Hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, Daniel Okrent serves as the first-ever public editor, or ombudsman, at The New York Times. Skeptics feared that the author (Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center) and former Time editor would make enemies in every corner of the newsroom; one compared his hiring to dropping a rabbit into a tank of piranhas.
As the official representative for Times readers, the public editor is bombarded with hundreds of e-mails a day. He reads them all, aided by an assistant, and responds to many. Scouring the Times voluminous coverage each day, Okrent chooses instances of what he deems unfair or unbalanced coverage, then investigates. By agreement with Timesofficials, Okrent cannot be told what to write or what to ignore, and his copy cannot be changed except for routine editing.
About halfway through Okrent's 18-month tenure, American Way spoke with him about the pressures of his role at the nation's most powerful newspaper.
How do you define your mission as the Times' public editor?
More than anything else, I want to provide transparency to readers about how and why the Times does what it does. Sometimes I think the Times is right; sometimes I think it's wrong. But if I can explain how and why, we've gone a long way toward building up trust between readers and the institution.
Is the Times still the country's most important paper?
Oh, absolutely. I don't think even other leading newspapers would challenge that. The Times fights a 50-front war on a daily basis. It competes with The Washington Post on national political affairs. It competes with The Wall Street Journal on business reporting. And it competes with everybody on cultural reporting. The Times tries to cover virtually every aspect of contemporary life. No one else does that.