Public Editor In New York Times

THE PUBLIC EDITOR; A Few Points Along the Line Between News and Opinion By DANIEL OKRENT

ONE of the more persistent criticisms of The Times comes from those who believe the news pages are the designated disseminator of views passed down from the Olympus that is the editorial page. If there’s anyone among the 1,200 newsroom employees of The Times who believes this to be true, I’ve failed as a reporter: in 16 months, I haven’t found a soul here who has ever experienced any pressure, or even endured a suggestion, to conform to the opinions expressed on the editorial page.

Hold your hoots. There may be perfectly sensible reasons why some readers believe that the news pages take direction from the editorial page, some of which I’ve discussed before, particularly the apparently normative, basically liberal worldview of much of the news staff on various social issues and the generally oppositional position toward those in power that typifies modern journalists. There’s also the sheer forcefulness of the editorial page’s voice, which in recent years has been so assertively left, and which some people unfamiliar with The Times’s operations want to believe is the source of the news staff’s daily marching orders.

For the record, it just isn’t so — not at The Times, not at The Wall Street Journal, not at The Washington Post or at any other American paper that takes its mission seriously. Executive editor Bill Keller and editorial page editor Gail Collins run operations entirely separate from each other. They consciously, even self-consciously, avoid discussing politics or public issues. ”We never ever talk about news or the editorials, under any circumstances,” Collins told me in an e-mail message. Their weekly meeting with publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and Times president Scott H. Heekin-Canedy is devoted strictly to company issues. If you don’t want to believe this, feel free to be wrong. Or check out the different ways the two departments have treated Condoleezza Rice, or Alan Greenspan, or Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. (If the Pickering nomination had taken place during my tenure as public editor, I could have flogged the diverging coverage for months.)

But there is, in fact, a permeable membrane not quite separating fact from opinion at The Times, and it resides wholly within Keller’s domain. It’s the ragged line that careens like a wind-up toy through the news sections, zigging past the work of columnists, zagging by the views of critics and doing triple axels around several hybrid forms bearing names like Washington Memo, On Education, Personal Health, Sports of The Times, NYC, Public Lives, Reporter’s Notebook and Frank Rich.

These hybrid forms are licenses: in some cases to explain, in some cases to render a reporter’s subtle impressions, in some cases to analyze and opine. They all look different from news stories, yes, but also from one another. Presentation varies widely from section to section. Some columnists (Clyde Haberman, Peter Steinfels) have their names up in the equivalent of lights, large and shiny at the very top of a piece; others (Jane E. Brody, Edward Rothstein) get bylines typographically identical to those on straitjacketed news pieces. Typefaces used for ”overlines” — identifying words like Personal Health or Public Lives — seem wildly inconsistent. If each style is meant to denote a specific definition — opinion piece, analysis piece, cute-but-unimportant piece — it’s escaped me.

Most writers who have at least some freedom to mouth off are distinguished by the typesetting convention of what’s called ragged-right formatting (you’re looking at it right now), as if this were the international symbol for point-of-view. (”Hey, honey, ragged-right! Let’s see what his opinion is!”) But the ragged-right brigade also includes the weekly White House Letter, which is not meant to be opinion but, as correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller describes it, ”a reported column that attempts to bring to life the people and behind-the-scenes events at the White House”; the election-season Political Points, which was largely meant to be amusing; and the basically-but-not-entirely news pieces like the one tagged West Orange Journal that popped up on B4 two days ago.

In the culture department, where readers are prepared to encounter the strong opinions of critics, most of the identifying overlines couldn’t be clearer: Theater Review, Movie Review and the like. Critic’s Notebook is only a slightly more opaque way of saying ”opinion located here,” but for many readers clouds descend in the vicinity of The TV Watch, and I suspect that visibility drops near zero around Connections. Starting tomorrow, an italic line attached to Rothstein’s biweekly sort-of-column will declare that it’s ”a critic’s perspective on arts and ideas”: in other words, a place for judgment. It’s a welcome elaboration, but only the tiniest of starts.

MANY readers who object to the incomprehensibility of the labeling also object to this much opinion (or commentary, or untethered illumination, or whatever you wish to call it) ricocheting around pages that years ago presented the news in the sonorous and noncommittal drone of a public address system. Judging by their frequent invocation of the number of years they’ve been reading The Times, most of these people are even older than I am.

I sympathize with them; the tone and tenor of a newspaper you’ve been reading all your life can grow to be as familiar, and as comforting, as your mother’s voice. But all this columnizing represents an inevitable, perhaps monumental, transformation in American newspapering.

Max Frankel, who was executive editor of The Times from 1986 to 1994, once convinced me that journalistic innovation usually begins on the sports pages, and I think we’re now in the middle of one of those moments when innovation is about to morph into standard practice. More and more often, the lead article in the sports section is a Sports of The Times column; just last Wednesday, Selena Roberts’s take on Barry Bonds (”We Won’t Have That Surly Superstar to Kick Around Anymore”) dominated the section’s front page.

The key word in that sentence is ”take.” What won Roberts’s piece its prominent position, sports editor Tom Jolly told me, was the wish to provide ”distinctive coverage of a widely covered event.” Most readers would already have learned about Bonds’s explosive meeting with the press from broadcast or Internet news sources, or even from the guy in the next seat on the subway. What Roberts could bring to the issue were her intelligence and her knowledge of the issues, the milieu and the characters; she could explain the event not just usefully but distinctively. NBC and ESPN, and WFAN, The Post and The Daily News all had the details of Bonds’s Tuesday pronouncements, but only The Times had Selena Roberts.

This reliance on columnists to report and explain (as the best columnists do) has spread elsewhere in the paper, but rules vary. Business editor Lawrence Ingrassia tells me that when his columnists (notably Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris) write the occasional news story, special care is taken by both the writers and their editors ”to make sure that the reporter’s opinions aren’t injected into the story.” Jolly’s version of special care is more confining: ”We’ve drawn a strong line between our Sports of The Times and On Baseball columnists and our reporters. Our columnists only write columns. Our reporters only report the news.”

I think Jolly’s tougher policy is wise, especially in the transitional period before the newspaper of the future finally arrives; I’d like to see Morgenson and Norris continue to report these stories, but to present what they discover in the clear voices they’ve already established in their columns. The sports and business sections are both riding a wave toward that future, where writers’ authority of voice and distinctiveness of thought will distinguish great newspapers from the rat-a-tat of more conventionally iterative (and instant) forms of journalism. On the way to that very different day, The Times needs to be careful to label opinion and its many variants. The simple addition of a slug of type reading ”commentary” (not unlike "news analysis," a Times staple for nearly half a century) would be a productive step, when appropriate; so would the introduction of consistent design signals across the various sections.

After that, it’s easy. You just have to make certain that your writers, and the editors who manage their work, are every bit as intellectually diverse as the readership you hope to attract.

Speaking of labels, analysis and opinion: starting April 10, this column, to date congenially accommodated by what is supposed to be the analysis-rich but opinion-free Week in Review section, will be following Frank Rich to the more appropriate turf of the Sunday Op-Ed pages. There, the public editor will be entitled to be wrongheaded on a biweekly basis.

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