Sir Harold Evans ends his review of Daniel Okrent's "Public Editor #1" with this statement: "So let me conclude without equivocation: Daniel Okrent in "Public Editor #1" represents a force for better journalism. I hope that somewhere he continues to scrutinize the wayward press." It is the faintest of praise in an review that is all equivocation, characterizing Okrent as being "not in the business of being nice to anybody," effectively targeting only "some" important issues, and having "supported the newspaper as a rope supports a hanging man." It comes at the end of an article which tries, not very subtly, to undermine Okrent's contribution to the New York Times and the stinging conclusions he often drew.
Evans uses qualifiers like "that's true, but" and seems to take greater pains to point out why the Times is all about "splendid journalism" than where Okrent's criticism may have hit the mark. Indeed, the piece reads like a ringing apologia for Bill Keller, for whom there is not a whisper of criticism in the review (though that is surely not the case in the book!). The reader is reminded that Keller was "brave" to launch the public editor position, that the WMD mis-reporting wasn't his fault, and that he "beat Okrent" to the scoop on the paper's own faulty WMD reporting by four days (Evans explains in detail how Okrent failed to address the WMD issue until six months into his tenure, but Keller "beats" him?). Evans is silent on the "why" of Keller's letter: what prompted it (mounting criticism) and to whom it was directed (ultimately, the executive editor: Keller). We are told, however, that Okrent's follow-up to Keller's "famous" mea culpa was somehow "cheeky."
The second-last paragraph opens with: "Still, substantively Okrent makes many points." This is only after Evans has archly accused Okrent of falling in love with his own writing ability, to the detriment of his product and mission. He makes "easy to read" sound like a flaw - a sneaky trap for the hapless reader.
Early in the piece Evans writes what is, I think, the most revealing and encapsulatory statement about Okrent's tenure: "It is a relief to know the combative Okrent is not breathing down my neck." Of course it is — merciless scrutiny is not comfortable for anyone. For journalists, however, it is essential.
And what was that about afflicting the comfortable?
Related: Okrent's final column as Public Editor [NYT]
UPDATE: A reader below notes that I failed to mention the Okrent-Krugman feud, waged in an angry back-and-forth debate onthe Public Editor message board. That's true and Evans' point on that is well-taken. That, however, does not change my mind about the peculiar tone and tack of this review; Jeff Jarvis agrees. More on the Krugman-Okrent spat here, here, and here.