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.