Sunday, February 06, 2005

Editorial: Danny Okrent -- Ready for his own sitcom or menace to society?

We were half way through one editorial when Ava, researching on the computer, screamed, "Holy crap! Take a look!" We did. We'd just been e-mailed a column from today's New York Times.
[C.I. of The Common Ills had e-mailed it to us.]

The increasingly inept New York Times has an article that reads like a comic send-up. What are we talking about? Daniel Okrent, public editor of The New York Times.

You might or might not be familiar with the loveable Okrent. We thinks he's either a hilarious comic sending up journalists or else he's seriously misunderstood his job describption as readers' advoacte.

As The Common Ills has noted, Okrent writes about what he wants to write about. He's supposed to be dealing with the questions, concerns and complaints of readers regarding what's actually in the paper. Instead, his columns pop up on whatever topic he wants to write about.
Today's gem?

Judith Miller's appearence on Hardball.

Let's point out something here, the paper hasn't written about that appearence. But Okrent writes what he wants to write about and apparently short of Tommy Friedman soiling himself, Miller was the big news Danny-O wanted to address.

Let's note that the paper has had serious problems this month and last month. Serious problems in print. But Danny-O wants to jot down his thoughts on Judith Miller's TV appearence. This is a public editor? This is a readers' representative?

This has to be a joke.

The first laugh fest comes with this:

Let me make a few things clear before going forward. First, I don't believe Miller's appearance on Matthews's show has anything to do with the current contempt citation hanging over her, the one resulting from her refusal to reveal sources to a federal grand jury. I believe she is right to resist the subpoena; that her apparent willingness to go to jail to protect her sources is admirable; and that The Times is right to defend her unflinchingly.

Did he type that with a straight face? We like to picture him typing that line and then turning to the side like Norman Fell (Three's Company) to mug at the cameras.

Of course her appearance was about her contempt citation. She may not know how to check her facts, but Miller knows how to sway the public. And The New York Times is in the business of "managing" public opinion. They've tossed her on every program they could thinking they could build some sort of grass roots "Free Judy" movement akin to the support Martha Stewart had.
Only thing is, apparently, Martha Stewart comes off nicer. With her alternating scowl and pursed lipped smile, Miller always comes off like a prig and a snob.

Judy proves she's got what it takes to report for The Times with this groaner she unleashed on Chris Matthews (one we haven't seen anyone note):

Most of the people, the overwhelming majority of the people participating in this election, you know, the 7,000 candidates, the 111 lists, are committed to secular government in Iraq.

"Most of the people, the overwhelming majority of the people participating in this election" doesn't, in the eyes of Judy and her rag of a paper, include those voting. Poor Judy. She's hoovered up to the power elite for so long that even when she's trying to relate to the "common man" that watches basic cable, she can't quite bring herself to embrace him.

Danny-O doesn't comment on that. He probably didn't blink an eye when she uttered it. Probably made perfect sense to him and most people working for the paper. In their view, the people participating in an election are not the citizens/voters, it's the power elite that's attempting to win an office (from those unwashed masses apparently).

The Times will keep pushing Judy on any show that will have her. (No word yet on whether the rumor that she'll be a contestant on The Pyramid is true or not. We also hear she may or may not be in talks with Cheaters.)

Okrent hasn't found the time to address the lack of serious coverage of the protests in D.C. last month and he hasn't found the time to address the offense many took to the Bully Boy's statements about gay parents, but he's got plenty of time to reflect on the election now. (Maybe this is the evaluation he promised he'd do after the election?) Or at least on a Democratic primary debate:

On television, dogged questioning can appear to be oppositional, even harassing. When White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller served as a panelist in a televised debate during last winter's primary season, some readers were convinced that her aggressive questioning of John Kerry and a head-to-head scrap with Al Sharpton demonstrated hostility. The same questions and the same attitudes deployed in a private interview could have produced answers that, in the paper, would have seemed absolutely proper and appropriate. But television can transform and distort reality; thinking you know a reporter from what you see on TV can be like thinking you know an actor from the way he behaves on stage.

Was Bumillie (The Common Ills has dubbed her the Elite Fluff Patrol squadron leader) appropriate in the debate? "Some readers were convinced" she wasn't (and readers' representative or not, Danny-O doesn't weigh in on that.)

Guess USA Today is just another reader of the paper. (But then aren't we all, really, in the eyes of The New York Times?) Check this:

At one point, Kerry protested that the rapid-fire questioning didn't allow enough time to answer adequately.
"You're in New York," quipped Elisabeth Bumiller, a New York Times reporter on the panel.

Quipped? Is the panel supposed to be "quipping?" Don't they have a pretty serious responsibility? Should they be quipping? (Would they be quipping if the League of Women Voters still ran the debates? We think not.)

