internet. Cable’s the best illustration of it. The world I live in, and I imagine you live in — what did Rachel Maddow say last night? If I’m watching the election returns, I’m watching it on MSNBC. But the guy in the house next to me is watching them on Fox.

But for a while CNN was still a reliable and trusted middle-of-the-road news source on cable.
I think I understand this one — let me try my theory on you. In a pre-Fox universe, news was a neutral blob. But once Fox sets up on the right, everything to its left is the Left — it’s no longer neutral. By very definition, if I’m not Fox, I’m by definition Left, if I’m not buying what Fox is saying. And what’s most notable about this to me is how small Fox’s audience is — their ratings are ridiculously small, in terms of the voting population of the country. But they are definitional. They are the ones who have defined the ideological shape of the American news media.

How do you think they’ve managed that?
They’re very good television producers. They have provocative personalities and they stick to providing the audience the meat that it wants. And as it holds that audience and takes that position, everything else is on the left. And thus discredited, by those who want it to be discredited.

And they spend a lot of time on Fox talking about how you can’t trust whatever narrative is being put out by whatever newspaper.
Precisely.

And simultaneous to all of this is this sorting of so much more of our culture into partisan, even tribal factions — you think about the way you eat, and what kind of car you drive, you think of that as part of your partisan identity. More and more of your own world is politicized, including your media consumption. And so more is at stake for you, personally, in these public disputes.
What it reminds me of is something I experienced in the magazine business in the 1980s. there was an organization that lasted for quite a while that did Zip Code–by–Zip Code analysis throughout the country about the nature of the population in every Zip Code, so advertisers could target specific Zip Codes. It would be fun to find this stuff, because they named the typology for these Zip Codes.

Like what?
What would be an example? Tennis and Mercedes. Pickups and Grits. It was precisely creating, or acknowledging, what you’re talking about — your entire life can be encapsulated and from that one can draw inferences about ideology. Because the ideology fits the rest of the stereotype. So here I am in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, which in the summertime you could call us, Jews and Sandals. And then you know immediately how we’re going to vote.

And not inaccurately, either.
No, that’s the scary thing. It’s amazing how accurate it is.

You also end up feeling skin in the game in a pretty deep way. It’s hard to watch partisan politics unfold in an objective way.
No one wants to. No one wants to!

That’s the bubble everyone talks about. But if you were living in a pure bubble everyone would think the media was great.
Well, it’s hard to avoid the enemy’s presence. I hardly ever watch Fox, but I’m certainly well aware of Fox, because people react to it. If I want to know what Fox is doing, I can read Maureen Dowd, and she’ll be fulminating about what Fox is doing. So we encounter the other media through the lens we have chosen. So look at Trump. Trump attacks the Washington Post. Those that turned to Donald Trump for their truths think of the Washington Post as biased against them. They don’t have to read the Post to think that — they’ve been told that.

Do you think the Washington Post has been biased against Trump?
I don’t read it. But Trump is such a different phenomenon. It’s kind of hard to look at him as representative. Because the very aggressive stance the Times has taken — and I imagine the Post — in calling his lies out as they occur, that’s really new. Is it biased? I don’t know. I can’t tell whether it’s biased, because they are lies, they should be called out, but in the act of calling something out, you’re staking out a position. It’s hard, talking about him.

It’s sort of an unprecedented response to an unprecedented candidate.
Utterly unprecedented. Do I probably think the Post is biased against one candidate or another? Nah. Over time, look at their coverage of any campaign — any newspaper, any media, over a three- or six-month period. It’s very different from looking at it in today’s paper or this week’s paper or this month’s paper. Because it’s cumulative journalism that demonstrates — if there is no bias, or very little bias, that’s where it’s demonstrated, in the cumulative nature of it.

It’s interesting because during the Bush years the Post was being slammed as a neocon paper.
As was the Times during the Bush years. But in the case of the Post, the editorial page was somewhat neocon. People make presumptions about the news coverage based on the editorial page, which is something the Times is suffering from terribly, and has been for 15 years — the impression of who the Times is is based on what those op-ed columnists and what the editorials say.

To shift gears a bit, as a general observer of journalism, do you think the internet has been bad for standards, good for accountability — how do you balance all those different vectors?
Jeez, I dunno that I can. It’s really tough. I’m a Twitter addict. I probably check my Twitter feed ten times a day. I only follow a hundred people, because I don’t want to be overwhelmed. But the people I follow lead me to other things. And if I credit what I’m following, I think, yeah, things are pretty good — I’m getting this wide range of opinions from different perspectives, I can add it all up and come to my own conclusion. But I’ve built my own news organization by who I’ve chosen to follow on Twitter. So I follow my right-wing friend Sam Schulman and I follow my left-wing friend Kurt Andersen, and I follow a lot of people in between, and I’m getting a good sense of what’s going on in the world I think. I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but you are what you choose to read. That applies to everyone on virtually any subject. If you read broadly, and choose the best of different viewpoints, I think you’re getting very good journalism right now. If you’re reading narrowly, you’re not.

And it takes a lot to curate as well as you have.
Well, Twitter makes it easier. It’s not that I’m reading the Weekly Standard, but certain people on the right who I think are interesting minds are tweeting specific articles in the Weekly Standard that I then read. So Twitter’s been great in that sense. It’s been horrible in all the other senses. But it does allow you to be a pretty good curator of your news world.

