Why news ombudsmen matter (maybe even in Manhattan)

March 31, 2008

News ombudsmen, or public editors, are journalists who investigate complaints about their own organizations. Most report their findings publicly. News outfits all over the world have ombudsmen, and the position is embraced exuberantly by newly emancipated newspapers and broadcasters that want to dramatize their commitment to public service.

Here, the ombudsmen movement has been on shaky ground. The New York Times’ 2003 decision to name a public editor, after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal, was a rare bright spot. Over the past 15 years some 30 U.S. news organizations — including papers in Minneapolis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle, Richmond, St. Paul, Denver, Detroit, and Boston —eliminated the job, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO). Others scaled it back or farmed it out.  Ombudsmen remain virtually unknown in TV and radio, outside of public broadcasting.

Now comes an acid column in Advertising Age by Simon Dumenco, who’s also a columnist for New York magazine and an all-round Manhattan media star. Dumenco’s central argument is that the ombudsmen’s time has past. They’re boring and irrelevant. Above all, they’re superfluous, thanks to widely read media news blogs like Jim Romenesko’s on poynter.org — which linked to his column — and the fierce drumbeat of commentary from the Web.

Now, Dumenco’s an irreverent and supremely talented wordsmith read by the young and the hip – he made a splash in 2006 with a column beseeching Ann Coulter to kill herself — and since news barons are slavishly focused on New York, desperate to endear themselves to the young and the hip, and perpetually sniffing the breeze for money-saving tips, his comments about ombudsmen are liable to have an outsized impact — and could accelerate a trend that ought to be halted and reversed.

Since 2003 I’ve been associated with ONO and collaborate, in an unpaid capacity, with public editors from North America, Latin America, Europe and Australia. And I can’t imagine what Dumenco’s thinking.

Does anybody believe the media offer too much thoughtful self-examination, that we have too many honest, independent-minded arbiters who have direct access to newsrooms and whose duty it is to respond to grievances from the general public — and to expose their own bosses’ foolishness?

There may exist a parallel universe where that is so, and it could be that Manhattan is such a universe. (Still, even there, amid an obscene richness of media criticism, it was the Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt, who wrote a quietly devastating takedown recently of the paper’s appalling treatment of John McCain’s almost sex scandal that was the best thing I saw on the subject.)

And elsewhere? In all those one-newspaper towns where aggrieved readers can’t get their calls returned without lawyers, and where TV’s botoxed “News Four You” never corrects anything except at gunpoint? Who takes up those causes?

Besides, ombudsmen don’t just whine. Their real job is to get management to respond, to publish those responses — in all their mealy-mouthed splendor — for the public to marvel at, and to force a remedy. As Ian Mayes, former public editor for the Guardian in London, put it in an e-mail: “Blogging alas is very often simply a way of one person attempting to out-shout the rest. Where is the redress? Where is the resolution?”

Public support is often amazing. Mário Magalhães, ombudsman at Folha de Sao Paulo, a principal daily in Brazil’s largest city, says five times more readers contact Folha now than when the position was created in 1991, even though the paper’s circulation is lower. Jeffrey Dvorkin, formerly National Public Radio’s public editor, figures 750,000 people contacted his office during his six-year tenure — some 340 a day.

Sure, that clamor for accountability needs mechanisms other than ombudsmen. But the more online criticism, the more necessary the ombudsmen: Somebody in-house owes those critics a thorough response. And ordinary people who don’t have their own websites deserve ways to be heard too.

Plus, as Dave Mazzarella, public editor of the armed forces daily, Stars and Stripes, said in an e-mail, the ombudsman doesn’t just handle complaints, but reminds people about constitutional protections and other political basics,  and “can be an advocate for such things as freedom of access, shield laws, and freedom of expression. “

Until now, the movement’s biggest enemy has been management itself. Nobody willingly pays to be embarrassed. But it would indeed be ironic if the dedicated amateurs who mobilize now to keep the media honest would be rewarded by seeing their most valuable in-house allies eliminated.

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