One of the post-Howell Raines reforms at the New York Times was the appointment of Daniel Okrent as “public editor.” The theory is that Okrent is to serve as a “readers’ representative” who will regularly critique the Times’ performance and respond to readers’ concerns. Okrent is to have a column once every two weeks, more often “if necessary.”
Today Okrent introduced himself to readers. While there is no reason to pre-judge his work, his self-description doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence:
“By upbringing and habit, I’m a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When you turn to the paper’s designated opinion pages tomorrow, draw a line from The Times’s editorials on the left side to William Safire’s column over on the right: you could place me just about at the halfway point. But on some issues I veer from the noncommittal middle. I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action. I’d rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore.”
Anyone who thinks Bill O’Reilly is on a par with Michael Moore is not exactly in touch with mainstream America.
The Times is actually in the midst of a three-pronged crisis. First, it suffers from an instutional corruption that was generally associated with Raines and led to the Jayson Blair scandal. Bill Keller’s reforms have recognized and tried to deal with this part of the problem. Second, the general level of competence of its reporters and editors has fallen to an appallingly low level. We have many times pointed out the lack of basic, high-school level knowledge of history, mathematics and other topics that is documented in the Times’ Corrections section. And finally, the Times is grotesquely biased against Republicans and conservatives.
It is not clear whether Keller and his fellow executives recognize the latter two problems. Whether Okrent contributes anything to solving them, time will tell. I intend to be one of his frequent correspondents. One significant point in Okrent’s favor: he is a huge baseball fan, and claims to have invented rotisserie league baseball. If so, it is a more notable contribution to civilization than anything he is likely to achieve with the Times.
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