Journalism's last line of defense

A nervous news industry is killing off its ombudsmen. But after facing enraged NPR listeners when I had that role, I know the public has the most to lose.

Published February 12, 2008 12:28PM (EST)

A few weeks ago, the Baltimore Sun announced that the long-held position of news ombudsman, or readers' editor, would be abolished. Paul Moore, who held the position with integrity and enthusiasm for almost four years, was shifted over into a management position to help run the paper.

No job in journalism should be forever, and change always has some advantages. But who should look after the interests and concerns of the readers? The Sun's publisher says that there will be plenty of opportunities for readers to express views and interact with the paper. A blog is coming, designed expressly for that purpose. I have my doubts.

For more than six years, from 2000 to 2006, I was the ombudsman at National Public Radio. I learned the value of answering my own phone and personally responding to e-mails as quickly as possible. Listeners (and I heard from more than 750,000 of them) were eager to interact with a live person. They wanted someone to answer their complaints, to provide more than a pro forma corporate response. They wanted to tell someone what they were hearing -- or not hearing -- on the radio. It wasn't always frolicsome and fun-filled. The worst was during the Second Intifada, when criticism of the media in general and NPR in particular became intense, and sometimes irrational.

The Middle East has always been a difficult story to cover. There is an intensity and unpredictability about this story that isn't found in other hot-button issues. At the beginning of the Intifada, my e-mails were running 6-to-1 accusing NPR's coverage of bias in favor of Israel. But in March 2003, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Passover seder just outside Tel Aviv, killing more than 40 people. Within a day, my mail switched and began to run 8-to-1 accusing NPR of being pro-Palestinian, even though the tone and volume of the reporting had not changed.

I think the shift was due to two factors: 1) the Patriot Act appeared to silence a lot of pro-Palestinian opinion. I suddenly stopped hearing from people with Middle Eastern names. 2) The Passover bombing marked the first time in the Intifada that Israelis were killed in a specifically Jewish (as opposed to Israeli) circumstance. For many NPR listeners, that raised the existential threat of anti-Semitism and many pro-Israel and Jewish listeners responded passionately.

Some of that passion was stoked by one particular lobby group, known as CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America). This group, based in Cambridge, Mass., was particularly effective in generating real anger around NPR's reporting. Its criticisms were occasionally right, but only occasionally.

On many occasions, I would ask an irate caller if he or she had heard the story in question. I would say that in 90 percent of cases, the answer was no. They were calling me because CAMERA had told them to.

As a consequence of its campaign against NPR, CAMERA acted as the enabler for some seriously disturbed people.

For several months in 2004, I would get phone calls left on my office voice mail every Sunday night. (I published my phone number and e-mail address on the NPR Web site.) The calls were so threatening that I contacted security, who notified the FBI. The calls were traced to a pay phone booth along I-95 in Connecticut. A state trooper parked outside the phone for a couple of Sunday nights and the calls eventually stopped.

I asked a CAMERA spokeswoman if she felt that CAMERA was in any way responsible for generating this kind of reaction. She denied it and blamed NPR for inciting it with "bad journalism."

Even so, CAMERA was useful in helping me help NPR journalists understand that their evenhanded reporting could be perceived as biased. As NPR reported the Israeli and the Palestinian violence and counterviolence, many listeners considered that to be "moral equivalence." As ombudsman I tried to explain that some listeners found that repugnant and that journalistic neutrality sounded like journalistic avoidance.

At the same time, I would explain to aggrieved listeners that NPR was not on either side in this instance. One listener exclaimed, "But I want you on my side." It was not an easy time to be a partisan listener, a truth-seeking journalist, or a neutral ombudsman. But overall, I think that -- for NPR -- having an ombudsman to catch the flak was better than a defensive silence, which is how many other news organizations dealt with criticism of their coverage.

In the end, NPR's coverage of the Intifada won several journalistic awards, but that cut no ice with the critics. It took a long time for NPR to surmount its reputation as National "Palestinian" Radio with some listeners.

Being the ombudsman was a seven-day-a-week job. I would check e-mails from home on the weekend, and on vacation. As a journalistic experience, it was always important, interesting and intense. I consider being NPR's ombudsman perhaps the best journalistic experience of my career. And I know a lot of listeners were deeply appreciative that NPR took a risk by creating and supporting the position, which occasionally and intentionally made NPR journalists and management squirm. Nothing personal, guys.

Other news organizations also saw the benefit of having an ombudsman, or readers' editor. The New York Times created the position but only as a consequence of the Jayson Blair incident, when a reporter fabricated stories and bylines. Senior editors departed and Dan Okrent was hired as the first of, so far, three readers' editors. This has brought enormous credit to the Times, which other newspapers seem disinclined to follow.

