By: Joe Strupp
Nearing the end of his 18-month stint as The New York Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent compared the assignment to a root canal — but says he’s glad he took it.
Just hours after hearing that he had successfully landed a fellowship for next spring at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, Okrent told E&P that the Times job offered him unparalleled access to readers and editors but also some of the most difficult working conditions imaginable.
While at the Shorenstein Center, he plans to write a report on his time at the paper as part of his fellowship requirements while also working on a book about Prohibition. He offered a glimpse into what his public editor memoir might include.
“It has been an amazing and interesting and tense at times experience, and I am glad I did it,” Okrent, 56, told E&P. “If you had asked me eight months ago, I might not have said that. It is easier to be pleased when you are at the end of the marathon rather than when you have eight miles to go.”
Hired in late 2003 as part of the Times’ response to the Jayson Blair scandal, Okrent became the paper’s first-ever ombudsman. He signed a contract to serve in the post for 18 months with no chance for renewal.
During that time, Okrent says he endured angry, vicious, or threatening e-mails from readers, particularly following his twice-a-month Sunday columns. “The idea of having somebody do this [job], I’m convinced, is the right thing,” said Okrent, who will leave the post on May 31. “The fact that the Times has somebody like this in its pages is only a positive thing.”
Okrent admits that he knew it would be a tough job, but said that knowledge did not make it any easier. “When you go to the dentist to have root-canal work, you know it will hurt, but that will not make the hurt go away,” he said. “I knew it would be difficult and unpleasant, and, as it turned out, it was difficult and unpleasant.”
At one point, Okrent said he changed his reading habits to stop looking at e-mails or blogs before going to bed because he would be unable to sleep. “I sleep better now,” he added.
Among the biggest surprises for Okrent were issues surrounding presidential campaign coverage, he said. “It focused attention on the Times’ role, and there was a constant assault from people who were inflamed by the coverage,” he explained. “What was surprising was the viciousness of the attacks on the paper. The defensiveness of the paper was understandable.”
Okrent felt the most threatened after his controversial Oct. 10, 2004, column, which he ended by mentioning a person who had e-mailed Times reporter Adam Nagourney. Okrent drew criticism after naming the man and calling him a coward. “He wrote letters demanding I resign and apologize,” Okrent recalls. “In the blog world, I got the s–t kicked out of me.”
One blogger threatened to post Okrent’s home address, home phone number, and the location of his daughter’s college campus on his blog in response to the column. “That was very unpleasant,” he said.
His most memorable column? The May 30, 2004, piece on weapons of mass destruction, which Okrent published days after the Times printed its unusual editor’s note describing mistakes the paper had made on its coverage of WMDs in Iraq prior to the war.
“I had resisted doing it because I had been following a rule that I would not write about things that occurred before my time here,” he told E&P. “But I am glad I did it. There were people in the Times management who regretted that I wrote it but said it was fair and accurate.”
Okrent also acknowledged that the overall experience was positive, due in large part to the Times’ reputation. “For those of us who believe the Times is the most important news organ in the English-speaking world, it is pretty exciting to be engaged with it on a daily basis and to cross all departments,” Okrent said. “The rewards were enormous.”
Hearing that many Times staffers would discuss the columns around the office after they ran also indicated they were worth doing, Okrent said. “Some were saying, ‘what an idiot Okrent is,’ but they were discussing it.”
Okrent added that he and Executive Editor Bill Keller, “had some rocky moments, but we were cordial to each other. I like him and respect him. He never interfered or made it hard for me to do my job.”
Keller could not be reached for comment Friday. He has said he plans to name Okrent’s successor by the end of March.