Okrent Spots a Rat

Daniel Okrent, the New York Times' recently appointed Public Editor, has already had some run—ins with Times writers and staff, who are apparently not used to criticism or scrutiny from within. After his July 25 column, Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper? some in the paper may hope that his upcoming vacation becomes permanent.

Okrent answers his own question, 'Of course it is.' He argues that the Times clearly does not 'play it down the middle' on coverage of hot button social issues, and as an example analyzes the paper's coverage of gay marriage. He accurately calls the Times' coverage of the issue advocacy journalism. He notes that stories that might add nuance to the issue, or detail considerations that are not supportive of gay marriage never are written or published in the paper. Former editor Howell Raines talked of 'flooding the zone' with the Times' best reporters for a big story. Regrettably, Okrent notes that the flooded zone is all on one side of the playing field. One would never know why gay marriage might be controversial from reading the New York Times.

Okrent is reluctant to strike too deeply, though, at the paper's journalistic integrity. He puts forth the publisher Arthur Sulzberger's explanation that the paper is 'urban' and reflects that sensibility. Another partial explanation Okrent himself offers is that the Times is a New York paper, so it reflects the way New Yorkers think about major issues.  It is difficult, he argues, to get outside of one's own value system.

Okrent does not review the Times' coverage of the current Presidential campaign. He says he will follow the political reporting in the weeks ahead, and then offer his opinion. My suspicion, based on all the mail he gets on the subject, and all the political coverage which is in the paper, is that he knows there is a stinking rat on that front. So perhaps what he is really doing is throwing out a warning to the paper that it needs to stop being so blatantly obvious about its politically—biased news reporting on the campaign, or he will call them on the carpet again publicly for that  in a future column.

Then again, I may be wrong, and Okrent may not have made up his mind on this. But it is hard to see how the evidence is not right out there for him to see. Take two stories from the past two weeks. After former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's lies began to unravel about his attempt to determine whether Iraq was seeking to buy 'yellow cake' uranium in Niger in 2002, perhaps to reconstitute its nuclear program, the Times largely ignored the story. Wilson first went public with an op—ed column in the Times in July, 2003, claiming that Iraq was not buying yellow cake, and hence Bush's famous 16 words from his State of the Union address claiming so, were false. Wilson also argued that the Iraq war was a mistake. He then signed on as an advisor to the Kerry campaign. Many column inches of news coverage were devoted to his charges which fit in with the Times' editorial sentiment about the war:  'Bush lied, and Americans died.' Now that the Butler report on British pre—war intelligence on this specific issue has concluded  that the British intelligence on which the CIA and Bush relied was accurate, the Times' only coverage of Wilson's deceit has been a story buried deep inside the paper on the 'controversy' surrounding Wilson.  The Times was also front—and—center promoting the scandal of the 'outing' of Wilson's wife by columnist Robert Novak. Now that charge and that scandal seem to have disappeared as well. But the Times' pattern of making a big splash with stories that damage the President, and burying stories that later suggest the original story was overblown or false, fits a pattern. It is the pattern that occurs when the Times make a serious mistake in one of its stories. The effect of the mistake in a Page one story can be enormous. The impact of the correction days later on Page two is minor.

This week, former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was in the news after a story appeared that he was under Justice Department investigation for twice removing classified documents out of a secure site when he was preparing for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Berger removed multiple copies of one sensitive document, which may have been critical of the Clinton Administration's preparedness and actions in preventing terrorism before the Millennium. Some documents or notes may have been stuffed in his clothing.

The Times had three stories on the Berger affair.

The first, a few column inches inside the paper, was a short summary of the charges. A second on the front page, gave equal space to the charges against Berger, and his defense, as well as defenses offered by others. By the third day, the front page story was along the lines of  'What Did George Bush Know, and When Did He Know It? In other words, the real story was not any Berger misdeeds, but rather a politically motivated leak by the White House.

Of course, many in Washington, from both parties, speculated that the leak actually came from other former Clinton staff, now working for the Kerry campaign, to insure that the story got out now, and not at a more damaging time, say in October.  The Times certainly remembers how the Bush DUI story from 30—plus years back took away the momentum of the Bush campaign, and probably cost him 3 or 4 points in the popular vote in the last week of the 2000 campaign. Another possible explanation for the leak was that rivals for a top job in a future Kerry administration saw this as an opportunity to eliminate Berger from consideration. But the Times would never jump on this story, since it would damage two Kerry advisors with one theory.

In recent weeks the Times has favorably reviewed the new 'documentary' about the Fox News Channel, and its alleged bias. A lengthy and glowing story about the movie's creator appeared in the Times Sunday Magazine. This followed a fawning review of the film itself, and another rave review of Fahrenheit 9/11 by A. O . Scott. Scott, needless to say, has not gone back to see the film again, and toned down his enthusiasm after reviewing the 59 deceits compiled by David Kopel about the movie .

The Times, it is clear, is far more guilty of playing and arranging the news to support its political goals than Fox News. The Times, like most everybody else in journalism, seems to want Bush to be defeated. And this is the part of the story that Okrent I think is either unwilling to see, or fears the repercussions of admitting.

The Times' political coverage is blatantly dishonest. There I said it. The Times' political reporting works with the editorials and op—eds, to advance the talking points which every day can damage the President, and advance the cause of his challenger. The Times knows that its stories are often picked up by all the lazy 'advocate journalists' on the evening network news shows and reporters for other smaller papers who rely on the Times. The Times, after all, is the paper of record. The paper has more reporters, and more coverage than other papers on many stories. The Times misreports, and others copy. 

One might think that knowing that the role of the Times as a source for other news services might add a burden of journalistic responsibility. But one would be wrong.  It is the power itself that is there to be used to advance the cause —— advocacy journalism. The Times clearly sees its role as helping make the news that others can repeat.

When Howell Raines was replaced by Bill Keller, some of us were nae enough to think that the paper would strike out on a more even—handed approach, given its long history, and reputation. But instead, the message delivered by Sulzberger to Keller appears to have been, 'Keep on trashing Bush, but no more Jayson Blairs inventing stories.'

Dare I say, this is not enough. Daniel Okrent has done his paper a great service. It will be more difficult now for the liberal media flaks such as Eric Alterman, and Joshua Micah Marshall, and Al Franken, to argue that the real biased media is Fox News and the rest of the media calls it straight. That was always a fiction, even before Okrent wrote his article reminding us that the Emperor has no clothes. The real problem at the Times is that the journalistic corruption runs much deeper than Okrent has so far let on.  It isn't just New York values, or urban values or south of 125th  Street values. The Times wants to be a player and influence outcomes. First and foremost, they want Bush out. All their political coverage can be read as support for this project.