Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?
Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.
This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.
On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.
I don’t mean to suggest that every ombudsman’s column ever written has gummed the hand that feeds it. Notable exceptions to my generalization include Getler on the paper’s misguided coverage of the Iraq war run-up; Alexander’s probes of publisher Weymouth’s “salons;” Byrd on Post Co. conflict of interest resulting in “a heavy blow to the newspaper’s credibility;” Green on the Janet Cooke scandal; and others. But in practice, the ombudsman jobs at such institutions as the Post and the New York Times have served primarily as safety shields for newspapers, with the ombudsmen catching, deflecting or containing the flak tossed by readers.
“Everybody hates the ombudsman. The editors hate the ombudsman. The staff hates the ombudsman. News sources hate the ombudsman. Readers hate the ombudsman. I couldn’t take it,” one anonymous journalist told former Post ombudsman Byrd after he was offered the Post position.
In an ideal world, newspapers would answer complaints from readers and critics directly. But like other powerful people in the news, editors recoil at being grilled about how they do their job. In 2011, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller likened his critics to “oxpeckers who ride the backs of pachyderms, feeding on ticks.” In 2009, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli gave then-Washington City Paper Editor Erik Wemple an earful when asked detailed questions about a brouhaha at the Post. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to lay out all of the processes in the newspaper to make decisions. … Newspapers spend way too much time explaining themselves. … Too many people call our newsroom. There are endless queries on our journalism these days. I think it’s better for us to focus on producing journalism than on our process.”
If there has been any protest — organized or piecemeal — against the Post for retiring the ombudsman position, I’ve missed it. I’ve witnessed greater reader noise after the cancellation of a comic strip from the Post. This relative silence suggests that in its 43 years, the Post ombudsman job never created much of a constituency of its own. You can’t blame the Post for reader indifference: It has given the column big play and has never messed with the ombud’s independence (that I’m aware of). Perhaps the failure of the ombudsman column to catch fire with readers belongs to the ombudsmen themselves, whose dissections of the Post too often read like stuffy lecture notes written by an over-the-hill professor. If only the Post could have cloned Daniel Okrent. The New York Times appointed Okrent as its first ombudsman (d.b.a. “the public editor”) in 2003 and installed him in the ombudsman position
permanently. Okrent produced a stream of Times columns so independent, thoughtful and incandescent that the only way to contain their unremitting brilliance was to seal them forever between hardcovers.
Martin Baron, the Post‘s current executive editor, told Ombudsman Pexton last month that one argument against perpetuating the ombudsman job was that its core functions — criticizing the Post and holding its staff accountable — had been somewhat subsumed by the Internet. “There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries,” said Baron, which I take as a soft promise that he will be a more willing feeder of the press oxpeckers than was Brauchli.
Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post editor, an early Post ombudsman and a professor of journalism, once called the ombudsman office “a kind of self-indulgent, self-congratulatory gesture by a lot of publishers.” But he hadn’t soured on the position completely. “On the whole, it’s been a healthy development. It’s certainly been better than nothing,” he said.
Better than nothing? We’re about to find out.
I lifted the dandy phrase, “gum the hand that feeds you,” from Michael Dolan’s 1985 (or was it 1986?) profile of Joseph Laitin in Washington City Paper. I am here 24/7 to answer your questions: Send them to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com, just don’t expect a prompt answer. My Twitter feed is better than Daniel Okrent’s. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A general view of a Washington Post Company newspaper box near the company’s headquarters in Washington, March 30, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst