The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Catching up with Okrent

Over his year or so in office as New York Times ombud, I have rather soured on Daniel Okrent (October 24), for reasons which include his (I can only assume) ironic campaign to expunge the anonymous USG spokesman from the columns of his and the other top papers.

Coming back off hiatus, I see that Jack Shafer (November 11) takes a somewhat more positive tone. A memo has gone round to Times hacks from Allan Siegal (he of the eponymous committee that 'examined' the Jayson Blair farrago) announcing the formation of - another committee
to study ways the paper might improve its accuracy and trustworthiness.

Shafer quotes Siegal [1]:
Can we cut back, or even cut out, our attendance at background briefings by nameless officials? Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?

Shafer starts off appropriately cynically [2]:
If the past predicts the future, we should expect the memo to inspire the anonymice to start reproducing in the New York Times faster than tribbles on the starship Enterprise!

He back-handedly compliments the Times on its ombud operation -
100 times better than I expected
- and all but dismisses its new goo-goo committee:
if the...committee accomplishes 5 percent of what it's setting out to accomplish-especially reducing anonymous sources (an eternal bugaboo of mine)-I'll buy the newsroom all the trail mix it can eat for a week.

Shafer's reaction is a shrug and a wry smile: for me, the humour of the thing has long worn off.

Meanwhile Okrent himself has scribed a couple of pieces: On October 31 under hed Analysts Say Experts Are Hazardous to Your Newspaper, he complains about the use by journos of expert commentary: in particular, problems with conflicts of interest and the recourse to references to anonymous experts (as in many experts say that...) who, so far as the reader can tell, may or may not be figments of the journo's imagination [3].

Why can't Times journos give an opinion based on their own expertise, he asks. Fear of losing credibility, hidden by a smokescreen of reliance on objectivity, he suggests.

His piece yesterday under hed It's Good to Be Objective. It's Even Better to Be Right. challenges the ultimate totem of American journalism (condemned here many a time and oft.)

Okrent cites Walter Lippmann and friends as
arguing that reporters could combat unconscious bias by applying scientific method and its "sense of evidence" to journalistic inquiry. Only by the rigorous testing of hypotheses could the investigator - the journalist - reach reliable, bias-free conclusions.

They weren't proposing a regime of strict, he said, she said stenography [4].

Warm words from Okrent - but where's the incentive for change? Stenography favours the Powers That Be - who have the apparatus of the VRWC [5] to bombard Times hacks and editors. The left, to date, has nothing comparable. So a quiet life favours stenography.

The effect on revenues and earnings of dumping objectivity? Negligible, I'd guess. No incentive - this is capitalism, after all! - to imperil that quiet life.

Move it along, nothing to see here...

  1. Shafer gives the full text down-column.

  2. First Plawg namecheck for the little critters, I believe.

  3. Or it might be a Doris Stokes thing...

  4. Searching Lippmann's Public Opinion (text) for references to objectivity and related forms yields the following from Chapter 23:
    Every newspaper when it reaches the reader is the result of a whole series of selections as to what items shall be printed, in what position they shall be printed, how much space each shall occupy, what emphasis each shall have. There are no objective standards here.
    Skimming the rest of the chapter, one finds other reasons to doubt the objectivity of tomorrow's fish wrapping: hordes of press agents, for instance:
    "Shortly before the war," says Mr. Frank Cobb, "the newspapers of New York took a census of the press agents who were regularly employed and regularly accredited and found that there were about twelve hundred of them..."
    Does he mean 1914 or 1917?
  5. A large percentage of the indecency complaints that the FCC receive come from members of Brent Bozell's Parents Television Council, I believe: the total shot up after he set up his complaints operation.

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