NY Times Makes Good Call

The New York Times has hired Daniel Okrent to be an ombudsman, or in their terminology, a “public editor”.

Let me congratulate them on that.

What will be interesting&emdash;and I’m sure that Times-watchers will remain vigilant&emdash;is if Okrent really can blast his employers with impunity when they go overboard in slanting the news. I have concerns, mainly from this quote:

Mr. Keller, who became executive editor on July 30, said he had assumed initially that the public editor would be someone with experience at The Times. But the longer he worked on the selection process — in which applicants included a judge, a politician and a pastor, as well as journalists from The Times and elsewhere — the more he was convinced that the newspaper would benefit from the observations of someone with a fresh eye.

“If this person is going to be a reader representative, why have it complicated by having worked here?” Mr. Keller said in an interview.

Keller, you see, was thinking inside the box, wanting someone familiar to the internal system to be the critic.

That’s hogwash. Someone like this has to be outside the system as much as possible. Okrent fits that bill.

I think, though, that the Times is finally beginning to catch on to what’s needed, though.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the newspaper and chairman of The New York Times Company, said in an interview that the creation of the public editor’s job and the installation of Mr. Okrent in it were “stepping stones” toward the goal of “making The New York Times less opaque as an institution.”

“It will help make us more attuned to what our readers and our critics, our honorable critics, are saying,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “And it will help explain us to them. Working at its best, it’s a highway with two-way traffic.”

[Emphasis mine.]

A news organization should, at its best, be wholly transparent. That’s the only way that you can build any kind of trust in it&emdash;when there’s no puppeteer behind the scenes, or even the perception of one.

Transparency is what is needed, and this is a small, small step in the correct direction.