It's a Sorry World When Just Anybody Can Hang a Shingle and Call Himself an Ombudsman


The battle over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting continues to rage, as the Organization of News Ombudsmen changes its rules to block the CPB's two new ombuds from joining. From The New York Times' report:

The Organization of News Ombudsmen, which represents nearly a hundred print and broadcast ombudsmen from around the world, more than half of them in the United States, voted at its annual conference here last week to change its bylaws to allow full membership only to those who work for news organizations. The corporation, a quasi-governmental organization, provides some federal funds for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System; it does not itself gather or produce news.

The change allows for the corporation's ombudsmen—and others in allied fields but who are not part of a news organization—to become associate members. As such, they are denied voting privileges and the stamp of legitimacy as independent ombudsmen that full membership would suggest.

I can't completely dismiss this decision, because I like to see the CPB's pretense of political independence battered in as many forums as possible. But my bullshit detector goes off whenever I see a credential hardly anyone has heard of (there's an Organization of News Ombudsmen? who knew?) getting waved around as a "stamp of legitimacy." I'm not sure if the real effect here is to refuse a mark of substance to the CPB's new hires or to grant a little unearned gravity to the ombuds, who now get to make a show of their standards and pat themselves on the back.

Just how independent are these people in practice? As Matt Welch wrote in Reason two years ago, ombudsmen can be "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?') 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." Along those lines, the Times notes that National Public Radio's ombudsman, reportedly unhappy to see his turf invaded, was not allowed to vote on the rule change because of the conflict—but nonetheless "was instrumental in setting the policy."

In other news, ESPN now has an ombudsman, too.