A Public Editor’S Parting Shot
The outgoing Times "readers' rep" zings Krugman -- but hardly enough.


Donald L. Luskin

Ring up a win for the Krugman Truth Squad! It’s official: According to the New York Times itself, what we’ve been carefully documenting for more than two years is true:

Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman 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.

… some of Krugman’s enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn’t mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn’t hold his columnists to higher standards.

Thus wrote New York Times “public editor” Daniel Okrent in his column last week, his final one before resigning his post. There it is, right in the newspaper of record.

To be sure, Okrent could have gone much, much further in blowing the whistle on America’s most dangerous liberal pundit. He could have cited the dozens upon dozens of partisan distortions, uncorrected errors, deliberate misquotations, and flat-out lies that we’ve caught Krugman making over the years. For that matter he could have echoed what N. Gregory Mankiw, the universally respected former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, told Fortune in a recent interview — that Krugman “just make[s] stuff up.”

Okrent knows all these things. I know he knows them, because I’ve met with him and corresponded with him about just these matters since he became the Times’s “public editor” 18 months ago. Our e-mail correspondence on Krugman totals almost 40,000 words (some of which was “off the record,” so I’m using my judgment here in determining what portions are fair to reveal now that Okrent’s tenure as “public editor” is over). Yes, I’m the one Okrent was talking about when he referred to “Krugman’s enemies.”

So why didn’t Okrent go further with his critique? And why, as the self-described “readers’ representative,” did he feel it was necessary at the same time to take a gratuitous swipe at me — one of his readers?

I suspect, primarily, a fear of reprisal — although what he wrote about Krugman seems to have been enough to cause a stir. Last Friday Krugman told a lecture audience in Princeton that, essentially, Okrent had lost his marbles — that his “very peculiar blast” was the result of “constant pressure” from conservatives that had “built up a list of grievances in his mind.”

Let’s talk about “pressure.” It so happens that, by sheer coincidence, I was in Princeton on business last Friday. But I decided it was best not to attend Krugman’s lecture, because the one time I did attend one of his many public appearances he proceeded to say on national television that I had stalked him. Okrent knows how the pressure game works. So he kept his “blast” against Krugman modest and took out an insurance policy against charges of bias by slapping me a little bit, too.

Okrent wasn’t always afraid of pressure. When I first met him in early 2004 he was full of the burning zeal of the reformer, and eager for intellectual allies. His first words to me were, “You’re much better looking than Paul Krugman.” He told me that the Times didn’t deserve to be called the “newspaper of record” and vowed, “When I’m done with this assignment, I want everyone to know that.” (Okrent later wrote on this theme.) We had a long discussion on accuracy and fairness on the op-ed page, which led a month later to the Times’s new policy on columnist corrections.

This was all very hopeful, as well as flattering. But I knew it wouldn’t last. Okrent ended our meeting by announcing that a limo was picking him up to take him to a dinner party with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., and executive editor Bill Keller. I wondered how long Okrent could maintain his independence as a reformer if he was getting sucked into the glittery social world of Times management. The pressure had begun.

And the pressure built as Times staff fought Okrent in his role as “readers’ representative.” For example, financial reporter David Cay Johnston went so far as to organize other reporters into what Okrent called a “lynch mob” — and accused Okrent of conflict of interest because of a board position, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

And as for the Times’s columnist-correction policy, the paper’s columnists and their boss, editorial-page editor Gail Collins, stonewalled it from the beginning. When corrections to Krugman’s columns were made, they were snuck into the text of subsequent columns, hidden in the form of what Okrent has called a “rowback.” Or they were appended to subsequent columns without the designation “correction,” with the original erroneous columns remaining uncorrected in the Times’s web archive.

And that’s only when corrections were made at all. For the most part, corrections were not made. Why? It appears that as Okrent went to Gail Collins for corrections, she quickly learned she could get away with stonewalling him. I faired no better. When I couldn’t get Collins to even acknowledge my e-mails, I sent corrections to her under a false name, but she didn’t respond to those either. I learned that at one point Okrent went directly to Krugman himself for corrections, but the whole exercise soon proved worthless. Okrent apparently gave up on Collins and Krugman, and I gave up sending them corrections as well. In an odd turn of events, Okrent wrote in a December 2004 column that “judging by the shrinking volume of complaints I receive from readers, columnists’ errors have become much less frequent.” Was that statement the product of self-delusion or sheer gall?

But here’s one complaint Okrent can’t ignore. In an angry letter to the Times on Sunday, Krugman blasted Okrent for being “inappropriate” by not citing specific examples of his statistical sleight of hand (I’ve got dozens of examples on my blog; here’s a recent one). He also claimed that

in each of those columns I played entirely fair with my readers, using the standard data in the standard way.

According to a footnote to Krugman’s letter, he and Okrent will be “addressing this matter further” on the Times’s website this week. When it comes to manufacturing seemingly credible rationales to cover previous lies, Krugman’s the best there is. So Okrent is going to need some help in this debate. I offered my services, but Okrent replied,

I’ve already written my response, and now I’m washing my hands of him.

Krugman’s angry letter will stand as only the last of many from the Times’s Angry Left readers to make their way to Okrent. These letters complained that the liberal Times isn’t liberal enough, and that any of Okrent’s attempts to create partisan balance were “unfair.” You’d think the Left would have nothing to complain about when it comes to the Times.

The pressure on Okrent from readers appeared to reach a peak just before last year’s bitter presidential election, when the Times had become increasingly partisan in both its editorials and its news stories. In a long-awaited October column on whether or not the Times’s campaign coverage was biased, Okrent cited views from readers on both the left and the right before asking,

Is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate? No.

What, you are no doubt wondering, could Okrent possibly have been thinking? Whatever it was, he wasn’t thinking about the Times’s coverage of the presidential campaign, which was self-evidently biased toward John Kerry to the point of self-parody. No doubt he was thinking about the hundreds of e-mails from the Angry Left that flooded his mailbox each day — for he concluded his column with this:

I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, “I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war,” a limit has been passed.

That’s what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush … As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year …

With this, Okrent had not only succumbed to the pressure from the Left, he had cracked under it. Here we had the “readers’ representative” using the mighty power of the New York Times to lash out at one of its own readers, naming that reader by name, calling him a “coward,” and quoting him not only without his permission, but in defiance of his pleading not to be quoted.

In another column two weeks later, Okrent apologized — but only for using the word “coward.” Instead of admitting that Schwenk had begged him not to print his name, Okrent wrote, “Every message sent to my office gets an instant response asking if the writer wishes his or her name to be withheld” — as though Schwenk had failed to make his wishes clear. But that was untrue by implication: Such instant responses did not start being sent until after Okrent had cited Schwenk’s name. And besides, Schwenk had nevertheless objected.

Okrent went on in the same column to liken Schwenk to a “man who vandalizes a church,” and, in BusinessWeek, to “someone who goes out at night and paints a swastika on the door of a synagogue.” So who did this “readers’ representative” represent? I believe that in the end his allegiance was to the sacred institution of the New York Times — a “church,” a “synagogue,” a holy place, what Okrent called a “daily miracle” in a column last December. Is that the kind of loyalty a couple of rides in a limousine can buy?

So, Okrent ends his 18-month term as the Times’s “public editor” a broken man, having turned against the readers he was supposed to represent, having failed to institute a single significant reform and, worst of all, having acted as a fig-leaf behind which the paper has continued to do its partisan worst.

At least — just before Okrent cleaned out his desk and made his ignominious retreat from the Times building on West 43rd Street (no limo this time) — he managed to pull off a small but important act of truth and courage: He called Paul Krugman the cheater he is. The Krugman Truth Squad is grateful for any victory at all when it comes to the flagship of the liberal media establishment and America’s most dangerous liberal pundit.

Now we eagerly await Okrent’s replacement, Barney Calame, formerly of the Wall Street Journal. I have no doubt Okrent has already warned Calame about what a headache the Krugman Truth Squad can be. But we won’t deal with him as an adversary. After all, we (the Times’s readers) and he (our new representative) are after the same thing — the truth. Aren’t we?

– Donald Luskin is chief investment officer of Trend Macrolytics LLC, an independent economics and investment-research firm. He welcomes your visit to his blog and your comments at [email protected].