How does all that affect the mission of an institution like the Times, or the Washington Post, or CNN — a journalistic operation that has some stated devotion to objectivity as opposed to serving a political audience of a particular stripe?
Well, I think there’s been a pretty sizable movement in the last ten to 15 years away from the goal of objectivity to the goal of fairness. And they are two different things. And I do believe that the much loathed mainstream media are concerned about fairness. Whether they achieve it is a different question. But I think that’s what they see as their goal today, because the attacks on false balance are deeply influential and deeply appropriate. And that’s what you’re seeing in the Trump coverage — a movement away from false balance, toward saying what’s true and not true. That’s good, but it’s also destabilizing to the way we were raised to eat our news.

Where do you see that stability breaking down?
It’s not utterly there, but I think the consciousness of the problems of false balance — that’s in the head of virtually everyone I know in the news business these days. I think that WMD coverage had a lot to do with the breakdown of the belief in balance, rather than fairness.

Are there other critiques you see being embraced or incorporated into coverage in the same way? I don’t know, that people are too obsessed with horse race or not enough with policy …
That’s an old one. That hasn’t changed in my professional lifetime. People were making that argument in the first presidential campaign in which I was involved, in 1968. And the argument is as specious today as it was yesterday. By and large people don’t give a shit about policy.

You see that as the job — journalists giving readers the news they want, rather than thinking they should be informing …
I don’t think that most journalists make a distinction between the two. And I’m not sure they should, either. But the fact of the matter is that the horse race is much more interesting than a bunch of horses standing around in a field. Races are interesting! It’s unavoidable.

Are there other critiques you see being implemented by journalists?
I see sporadic bursts of people deciding that something that had previously been treated as important is no longer important. To me, the greatest example is vice-presidential selection, which is no longer as obsessively attended to as it was as recently as, you know, two or three elections ago. Why do we spend all of our time a meaningless job that will have no effect on the campaign unless someone makes a really bad choice?

I’ve seen a sustained criticism — or self-criticism — among science journalists about how seriously to take new research. They are really anxious that there’s too much credulous reporting about not very good science.

I agree with that. I think that’s absolutely right. The most dreaded words that can appear in any news article are, “A recent study says …” I mean, stop reading! Because there’s another study that says the opposite. The news media get manipulated by the science establishment, the way that there’s something in The New England Journal of Medicine, the Times gets it first, and if the Times gets it first they’re going to play it up big — that’s part of the deal. Those kinds of deals go on throughout journalism, as you know, but it’s particularly bad in science journalism, because a study is not news, but gets treated as news. The other most dreaded words are “Analysts say,” because “analysts say” means “I say,” but you can’t say that.

What about anonymous sources? That’s something you hear journalists talk about a lot, but it’s never seemed to me that critique had much resonance among readers. Or do you think that’s something that’s broadly problematic for the profession?
Yes, I do. Kurt Andersen once wrote a column about anonymous sourcing. I remember he interviewed me about it. And he said in the piece, basically, “Dan Okrent, he says it’s a really big issue among readers, I find that really hard to believe, but if Dan says so…” It’s a really big issue among readers! Anybody who has been in the position of receiving complaints about coverage at any news organization will tell you this is the No. 1 issue. It certainly was when I was at the Times, and Margaret Sullivan would tell you the same thing. Readers believe that anonymous sources are one of two things: It’s something that’s been made up, or someone that’s manipulating the reporter. And certainly in the latter case, that’s often the case.

Can you talk about the figure of the public editor or ombudsman?
Well, it’s disappearing. There were more ombudsmen and public editors in 2004 than there are today, for the same reason there were more City Hall reporters than there are today. This has been a constant discussion at the highest echelons of the New York Times — do we get rid of this highly paid position or do we have two more copy editors, which is more important? Given the economic state of the industry, the job is disappearing. I think it’s a fair argument — do I close the Albany bureau or do I keep a public editor? It’s really important. But I think that generally speaking, it’s declining. I would sell short.

Do you think that’s related to the broader trends we were talking about earlier, in which media organizations are doing less and less to keep up the image of themselves as neutral?
With some exceptions, and I think the Washington Post is one of them because Marty Baron hates ombudsmen, I think it’s an economic issue. Can we afford this?

Twenty years from now, do you think papers will still want tho think of themselves as objective, or do you think they’ll reimagine themselves as more outwardly partisan?
Yeah, European. That’s why I get so upset by the Times’ editorial page and op-ed page. Because that pushes them in that direction. And to the degree that the Post has not done that, I think that’s an admirable thing. But the Times and The Wall Street Journal both have so clearly identified their ownership views that it colors the perception of everything else that appears in the newspapers. Look at the “Letters to the Editor” of the Times. I know the guy who edits that section, and he really wants to balance it. But he doesn’t get letters from Republicans, except from a Republican officeholder who thinks he’s been maligned or misrepresented. But the Times readers who are responding are all Democrats. And at the Journal, it’s all Republicans. So the readership is sorting itself out to associate with a particular point of view.

And what do you think the long-term effects of that will be?
Only bad. Only bad. Where do we come together?

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know