Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

Public Editor #1 by Daniel Okrent

- Abstract

In an ideal world, the job would have been mine. Alas, it was not to be. Instead, the arguably most interesting assignment in all of journalism went to Daniel Okrent, who, just like me, had earlier been a senior editor at Time Inc. In October 2003, Okrent was named the first ombudsman (or “public editor,” as the paper labeled the position) of the New York Times.

Over the past quarter-century, many other big-league newspapers, including the Washington Post, had established ombudsmen positions, but the Times had long resisted them. The theory undergirding this anomalous institution holds that a newspaper benefits when there is an in-house critic looking out for the concerns and preoccupations of the ordinary reader while also offering an independent voice for fairness and accuracy in news coverage. An alternative and rather obvious view, to which the Times clung for years, is that those functions are what the paper’s own editors are presumed to be doing in the normal course of their work. But the Times’s resistance crumbled in 2003 after its reporter Jayson Blair was exposed as a serial fabricator.

About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.