Free the Forty-Third Street Twelve Hundred!

Daniel Okrent, public editor of New York Times, starts his biweekly column off with a bang today with this heretical (to the Times) headline: “It’s Good to Be Objective. It’s Even Better to Be Right.”

He begins by chiding Times reporters for hiding behind a “wimpy reliance” on experts, analysts and other commentators who provide “neither coherence nor much more than the illusion of balance.” The real culprit in this over-use of talking heads, he suspects, is the desire “to protect that precious piece of the journalistic ethos, objectivity.”

He then reminds us that “in recent years, though, the concept of objectivity has taken a bit of a beating,” for reasons obvious to anyone but a journalist: “We all bring our experiences, sensibilities and innate prejudices” to the door, and even the task of attempting to leave them on the stoop will alter our approach.” (Is that Variation 42 of the Heisenberg Principal? Or should we label it the Okrentian Principal?)

Indeed, he notes, even the choice to assign a story is made subjectively, as is the decision as to where to play the finished product. (“Ex-CIA Chief Nets $500,000 On Talk Circuit” takes on one weight when relegated to page 26, but another altogether when splashed all over page one, as it was at the Times last Thursday.) And any time a newspaper editor decides to put the paper’s weight and resources behind a major investigative series, she is announcing a subjective decision based as much on deeply-held personal values as on anything else: “I think this is pretty damned important, and we’re going to hit the reader on the head with it, even if no one called a press conference to announce it — in fact, especially because no one called a press conference to announce it.”

“Fairness requires the consideration of all sides of an issue,” says Okrent. “It doesn’t require the uncritical reporting of any. Yet even the best reporters will sometimes display a disappointing reluctance to set things straight.” (Okrent is thinking perhaps of the Times reporter who told Columbia professor of journalism and sociology Todd Gitlin recently that he is reluctant to assume the “reportorial authority” necessary to assert that, no matter what the president said yesterday, the sun does not set in the east.)

“I suspect that when writers don’t comment on specious statements, it’s usually because they worry that any challenge might itself seem tendentious,” Okrent writes, in what may be a new candidate for understatement of the year.

Okrent’s knack for cutting through official Times cant is partly a product of the fact that, until this year, he had not seen the inside of a newspaper building for decades. He is in fact a fully-formed product of magazine and on-line journalism, and he wraps up his column with praise for the Wall Street Journal, with its magazine-like front page, which “admirably allows its reporters far more authority to make assertions in their own voice than most American dailies.”

But for himself, he writes almost wistfully, “my beat’s here on West 43rd Street, where some of the very best journalists in the country keep what they know off the page because they’ve been tied up by an imprecise definition of objectivity.”

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.