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ZMI - our summer media institute is only a couple of weeks off and we
are busy preparing and looking forward to seeing all the many faculty
and students who will attend. Meanwhile, here is an essay for today from
Edward Herman...

Daniel Okrent's Revealing Closeout as Public Editor of the New York
by Edward S. Herman      
In his final column as Public Editor of the New York Times, Daniel
Okrent discusses "13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did" (May
22, 2005). His list is interesting for what it tells about Okrent's
biases, and indirectly those of  his bosses, who knew what they were
doing when they selected him as public editor.

In his first item, he mentions his newly discovered reservations about
the First Amendment, which he still prizes but wishes that journalists
did not depend on so much. He would rather see them "invoking more
persuasive defenses: accuracy, for instance, and fairness." He goes on
to discuss the legal problems of Judith Miller, Matthew Cooper and
others, who have been relying on the First Amendment in the Plame case
but may end up in jail. Nowhere in his list of 13 does he mention Judith
Miller any further, and it is interesting that his list of defenses
(accuracy, fairness) fails to include scepticism and unwillingness to
use sources that are contaminated and not subject to cross-examination
and independent verification. In short, he excludes the fatal weakness
of Miller and other Times personnel that allowed them to be managed by
the Bush administration and to be collaborators in disinformation
contributing to an illegal war based on lies.

His second item is a denunciation of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd, and
to a lesser extent William Safire. Krugman, he says, "has the disturbing
habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion
that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."
He is also "ideological" and "unfair." Dowd is chastised for citing
Alberto Gonzales' use of "quaint" as applied to the Geneva Convention
limits on torture, long after it had been shown that he used the word
only about "commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific
instruments." Safire "vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links
between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to

It is interesting that Okrent gives not a single illustration of
Krugman's abusive use of statistics, so this is a cheap-shot,
hit-and-run attack, and perhaps a bit ideological. While calling Krugman
ideological,  Okrent never explains what the word means. Krugman no
doubt has a set of beliefs that underpin his work, but to an
extraordinary extent for a regular columnist he appeals to fact and
builds an argument based on fact. This is in contrast with a columnist
like Thomas Friedman, obviously highly ideological, but whose
ideology-to-fact ratio is vastly greater than Krugman's. Friedman is not
listed in Okrent's 13-apparently his ideology is OK, and his regular
call for the United States to commit war crimes doesn't bother Okrent
either (see my "Thomas Friedman: The Geraldo Rivera of the New York
Times,"  Z Magazine, November, 2003 ).

What this tells us is that Okrent simply doesn't like Krugman's views.
And I suspect that Okrent is expressing the views of his bosses here.
When they brought Krugman on as a columnist Times officials thought they
were getting a free-trade-friendly economist who would stick to his free
trade guns and possibly offer some modest criticisms of  rightwing
economics. But Krugman blossomed, and became a liberal-left critic of
broad scope and exceptional intellectual force. It would have been hard
to fire him, so one compromise solution was to add the rightwing David
Brooks as an offsetting regular and perhaps hope that Krugman would some
day make an error that might justify termination. He hasn't done that
yet, but Okrent's smear may be an early step in a termination process.

In criticizing Maureen Dowd Okrent makes a tiny technical point. The
Gonzales language reads: "In my judgment, this new paradigm [the war on
terror] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of
enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that
captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges,
scrip,...athletic equipment, and scientific instruments." So Gonzales is
only calling the Geneva Conventions bearing on torture "obsolete" rather
than "quaint," although he is designating some feature of the Convention
quaint. Dowd's error is therefore small and does not distort the
essential fact that Gonzales was denigrating the Convention and
rationalizing  setting it aside in questioning prisoners. I suspect
Okrent just doesn't like Dowd's tone and perspective, so he  finds a
technical error to criticize.

But to show balance he also criticizes Safire, who "vexes" Okrent for
following a Bush propaganda line for which there is no evidence. This
would seem like a far more serious journalistic crime than any he
attributes to Dowd or Krugman, but it gets only equal space, no more
severity of tone, and lower ranking in the Okrent listing. Safire is not
described as "ideological."