That's how it goes with shits and giggles via Bumiller.

Let's go to Wonkette because surely she's not just a reader (the paper's Sunday magazine featured her on the cover with two old geezers practically on top of her):

We wish the New York Time's Elisabeth Bumiller was running for president, just so that we could vote against her. She just turned in what may be the worst debate performance since Nixon sweated through his makeup. It's the journalism equivalent of the Dean Scream, and if there was any justice in the blogosphere, someone would Photoshop a picture to show her strangling a kitten. Or, at the very least, hounding a kitten to death with idiotic questions and arrogant assumptions.
. . .

• "Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal?"

• "Yes or no? Yes or no?
• "Let me ask a question about Iraq. I have an Iraq question."
This isn't being a tenacious reporter, this is just talking to hear the sound of your own voice. (Though it was, admittedly, hard to hear Bumiller over her Khrushchevian table-pounding.)

Let's go to "reader" Matt Taibbi in The New York Press:

You may remember that one: Bumiller was one of three journalists, along with Dan Rather and Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS, who moderated the last meaningful Democratic debate. At the time, there were only four candidates left: Kerry, Edwards, Sharpton and Kucinich. The debate was remarkable because of the obviousness with which the three panelists tried to steer the discussion away from Sharpton and Kucinich. Early in the debate, Bumiller cut Sharpton off in the middle of one of his answers, about Haiti. When she tried it again later on, Sharpton protested:

SHARPTON: If we're going to have a discussion just between two -- in your arrogance (ph), you can try that, but that's one of the reasons we're going to have delegates, so that you can't just limit the discussion. And I think that your attempt to do this is blatant, and I'm going to call you out on it, because I'm not going to sit here and be window dressing.
BUMILLER: Well, I'm not going to be addressed like this.

And Bumiller made it clear later on that the press was not going to be pushed around, when in an exchange with Kerry she angrily insisted on the right to make political labels an issue in the campaign:

BUMILLER: Can I just change the topic for a minute, just ask a plain political question?
The National Journal, a respected, nonideologic publication covering Congress, as you both know, has just rated you, Senator Kerry, number one, the most liberal senator in the Senate...
How can you hope to win with this kind of characterization, in this climate?
KERRY: Because it's a laughable characterization. It's absolutely the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life.
BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?
KERRY: Let me just...
BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?
KERRY: the characterization. I mean, look, labels are so silly in American politics...
BUMILLER: But, Senator Kerry, the question is...
KERRY: I know. You don't let us finish answering questions.
BUMILLER: You're in New York.

This question -- how can you hope to win if you're so liberal --was what sank Howard Dean, was what allowed the press to ignore Sharpton and Kucinich, was what ultimately made it impossible for opponents of the war to have a voice in this campaign. In most cases, this demonization of the word and witch-hunting of anyone who could be attached to it was a subtle thing whose effect was cumulative. But Bumiller brought it right out into the open, wore it like a badge of honor. And looked like a smug, barking cow doing it.

Here's "reader" Bob Somerby (The Daily Howler):

Then the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller asked a question. With a minute of time to split four ways, here is the question she asked:

BUMILLER: Really fast, on a Sunday morning, President Bush has said that freedom and fear have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them. He's made quite clear in his speeches that he feels God is on America’s side.

Really quick, is God on America’s side?Let's say it again, in case you're incredulous. Helping to moderate a presidential debate, Bumiller asked four hopefuls to say—"really quick" and "really fast"—whether God is on America’s side.
Where does one start in discussing such foolishness? Perhaps here: Bumiller's question barely stood out, given the tonnage of sheer inanity the debate’s moderators had already put on display. Bumiller was fatuous from beginning to end; her vacuous questions were only matched by her determined refusal to let anyone answer them. But the Gotham Times ace was hardly alone in her serial foolishness. For example, we were stunned to see local CBS anchor Andrew Kirtzman persist in asking (and re-asking) Senator Edwards if his constituents really knew how big his house is. Did you think that ABC's Billy Bush embarrassed himself Sunday night, asking weird questions on Oscar’s red carpet? If so, you should have seen this Gang of 3 as it conducted this nation’s great business.
Really quick, "is God on America's side?" For us, the sheer stupidity of Bumiller's question almost seems to answer itself. As we have often asked in the past: What have we ever done as a people to call down this plague of journalistic inanity? A Dirty Little Secret was revealed once again: The people who steward your discourse just aren't very sharp. Really fast, "is God on our side?" If Bumiller takes a look in the mirror she will get a hint of an answer. Our question: What did we ever do to call forth this plague under which we all suffer?
THE MORNING AFTER: Here are four of Bumiller’s last five questions, spread out over roughly two-thirds of the debate:
1. Are you a liberal? No, are you a liberal?
2. Should President Bush go to soldiers' funerals?
3. [To Kerry] What have you learned about likeability from Edwards?
4. Is God on our side?

