Opinion: Bring back the ombudsman
Washington, D.C. ? How can news organizations avoid the trap that President Trump has laid for them in his attacks on the media as a one-sided “opposition party” that caters to anti-Trump elites and purveys “fake news” to readers and viewers?
Part of the answer is simply for journalists to keep doing their jobs, aggressively and fairly. We’re not in the business of making friends but of holding powerful people and institutions accountable. And ultimately, it’s only this feisty, independent voice that will preserve public support for our role under the First Amendment.
But something is misfiring. For fans of the mainstream media, this may look like a golden age, with new scoops every day about Trump and his alleged misdeeds. But liberal adulation masks a broader mistrust: A disturbingly large 72 percent of Americans think news organizations tend to favor one side in covering political or social issues, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. And Democrats are 47 points more likely than Republicans to back the media’s accountability role.
Robert Kaiser, for many years The Washington Post’s managing editor, liked to say that “readers deserve one clear shot at the facts,” so they can make up their own minds about who the good guys and bad guys are. Sorry, colleagues, but even on our best days, we aren’t always meeting that test.
How do we broaden public trust? One approach that news organizations embraced a few decades ago, when they had more money to spend and fewer freelance critics, was to create an in-house ombudsman or public editor to represent readers and viewers. Most big news organizations, including the Post and The New York Times, have dropped their ombudsmen over the past decade. That was a mistake, I think.
Ombudsmen can be a pain in the neck. They second-guess reporters and editors. They advocate ideas of fairness that some people think are outmoded. They undermine coverage. (“Even The Washington Post’s ombudsman admitted that …”) But they’re needed as never before. Critics see media bigshots as arrogant, unaccountable elitists pursuing their own agendas. A good ombudsman changes that balance, in favor of readers and viewers — and fairness.
Margaret Sullivan, a New York Times public editor for four years and now a media columnist for the Post, favors the restoration of the ombudsman role at the Times. Though she has argued against a tepid “balance” (termed “false equivalency” by liberal critics), she says that shouldn’t excuse tendentious or one-sided coverage. “There is nothing more important to what we do than fairness. Fairness doesn’t mean down the middle, 50/50. … Fairness doesn’t equal false equivalency.”
A model ombudsman was the Post’s Michael Getler, who held the role from 2000 to 2005. He wrote about two-dozen columns criticizing the Post for not covering the run-up to the Iraq War adequately. Getler was one of the paper’s most experienced reporters and editors, and his criticism stung. He represented angry readers who felt the Post had allowed the country to sleepwalk into a disastrous conflict.
Yet Getler was attacked. Slate argued in 2001 that he “subscribes to the old-school view that journalistic credibility rises whenever a writer suppresses what he thinks about the subject at hand and falls whenever he abandons that pure stenography of who, what, why, where, and when.” This derisive critique of traditional, fact-based reporting has become surprisingly widespread on the left.
Another tough in-house critic who got roughed up for her trouble was Liz Spayd, a former Post managing editor who became public editor for the Times in 2016. She cautioned in a column last September that journalists shouldn’t be so worried about avoiding on-the-one hand, on-the-other versions of balance that they become partisan.
Spayd was publicly flayed over the next year for this and other apostasies before the Times abolished her position in May. New York magazine called her false-balance column “a logical train wreck.” Politico headlined: “Good riddance.”
The pursuit of evenhanded reporting may have led the Times to overdo its coverage of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s email controversies, both hyped out of proportion in my view. But it was Spayd, the advocate of fairness, who skewered the Times for not being aggressive enough in covering the FBI investigation of Trump and Russia before the election. Executive Editor Dean Baquet termed that a “bad column,” but it looks pretty good in retrospect.
The debates that swirled around Sullivan, Getler, Spayd and others are part of a healthy (if painful) process of holding the watchdogs accountable. Bring back the ombudsman!