Thou Shalt Not Anger The Times

Today's New York Times includes a letter I wrote to ombudsman Daniel Okrent about his decision to out a reader who sent a violently hostile e-mail to political reporter Adam Nagourney:

I was disappointed by your decision to reveal the name of the offensive e-mail correspondent.

The easiest thing for any newspaper columnist to do is to quote his most abusive critics. It's a win-win: no one would be persuaded by the person's horrendous comments, and it builds sympathy for the columnist.

On the other hand, if the columnist only quoted reasonable people whose criticism is well informed, it would be more of a challenge to refute them.

I don't think a readers' representative should ridicule his readers. Readers need to know that the ombudsman is on their side. If he adopts the same "us against them" bunker mentality as other journalists, he should find another position.

The reader, Steve Schwenk, has received a barrage of abusive e-mail and phone calls, a circumstance that Okrent undoubtedly knew would happen as a result of his column.

In retrospect, I was too charitable to Okrent, who clearly doesn't have the temperament to be an ombudsman. The job requires a herculean amount of patience, as I learned observing the work of Phil Record at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

At the Telegram, Record wrote a daily column for internal use at the paper in addition to a weekly column for the public. Even in the internal column, I can't recall a single occasion when he roughed up a hot-headed reader for an inappropriate remark, in spite of hearing from cranks all the time.

Okrent has now twice compared verbally mistreating a Times reporter to desecrating a church, including this remark to BusinessWeek:

... someone who goes out at night and paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue doesn't want it written about either.

In defense of the sacred sensibilities of reporters, Okrent claims an obligation to hold readers to "public responsibility" for their communication with the newspaper. That's an odd niche for a readers' representative to carve out for himself, unless he's more interested in protecting the paper from critics than challenging its mistakes.

Note: This entry has been updated to remove the statement that Schwenk is a weblogger. He does not have a blog.

Comments

It's true. The NYT does see itself as a church -- thus making anyone who would oppose it a member of ACT-UP.

Making the situation even more grotesque is the fact that being gay, Adam Nagourney has no children to be blown up in Bush-run wars.

Excellent post.

Okrent used the power of the New York Times, which rivals that of a state, to attack an individual. The individual had not threatened Okrent, had not made any remark that could be construed as criminal, had not even used obscenity. He had been privately rude in expressing hope that Okrent's family suffered bad luck.

Okrent called the reader a coward. I would say the true coward is Okrent.

The bottom line, as you say, is that Okrent should be focused on the content of messages, not on their tone. If the message could help to improve the journalism of the paper, it should be heard, no matter how rude. If it can't help the journalism, it should be ignored.

Okrent was hired as a PR gimmick to improve the New York Times' image after one of its most flagrant writers was outed as a faker. Because he is unwilling to use the position to reform The Times, he has no real influence. A man with more principle would have resigned by now.

(My error regarding whose family the writer expressed hope would have bad luck).

Where else did Okrent compare the email to defacing a church-- any one know? thanks

At the end of today's column:


I published the name of the man who wrote to Nagourney for the same reason that newspapers publish the names of people who commit other grievous acts. The man who vandalizes a church, say, doesn't want his name in the paper either. But I don't think his wishes should protect him from public responsibility for what he has done.

I'll try my hand at an analogy:

Okrent is to Times readers
as Lizzie Grubman is to:

A) Grandmothers
B) Nightclub attendees
C) Football players
D) Computer programmers
-------------------------
At best we are a nuisance, our outrage something to be ignored as they chat amiably with their colleagues about cutting out of the office early to get to the next cocktail party.

Every once in a while their contempt for us boils up and spills out into public view.

I really appreciate Mr. Okrent illustrating how the organization he works for continues to render itself irrelevant.

"And hooray for Daniel Okrent. I haven't agreed with a lot he has written during his tenure, but in this case, I'm with him 1000%. And I especially like him using The Times as a sledgehammer on this proverbial gnat. Maybe we all should do that from time to time."

- From DAVID CROOK, editor, Wall Street Journal Sunday

www.poynter.org

Daniel Okrent has done serious and
obivious damage to the NYT's ability to respond to Readers concerns. The new
slant of recrimination and abuse of the reading public is to be expected from the misguided sorts at the WSJ such as David Crook. The NYT has held itself as the "Paper of Record". This is not the truth any longer as D. Okrent has become a "Hit Man" and foresworn any claim of
impartiality and honesty. The internet
has taken the lead and the point of contact with issues that need viewing before the newspapers and that is the real bone of contention.