Here are "readers" Helen Kennedy and Maggie Haberman (New York Daily News) weighing in on the panelists:

The Rev. Al Sharpton picked a fight with moderator Dan Rather, the candidates got testy, and aggressive panelists repeatedly interrupted everyone.

Some "readers" thought Bumiller wan't appropriate, Danny-O?

He's got to be a comedian. It's got to be his dead pan delivery that throws us.

Another comic curveball he gets off is this one:

I don't think any of my cavils pertain to columnists or critics, who make their livings peddling opinion. They are their own brand names. When David Brooks appears on one show and Maureen Dowd on another, their diverging viewpoints do not demonstrate contradictions at The Times; they demonstrate the views of David Brooks and Maureen Dowd. (I'll leave it to you to determine whether a public editor falls into this category.)

He's equating himself with David Brooks and Maureen Dowd -- as though he were an op-ed columnist! And catch the parenthetical. Does he speak for himself or the paper? He'll leave it to "you" ("readers") to decide. Again, Danny-O, read your job description! You're supposed to be independent. It's right there in your job description and you've even written that your columns are not interfered with by anyone at the paper.

Hell, it's even pointed out at the bottom of your column:

"The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section. "

Let's note this laugh-fest (his columns really should come with a laugh track):

There are many, many reasons why newspaper people would want to appear on television. There's vanity, of course, and the ensuing cheap thrill of having someone stare at you on the subway, trying to figure out who you are. There's the admirable desire to help promote the paper you work for, and the less admirable one to promote your own career. There's the-well, I can't actually think of any others.

Really? We can! To help explain a story. To get a story out. To highlight a story getting lost in the shuffle. But that would require informing and Danny-O isn't about informing. If he were, he'd have never written this insane op-ed passed off as some how serving his role as "reader's representative."

Danny-O does another shout out to Slate's Jack Shafer in today's column. That's becoming a bit of a problem as The Common Ills pointed out in December:

Long forgotten are his [Danny-O's] words from his December 7, 2003 column:

My only concern in this adventure is dispassionate evaluation; my only colleagues are readers who turn to The Times for their news, expect it to be fair, honest and complete, and are willing to trust another such reader -- me -- as their surrogate.

Anyone who's read the columns in one sitting (as I did last night) one after another will quickly grasp that the readers haven't been his "colleagues" -- they've been his target. However, repeated "shout outs" to Jack Schafer (of Slate) usually note a closeness. Today Okrent calls Schafer his "partner in whine." I don't read Slate but "whine" does describe Okrent's writings at least.
"What I wanted to write." That's all it's about and that's become increasingly clear. Readers are the topic of rage and ridicule from Okrent (again, Rob, we'll be dealing with that later today). He's unable to recognize or address readers' concerns because he's busy being chummy with Jack Schafer. That's sweet, Okrent, we're all glad you found someone to hold your hand at the playground.
Meanwhile you once again ignored the readers.

Here's a Common Ills community member commenting on the love-fest between Danny-O and Jack Schafer (hopefully it's unrequieted):

Melody: "I love how he drops Jack Schafer's name all the time. Jack's doing this. Jack said this. Jack, my buddy. Jack, my pal. I think Jack first became a regular in this column on Feb. 1st of this year. And he's mentioned Jack yet again today. [December 26, 2004] It's kind of like reading Suzy in Women's Wear Daily! Oh, but Danny's not supposed to be a gossip columnist is he?"
No, he's not. But comparisons to Bombeck and Suzy aren't surprising (though they are insulting, Bombeck was often funny) when he's strayed so far from the purpose that led to the creation of his position at the paper.
That's all Danny-O ever does.

This has to be a some sort of post-modern stand up, right? This can't really be the paper or Danny-O's idea of a readers' representative, can it? We knew the paper was sick but if this ain't no joke, it may be time somebody took the gray gal to the vet and had her put down.

Yes, we know she's been a loyal pet for inside sources and power players. And she could probably continue sniffing ass for years. But if this is for real and not a put on, if Danny-O's writings are really felt to be the sort of thing the paper feels a "readers' representative" should be writing about, then The New York Times has stopped being just a joke -- it's now an old joke.

C.I. of The Common Ills asked us to note that C.I. helped with researching this piece. And that C.I. participated on some paragraphs BUT NOT ANY THAT MENTIONED THE COMMON ILLS. We started this editorial late and desperately needed all help possible. The ground rules going in on this an hour ago (C.I.'s ground rules) were research wasn't a problem, reading over paragraphs and making suggestions weren't a problem unless The Common Ills was mentioned.
We followed C.I.'s ground rules and thank C.I. for all the help.

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