The Baltimore Sun isn't alone in abolishing this important and vital position. Over the past five years, a significant number of American news organizations have looked around their newsrooms and decided that having an ombudsman was a luxury the paper just couldn't afford. I think this is shortsighted and wrong.

The fact that yet another ombuds position has been abolished has not gone unnoticed. The Ombuds Blog, the blog of an organization representing non-news ombuds, noted the fact with sadness and asked, "Are press ombuds in decline?"

The answer, at least in the United States, seems to be yes. The blog notes that the number of news organizations with ombudsmen has dropped from a high of 65 to around 40 in less than five years.

I'm hardly unbiased in this matter. I was on the executive board of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) for five years and its president in 2004 and 2005. I used my position to pound the bully pulpit in favor of independent ombudsmen and women inside news organizations. While a few editors and publishers liked the idea and made real sacrifices to create the position, I found that many more were reluctant and even hostile to the idea. It was as though an ombudsman would somehow diminish their managerial authority by increasing public input. Frequently those editors and publishers would just blame the lawyers. "We can't do it. Our legal department says there could be liability if we admit we made a mistake." I must have heard that a dozen times.

But a study conducted by the Guardian in London showed that the cost of litigation actually drops whenever there is an ombudsman on staff -- and by as much as 30 percent a year! Those savings would more than pay to operate the ombudsman's office. (And lest anyone insist that the 30 percent figure deserves an asterisk because English libel law is different, the Minnesota Press Council got similar results from a U.S. study in the early 1990s.) Studies have also shown that having an ombudsman increases credibility and community respect for the newspaper or broadcaster. Other studies show that having a public ombudsman is actually good for internal newsroom morale especially in these nervous times.

The reasons for this ombuds-reticence aren't hard to find. The rise of the blogosphere and the vastness of the media criticism landscape mean that having an internal ombudsman may appear antique to cost-conscious managers in this brave new cyber-world. Certainly, the parallel functions of bloggers and ombudsmen are worth discussing. Can blogs and ombudsmen be reconciled? Can they function together? Or is this another example of turf wars in the new media? If it is, I can guess who will win.

As news organizations move to create a new business model, having a staff ombudsman is so, well, 20th century.

The role of the news ombudsman is being tested by online publications because the interaction between online readers and online publications is so intense. Online writers are more engaged with readers who want to test ideas, debate concepts and argue the issues. Online journalists are more willing and, it seems, more available than are their colleagues in the mainstream media. They debate points with readers in the letters threads attached to their articles, and sometimes make factual corrections based on information provided by readers in those threads.

As a result, I sense a certain resistance among online media to having an in-house ombudsman to act as an agent for the readers. The cultural change in the online world is enormous and these new media pride themselves on being different from the so-called MSM -- the mainstream media. Perhaps the new "wiki" model of self-correcting information could do the ombuds-job better? My experience at NPR suggests otherwise.

Listeners, readers and viewers want to deal with a real person, someone whose job it is to listen to their concerns. And I believe the public still needs its own dedicated agent inside these organizations, if only to provide more reality testing and to avoid the danger of group thinking that so permeates the established media. The presence of an ombudsman can also free up the reporting staff to concentrate on their own main task -- reporting.

For those ombudsmen who still have jobs, there is another danger. In these rough and tumble economic times, those who have not already been downsized are being intimidated. Some ONO members have told me they worry these days about upsetting management with tough columns about the decline in standards and service at their own newspapers. Some say they feel unable to write about the real issues for fear of losing their jobs like so many of their co-workers.

The Ombuds Blog suggests that as news organizations hold the threat of "change or leave" over their staff, some ombudsmen seem defanged because they dare not risk an open challenge to management. As a result, many news ombudsmen have effectively reduced themselves to being ombuds/copy editors -- lamenting on a weekly basis the preponderance of dangling participles and misplaced modifiers. Important? Sure. But the more critical shortcomings of American journalism need addressing too.

News ombudsmen have developed the art of mediation and neutrality at the service of the readers, listeners and viewers. But they also appear to be excessively neutral about their own decline.

Interestingly, support for news ombudsmen is coming from non-news ombuds, whose ranks are growing fast in academia, government and not-for-profits. And the ranks of news ombudsmen are also growing rapidly outside the United States -- especially in former Soviet countries, Latin America, India and in parts of the Middle East where ombudsmanship is seen as an essential aspect of having independent, self-regulating media in a functioning democracy.

Is ombudsmanship in America in danger? I think it is. But this time the "death threat" isn't coming from individual members of the public, but from inside the news industry itself. Who can and will argue the case to news organizations that ombudsmen are needed now, more than ever? The public understands why they are a necessity. But in these nervous times, is anyone listening to the public's concerns?

By Jeffrey Dvorkin

Jeffrey Dvorkin was the Ombudsman for National Public Radio from 2000 to 2006. He blogs and teaches journalistic ethics at Georgetown University.

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