NYT public editor goes public

Today's free web story off the front page of the Wall Street Journal is on Daniel Okrent, the New York Times "public editor." His seven-month tenure so far has created "fresh tensions" at the NYT, writes James Bandler. He no longer has any direct dealings with the editor of the Week in Review, where his Sunday columns appear, and there is a snappish exchange with editor Bill Keller quoted in the piece. An excerpt from Bandler's story:

The Times gave Mr. Okrent an 18-month contract in November, paying in the low six figures, Mr. Okrent says, declining to be more specific. Even if the experiment didn't work out, the paper was stuck with him. "We have to be careful," Mr. Keller told Mr. Okrent, both men confirm. "It would be really tough to fire you."

Mr. Okrent immediately marked himself as an outsider to the newsroom. He asked for, and received, permission to abandon Times style rules -- the paper automatically uses 'Mr.' and 'Ms.' on second references, for example -- in order to write in a more conversational manner. Other columnists have similar dispensation. Mr. Okrent told Mr. Sulzberger he wouldn't recommend the Times fire specific reporters. "That's not my job, it's your job," Mr. Okrent said, both men recall...

[fast forward]

Last week, Mr. Okrent and Mr. Keller sparred over a column examining whether the Times erred in publishing an article about alleged sexual abuse committed by Tony Hendra, author of a best-selling memoir. Mr. Hendra denied the accusation to the Times and hasn't been charged with a crime. Before Mr. Okrent finished the column, which concluded that the Times shouldn't have run the story, Mr. Keller e-mailed to say he'd been briefed on Mr. Okrent's interviews with the responsible editor. "and I've got to say: man, you need a vacation," Mr. Keller wrote, defending the paper's decision.

Mr. Okrent agreed he needed a vacation, and suggested Mr. Keller take one, too. Mr. Okrent added in the e-mail that he hadn't made up his mind. "Sometimes, a question is just a question," he wrote. "It's called reporting, right."

"sometimes reporting looks (from the other end) like a campaign," Mr. Keller wrote back.

Mr. Keller says he finds Mr. Okrent's work valuable, despite occasional disagreements. In wrestling with complicated questions about reporting ethics, Mr. Okrent, "not only helps educate readers, he also provokes a lot of constructive introspection at the paper," Mr. Keller says.

Okrent keeps in his head the exact amount of time remaining on his term, the story says. His column on the Hendra story, by the way, is linked here.


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