As the first ombudsman of The New
York Times, Daniel Okrent is a controversial bull's-eye
for critics. But he didn't take the job to be
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
About halfway through Okrent's 18-month tenure, American Way
spoke with him about the pressures of his role at the nation's most
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