Okrent's third item is about characterizations that are "gratuitously
nasty"-he mentions "peremptory voice," "semicelebrated hustler,"
"jackass." He doesn't include as gratuitously nasty calling somebody
"ideological" when you don't like his general thrust and don't want to
take him up on substance.  Actually, the possibilities for locating
gratuitous nastiness among Times writers are vast, and a serious concern
here would soon find that demonized targets of U.S. power are especially
prone to such attack. The table below showing Marlise Simons' word usage
in the Times in describing Milosevic and his judge and prosecutors
affords a pretty example of  a double standard and gratuitous nastiness,
but this case didn't impress Okrent and he has never referred to it (he
got a copy of  the article from which this is taken: "Marlise Simons on
the Yugoslavia Tribunal: A Study in Total Propaganda Service," Edward S.
Herman and David Peterson [ZNet, 2004]).

                                MARLISE SIMONS' WORD USAGE 

Slobodan Milosevic                  Prosecutors Louise Arbour and Carla 
                                            Del Ponte; Judge Richard May

Infamous                                Forceful (Arbour)
Sniped                                   Resolute (Arbour)
Scoffed                                  New assertiveness (Arbour)
Smirk on his face                     Very capable (Arbour)
Speechmaking                         No-nonsense style (Arbour)
Badgers the simple conscripts    Tough crime fighter (Del Ponte)
Carping                                   Unswerving prosecutor (Del
Blustery defense                       Natural fighter (Del Ponte)
Loud and aggressive                  Unrelenting hunter (Del Ponte) 
Notorious                                 Finding the truth (Del Ponte)
Defiant                                     Keeping tight control (May)
Reverted to sarcasm                   Patiently repeated questions (May)
Contemptuous                           Sober, polite and tough (May)
Outbursts                                 Expert on evidence (May)
Face often distorted with anger    Among the best suited (May)    


Okrent's fourth item refers to and discusses his own earlier article
with the headline "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" He stands
by this description, but notes how this oversimplification provided a
ready target for the rightwing. He says that the paper is "the
inevitable byproduct of its staff's experience and worldview, and that
its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions
on most social issues." In short, its news coverage is ideological,
although we won't use the word except to put down somebody with whom we

The fifth item quotes a reader who asks "if 'Tucker Carlson is
identified as a conservative' in the Times, then why is 'Bill Moyers
just, well, plain old Bill Moyers'? Good question."  There are two
remarkable things about this item. One is that Okrent doesn't even
bother to verify whether the "good question" is based on fact. It isn't.
An examination of  the New York Times' references to the two men in the
prior six months shows that each was given the label (liberal or
conservative) four times. A second problem is that it violates a
principle that Okrent stresses in his item 9, where he criticizes an
analysis of  the public schools which quotes "a parent, apparently
picked at random, [who] testifies that they haven't improved. Readers
are clearly expected to draw conclusions from that." In the
Moyers-Carlson case Okrent expects readers to be impressed with a single
case comparison that he hasn't even verified as true, and which he could
have found to be untrue by a simple check of his own newspaper.    

Let me conclude with a comment on Okrent's item 8, where he chastises
the journalists in the Travel and Escapes sections of the paper for
always finding  restaurants "almost always delightful, the hotels
hospitable, the views glorious, the experiences rewarding. This is a
form of crypto-journalism; if the theater critics were so chronically
uncritical they'd be hooted off the stage."  But doesn't the same
problem arise for the paper's journalists, who "almost always" find U.S.
efforts abroad carried out with benevolent intent, damage inflicted by
them "collateral" and "tragic errors," and their claims and perspectives
featured heavily and uncritically as they describe, for example,
official worries about Iran's nuclear threat while paying no attention
to the U.S. and Israeli nuclear threat? The need for accuracy and
fairness that Okrent calls for too often means accurate transmission of
claims that should be treated with intense suspicion and which should
stimulate a search for alternative sources. Isn't hyper reliance on
officials who are proven disinformationists with an ideological axe to
grind, with commentary by Kenneth Pollack and Colin Powell, and people
like  Glen Rangwala and Scott Ritter frozen out, a clear form of
crypto-journalism that should be hooted off the stage?




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