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Ombudsmen Discuss the State of the Media

June 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: From the Jayson Blair fabrication case that shook The New York Times in 2003, to the use of unverified documents by CBS News’ 60 Minutes last fall, to the recent retraction by Newsweek of an item about desecration of the Quran, it has been a rocky couple of years for major news organizations.

Daniel Okrent and Michael Getler have observed and commented on these controversies as ombudsmen for two of the nation’s leading newspapers.

Okrent has been the public editor of The New York Times for the last 18 months, Getler has been The Washington Post’s ombudsman for the last five years. Okrent recently stepped down; Getler will leave in the fall.

We met them recently at the National Press Club in Washington and began talking about the public’s view of the media today.

DANIEL OKRENT: I think that there is, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s a certain amount of that blood in the water feeling, that in certain corners of the American public where the press is despised, once you see a wounded New York Times as of the time of the Blair case or CBS recently with Dan Rather last fall, then the attacks intensify. There’s a sense that this wounded beast won’t be able to defend itself as well.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there, did you find that, and sort of what Dan is suggesting, an animus towards journalists or newspapers?

MICHAEL GETLER: Absolutely. There does seem to be now a combination of things which are very much in an attacking mode, some of it quite justified and legitimate, others that you get the sense that there are other missions there, basically to help undermine.

A lot of us, especially news organizations and newspapers like the Times or the Post who are the ones that are capable of doing really hard-nosed, in-depth, tough reporting, and there are people out there who don’t want that and don’t like that, unless it fits their description. So there’s a lot of that going on and it’s important and it’s a little scary.

TERENCE SMITH: Both ombudsmen said there seems to be a coordinated quality to some of the drumbeat criticism their newspapers receive.

DANIEL OKRENT: One of the things that’s happened is that they’re now organizing vehicles for it, that one can turn to Fox News, to Rush Limbaugh, on the left, Media Matters, FAIR, various Web-based organizations who are able to get the word out and to call for action, you know, as if there is somebody in the front of the crowd leading the cheers, or in this case the boos.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you relate it, either of you, to the obvious rise of opinion or opinionated journalism, especially on cable news channels? I mean, is this part of the climate?

MICHAEL GETLER: Absolutely. Not just cable news but talk radio as well. I think there’s so much of it out there, the environment is so changed from what it was 10 years ago even, that I think people are confused by what’s news and what’s opinion and what’s interpretation, and many people do understand that and they resent it getting mixed up.

But in fact that’s the environment in which we operate now.

TERENCE SMITH: Having said that, Michael Getler added a piece of advice for newspaper editors.

MICHAEL GETLER: It’s very important that big news organizations do not pull their punches. They need to stay aggressive. They need to go after these hard stories. They can’t become too cautious.

They can’t become intimidated either by the need for their own transparency, which is important, or by political or other commercial efforts to rein them in.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike, as you look back at these five years, what was the biggest controversy or problem that The Washington Post confronted?

MICHAEL GETLER: I think it had to do with the prewar coverage before the war in Iraq. That’s been consistent. It’s continued beyond the invasion and into the post- invasion period.

TERENCE SMITH: And you as ombudsman — because you write a column every week — came to some harsh judgments on the Post’s performance.

MICHAEL GETLER: I did. I felt that really when you’re going into a war, there really is an obligation on the part of news organizations to present not just the administration’s case — the administration can present its case almost anytime it wants and get on the front page pretty easily — but there is an obligation also to present the opposing views, the challenging views, about that kind of a situation, and I think there was a failure to do that in a consistent fashion.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan, you came after this period to The New York Times.

For a while, you held back from commenting on it because it had preceded your tenure, but then you changed.

DANIEL OKRENT: I finally justified writing about it because my concern is not only what is in the newspaper now, but what isn’t in the newspaper, and what wasn’t in the newspaper was an explanation of how the Times got this story so wrong, so I felt I had to write about it.

TERENCE SMITH: So you were quite critical of their performance?

DANIEL OKRENT: I was, and I think it was really very bad journalism, though there were some terrific stories that did challenge the administration’s case for the war. They didn’t get the play that the other stories did.