I am not a freeper and I support Kerry.
Nevertheless, I felt that Mr. Schwenk was way out of line in his remarks to Ngourney. However, to Schwenk's credit he has apologized in an open letter.
Anyone who is naive enough to think that an e-mail is akin to a written personal letter should have their computer unplugged until they regain their senses. Frankly, I have been driven to distration by this election season because I am afraid of the outcome so I understand where Schwenk was coming from with his remarks. I have secretly fantasized that if Bush is re-elected that all of his supporters or their kids are then drafted on Nov. 3. I doubt I am alone in my daydream. (o.k. I didn't write it to the NY Times in an e-mail)
I pray for my sanity and that of my country. Get every single person you know to the polls on Nov. 2 and make sure they vote for Kerry.

This is my emailed response to today's nonresponse...

What about these unlovely statements:

> As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year.
> Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public.

You have painted all of the progressive/Democratic/left-of-right blogs with a rather broad brush here, based on a sampling of one single individual, don't you think? I haven't seen such tactics encouraged on any of the left-wing blogs. Perhaps you should read one and discover that they're not as chaotic as you might assume. It seems to me this also warrants an apology.

> I published the name of the man who wrote to Nagourney for the same reason that newspapers publish the names
> of people who commit other grievous acts. The man who vandalizes a church, say, doesn't want his name in the
> paper either. But I don't think his wishes should protect him from public responsibility for what he has done.

Brilliant. It's fine to ruin a man's life over a few angry words, then, and that absolves you of all wrongdoing, yes. We even have a phrase for that sort of thing: vigilante justice. It's generally frowned upon in western civilization, but for the Public Editor, we'll make an exception. The forum most of us use to settle matters of threatened violence generally involves police, judges, the FBI; but you -- you have a high-visibility pulpit, so why not use it to generate lynch mobs? Must be nice to live outside the law. You and the Bush administration, out there on the edge!

Theocracies pillory people as a matter of everyday retribution for even the most venal sins. Welcome to right-wing America.

It was Mr Schwenk's decison to take the action of making a threat to another person and he now seem himself thraetened. I call that Cause and Effect, action and reaction. reaping what you sow...etc.
Take full responsibiltiy for your actions Mr Schwenk.

Frankly, I think exposing Schwenk was fine â€" and BTW, I'm a Kerry supporter from way back, no freeper me. Insulting people is OK. After all, if someone really is a loathsome turd it's actually one's duty to point that out in the interest of open and honest discussion. But wishing a person death or threatening them with death merely for bad reporting â€" even if that person is a vapid douchebag like Nagourney â€" is way over the line.

On the other hand there really is something wonderfully satisfying about the notion of seeing a fool you vigorously disagree with killed as a reasonably direct consequence of his or her own stupidity. So Schwenk has my sympathy too.

Let's be clear. Schwenk did not "threaten" Nagourney. If he did, Nagourney should have reported him to the police.

Schwenk issued an especially distasteful version of the old

One more thing...

Reading some of the comments here and elsewhere, I'm not sure people are grasping how deeply irresponsible Okrent's (and to a lesser extent, Nagourney's) actions are.

Not only is he guilty of failing to grasp the context and intent of Schwenk's comment (one would think this would be a fundamental requirement of writing for The Times), he used his position to engage in vigilante justice.

Let's assume for a moment that Schwenk's comment is equivalent to "painting a swastika on the door of a synagogue" (which it's not, because it was not anonymous, made in public, aimed at Nagourney's ethnicity, nor intended to intimidate). It would still be irresponsible to expose Schwenk to physical harm by publishing his name - at least not until the authorities were involved.

Okrent has proven he doesn't possess the judgement necessary to hold a position that comes with tremendous responsibility. He chose to use the full power of the nation's largest newspaper to maliciously exact vengence on a misguided, but essentially powerless, individual. Even if one considers Schwenk's e-mail to be a threat, it is Okrent who actually committed an offense.

If you can't blow off kook-mail, you shouldn't be in the business.

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