Anything but the Ombudsman!

Why newspapers should avoid in-house watchdogs.


The New York Times scandals have been a godsend to people who enjoy arguing about the media. Is the push for newsroom diversity obscuring good judgment? Do dateline policies and stringer-crediting rules pass the smell test? Should editors think twice before promoting error-prone, career-climbing cokeheads?

Contentious issues, all. But there is one remedy to the Gray Lady's ills that the journalistic keepers of the flame, from The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz to ubiquitous journalism-school dean Tom Goldstein to Beltway media diva Cokie Roberts, have all agreed upon: The Paper of Record, at long last, needs to hire an ombudsman—someone who will be "a reader's representative, to take the side of the newspaper's audience when dealing with a vast, and often unresponsive, bureaucracy," as Newsweek reporter Seth Mnookin put it recently. "This can't happen soon enough," Mnookin added.

Or can it?

Ombudsman is a Swedish word, originally meaning "the man who sees to it that the snow and ice and rubbish are removed from the streets and that the chimneys are swept," according to a mini-history written by Arthur Nauman, former ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee. The term evolved over time to describe state employees who help disgruntled citizens deal with an indifferent or hostile government.

The idea spread across Scandinavia's borders to the rest of Western Europe and North America in the second half of the 20th century, taking root wherever customer-unfriendly bureaucracies either felt guilty or had some rubbish they needed swept. Early adopters included state agencies of every stripe, universities, and hated corporate monopolies such as telecoms.

In 1967, at the height of the New Journalism rebellion, American newspapers were lobbied to get in on the action by two influential writers: A.H. Raskin, the legendary New York Times labor reporter (who once said of his career, "My mission, I felt, was to bring together organized labor, employers, the workers and government"), and Ben Bagdikian, a Washington Post editor who would go on to bum out generations of college students with his landmark book The Media Monopoly. Raskin's dream of creating an ominous-sounding "Department of Internal Criticism" at The New York Times was shot down by his bosses, but the Louisville Courier-Journal pounced on the idea, and the Post soon followed suit, adding the important wrinkle that the ombudsman should write a regular column channeling readers' concerns and challenging the newspaper's practices.

Thirty-seven years later, only around 40 American print or broadcast newsrooms employ such people. (By comparison, there are more than 1,500 U.S. dailies alone.) Yet the idea has been almost universally embraced by journalism professors, media critics, and elite publications—with the outspoken exception of The New York Times.

"The Times does not have an ombudsman because it believes that departmental and senior editors must be personally accountable to readers and the public," the paper was still explaining on its Web site as of early June. "The Times also believes that a journalist's work is most properly evaluated by an editor directly familiar with the assignment and the conditions under which it was carried out."

Not any more. Now that the work of two journalists has brought shame upon the House of Sulzberger and triggered the resignation of Executive Editor Howell Raines, an emergency committee has been drafted to address a suite of potential reformist questions, among them: "Do we need or want an ombudsman? Chosen from outside or inside? With what kind of contract or charter? Writing or nonwriting? Can an ombudsman be kept insulated from the fashions of outside political and social pressures? What are the alternative or intermediate solutions short of an ombudsman? 'Reader editor'? Part-time or full-time? Group? Rotating duty?"

The nation's ombuddies have responded to the Times' woes with a chorus of I-told-you-so's rivaling those of celebrated Raines-baiters Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus. They have capitalized on the opportunity to write about one of their favorite topics: why ombudsmen are so crucial.

"Twenty-two years as an ombudsman," the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Lou Gelfand intoned, "convinces me that the Blair travesty could have been aborted if the Times had an ombudsman with freedom to write a weekly column about issues of ethics, fairness and completeness….The day will come when it discards its Achilles' heel and names an ombudsman."

Could the fabulist Blair and dateline-hopping Rick Bragg have been tripped up by a quasi-independent newsroom scold?

Perhaps—if that person could have successfully tackled the editor's look-the-other-way favoritism, encouraged most of the screwed-over sources to complain instead of shrug, reversed decades' worth of editorial arrogance toward readers, and pressured key editors to check facts and track expenses with a scrutiny not seen in years, if ever. In other words, if the imaginary ombudsman could accomplish what no real-world ombudsman, to my knowledge, has ever accomplished.

"Public editors" and "reader's representatives" have a fundamental conflict of interest that editorial boards have been attacking in the corporate world for years—namely, that they are paid by the same people they are supposed to scrutinize. Further, many have been shaped by the very same newsrooms over which they ostensibly serve as "independent watchdogs." Even the most cussedly autonomous ombudsmen can't help reflecting and defending the values of their colleagues.

This makes them useful tools for bosses who need a little chimney sweeping. Halliburton has an ombudsman; Southwest Airlines does not. (When contacted to confirm this, a Southwest public relations officer drawled, "What's an ombud-man?") MSNBC.com and the late Brill's Content, two news organizations riddled with more conflicts of interest than most, both made a big show out of hiring ombudsmen and were applauded by the media criticism community instead of challenged on their actual conflicts. The great New York Times, meanwhile, has managed to compile a decent ethical record without an ombudsman, recent troubles notwithstanding.

Ombudsmen tend to have a startlingly uniform view of how news organizations and their employees should act and think of themselves. Crime coverage and screaming headlines—bad. Four-part, 17,500-word series on race relations in a sleepy Southern town—good. They typically see their position, the newsroom, and the paper itself to be exalted above the readers they are allegedly paid to represent.

"We must educate the public," said keynote speaker and "Conscience of Journalism" Bill Kovach at the Organization of News Ombudsmen convention last year. (Kovach, as Brill's Content's first ombudsman, sat on his hands when Brill launched a business with the largest companies he covered.) "I believe it is vital to the interest of the journalist and the public that we engage in an urgent, forceful, and consistent campaign to educate the public that in a democratic society, the journalist is, in fact, exercising the highest form of citizenship by monitoring events in the community and making the public aware of them and their importance." It speaks volumes about the conformity of ombudsmen that none of the nearly dozen people who wrote about Kovach's speech found this appallingly elitist sentiment worth questioning.

This is not to say that ombudsmen can't or don't do important work. But it is work a company that's responsive to its customers makes sure gets done by every employee, instead of being outsourced to a lone, reviled answer-man. Hiring a public editor is like advertising your monopolist indifference and staffing bloat; it's admitting defeat (or, depending on how you look at it, victory).

The New York Times' greatness was forged by fierce competition in one of the last remaining multi-newspaper markets. It should come out of this crisis swinging—and leave the ombudsmen to the Swedes.

[Editor's note: Since the writing of this story, The New York Times has announced that it is creating a "public editor" position.]