In one case, one story was actually held and didn’t run until after the invasion, and that was close to a smoking gun as one could find, that somebody at the Times was playing with the news, which is the one — that’s the capital crime in our business.

TERENCE SMITH: Okrent was referring to this article entitled “CIA Aides Feel Pressure in Preparing Iraqi Reports” by Times reporter James Risen, which was published Sunday, March 23, 2003, four days after the war began.

He believes it got lost in the scramble to cover the opening days of the war.

DANIEL OKRENT: I think the hunger for scoops, the sort of getting involved in the sound of the Marshall music, and the image I use is that you could almost sense certain editors spouting epaulettes on shoulders as they kind of become part of the war and not just looking like from a distance — and insufficient internal checking, too much reliance on questionable sources, and a variety of felonies and misdemeanors that would make a pretty good study in failed journalism.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Getler, you wrote a column quite recently about a British intelligence memo written before the war that came out during the recent election campaign in Britain but got very little coverage in the U.S. Why?

MICHAEL GETLER: Well, I don’t know why, but it certainly got very little coverage, and it seemed to be an interesting document and there was no attempt to report it initially by the Post.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have a view as to why this British memo didn’t get more attention not only in the Times, but in other papers?

DANIEL OKRENT: I have two thoughts on it. The first is that it was seen as in the context of Tony Blair’s reelection campaign and the people who were covering it were covering politics, they were covering foreign politics. The people who were assigned that story weren’t the people who would be engaged in looking at the walk-up to the war in Iraq.

My second thought is that something is coming, that it is a story that calls for a great deal of reporting, and sometimes the absence of something in the newspaper doesn’t mean that it’s not being reported, but they’re waiting until they have it right. I hope that’s the case.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any evidence that it is?


TERENCE SMITH: One other issue that has risen recently, again, is the use and abuse of anonymous sources, something that papers have grappled with for a long time. But does it seem to you that it’s more urgent now?

DANIEL OKRENT: I think so. I sense that this is something that is coming to a head, that it’s an industry wide confrontation with this very, very difficult issue. And you used the words “use and abuse.” Both are inevitable.

You cannot do truly aggressive journalism in various areas unless you will depend, at times, on anonymous sources. It’s in the abuses, when it isn’t crucial, when the sources aren’t reliable, when you can’t confirm with another source, that we get into these terrible circumstances that are really — it’s bad for everybody in the press when, you know, one magazine, one television station, one newspaper goes wrong in this, it affects all of us.

MICHAEL GETLER: I would also add that it’s a very — I think there’s clearly been abuse of anonymous sources, and news organizations have to do better, as Dan said.

But also, it is naive to think you cannot — that you can get away from them. And it’s also, it’s an easy target for critics of newspapers to blame it on anonymous sources, when, in fact, you can’t really get these tough stories without that. And so there’s a legitimate need for them, at times, but news organizations have to learn to be very, very careful and have to have clear guidelines about it.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you finally about this role you perform. Is it alive and well, the role of ombudsmen in American newspapers? And, let’s start with The New York Times because it’s a new experience for them.

DANIEL OKRENT: I think that it’s there for good now, and for good in both ways — permanently, and because it does do good things for the industry and for the readers.

I also think because of the visibility of the Times in American media, that it’s sort of an endorsement of the idea that, you know, that this leading institution that had resisted it for decades, finally is doing it — wow, we’d better do that as well. So I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s here to stay.

MICHAEL GETLER: I agree. I think it’s turned out to be a very important role, especially now for newspapers.

I think readers want to be able to talk to somebody, to get to somebody in a newspaper, to express themselves, to hear another opinion, to hear a critique, to understand how newspapers work, how they come to their decisions, and the fact of the matter is that there is no way that a newspaper’s going to deal with the number of readers that I do, that just — they would never get to the editor or to the reporters through standard letters to the editor or phone calls to people. They can through me.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Getler, Dan Okrent thank you both, very much.

GWEN IFILL: One additional note: That interview was taped before last week’s revelation of the identity of Deep Throat.