In a March 1 letter to readers, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth announced the end of the newspaper's ombudsman position, which will be replaced by a "reader representative" who will not write a weekly column but "will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns."
To a casual reader, this might seem merely a matter of semantics, but much more is involved. Since the 1970s, the Post's ombudsman position has been endowed with unique independence within the paper, independence that is now being eliminated.At NPR, Edward Schumacher-Matos writes:
Curiously, while the American news media cowers and pulls back, unable to believe in itself, the increasingly free press in so many other parts of the word are adding ombudsmen and improving standards. Even in some places without a long tradition of free press, there is a growing recognition of the link between good public information, on the one hand, and economic development and democracy, on the other, as shown in studies by the World Bank and others.
I am on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen and have watched with delight as the number of ombudsmen has taken off in countries such as India, Bangladesh and South Africa. According to Stephen Pritchard, the president of ONO, Colombia now has 14 ombudsmen working just in television — each with a weekly half-hour show—and Mexican television has five. When Lord Justice Leveson issued his report last November on the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, he cited having an independent ombudsman as a "best practice" to respond to public complaints.
The movement toward having ombudsmen grew in the United States as the press became more powerful beginning with a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s that largely created the American idea of almost unfettered freedom of the press as we know it today. Despite the First Amendment, the press often was far more circumscribed on matters such as libel, privacy, government secrecy and fairness before then. But the United States news media has always fiercely resisted having an industry or national press complaints council, as exists in many other countries to help maintain standards, curb abuses and give citizens some recourse for complaint short of a costly suit. The ombudsman was our answer, led, apparently, by The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, three years before The Washington Post.
The American press remains powerful, but as, first, regional papers and, now, possibly The Washington Post eliminate their ombudsmen, the press has ever-fewer controls over it. Television news, for example, is barely regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and no longer adheres to what was once its longstanding fairness doctrine. Small wonder the public rebels by questioning the power of the news media and losing trust.
At The Washington Post, ombudsman Peter Pexton reflects on the end of his tenure. He is critical of reader comment sections.
What turned me were the truly ugly comments on a Feb. 4 article by Krissah Thompson on the high school football coach who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere. I was watching the online comment stream the night the story was published, and the moderators could barely delete fast enough the racist, sexist and crude comments. I don’t think comments like those should be within 10 miles of The Washington Post’s masthead. And readers agree; thosewho wrote in said that it hurts the publication’s brand and reputation.
I think The Post should move, as the Miami Herald did recently, away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook. It would reduce the volume of comments but raise the level of discussion and help preserve The Post’s brand.
The second most common area of complaints to the ombudsman was from readers whom I call the “grammar police.” I mean that in a positive way. These are the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post. I dutifully forwarded these complaints to Post copy editors and the corrections desk. I know this kind of criticism can be annoying, but the grammar police help keep standards high.
Speaking of copy editors, they are the unsung heroes of journalism. Because of the copy-hungry maw of the Web, copy desks are often editing double the amount of material they did just a few years ago, and in many cases they are doing it with half the staff. You would miss mistakes — and make some, too — under those trying conditions.