Mike’ll Get Ya  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

Mike’ll Get Ya   

Michael Getler has proven to be the toughest ombudsman at the Washington Post in a long time. What’s the impact of a hard-hitting in-house critic on a newspaper?

By David A. Markiewicz
David A. Markiewicz is a reporter for the Atlanta-Constitution.     


For a year now, Fridays in the Washington Post newsroom have crackled with a little added anticipation, something apart from the expectation of the next big story and beyond the eagerness of reporters and editors looking forward to the weekend.


The end of the week has also brought the release of the latest "Omb Memo," a pointed, one- or two-page assessment of the staff's recent failings and accomplishments as seen by the paper's ombudsman, Michael Getler.


Although Getler openly wonders whether he's changed the paper since he took over the job last November, there is little doubt that his internal memos as well as his challenging Sunday editorial page columns have had a considerable effect on editorial staffers.


"Everybody reads it," reporter Dana Milbank says of the memo. "It's all over the newsroom."


"His memos are a mini-event around here. Everybody's eager to see who he's going to take on and who he's going to praise," adds reporter Paul Farhi. "You don't want to be on the other side."


The memo has attained such a high profile inside the Post that it's been recognized in the form of the occasional in-house (B)omb memorandum, a witty and withering send-up composed by staffers, at least some of whom have been skewered in the official version. Its pseudonymous author: Mike will Getcha.


Getler's Sunday column has been no less stimulating. He has addressed readers' concerns about pieces felt by some to be racist, politically biased or mean-spirited. He has discussed whether the Post is too focused on projects at the expense of news (see "Treasure or Torture?" September) and suggested the paper should have reported in more detail on the accident that led to the death of owner Katharine Graham. On this point, he appeared to disagree with Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. — hardly an uncommon occurrence, according to Downie.


"Mike Getler is doing a terrific job," assesses Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. "He's making waves and ticking people off, which is exactly what an aggressive ombudsman should do. I see Getler as the toughest ombudsman in a long time."


In columns written in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Getler praised the Post and other newspapers for their reporting. But he also raised questions about the uneasy relationship between the media and government over war coverage, and criticized elements of some Post articles.


At a time when the proper role of ombudsmen is being debated (should they be newsroom watchdogs, reader advocates or both?), and when some newspapers have redefined or eliminated the job, as in Los Angeles and St. Louis, respectively, Getler and the Post are clear on the autonomy and mission of the position.


The paper's tradition of commitment to an ombudsman, reflected in its selection of respected journalists for the role and affirmed in their independence from management, has helped galvanize the importance and legitimacy of the job.


Among those who have served as ombudsman for the Post since the paper created the position in 1970 — the second U.S. daily to do so — are such well-known figures as Ben Bagdikian, Richard Harwood, Geneva Overholser and E.R. Shipp. Getler, 65, spent 26 years with the Washington Post as a reporter and editor, and four more as editor of the International Herald Tribune, which the Post co-owns with the New York Times Co. The paper's 12th ombudsman, he is now retired, self-employed and works under a contract, independent of the paper.


"He is the epitome of just how seriously the Washington Post takes the ombudsman's role," says Paul McMasters, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman.


Journalists inside and outside the paper agree that Getler appears to be the right choice for what can be a very dirty job. He is willing to publicly challenge even longtime friends and colleagues if he believes it is for the good of the paper. Not only does he have the professional chops to do so, he has a two-year, extendable contract that guarantees him the autonomy necessary to address the most controversial issues.


"What Mike has going for him," says former Post Ombudsman Joann Byrd, "is that he is one of the most highly respected journalists who've ever worked in that newsroom. He has the moral authority."


Getler's long and distinguished career at the Post hasn't kept him from sparring with his friends and former colleagues. Among them is Eugene Robinson, the assistant managing editor who oversees the paper's revered but frequently boundary-busting Style pages.


Style's mission, says Robinson, "is to push the envelope in terms of form and content. Not to gratuitously offend, not to be unnecessarily snarky or obnoxious, but to delight and surprise. When you do that, you occasionally exasperate, and that's OK. That's what we're supposed to do. I think we die if we don't do that."


Getler's view of what should be in the section, Robinson says, "is more conservative. Mike's an ace traditional newsman. He's not clueless, but I don't think he gets the section and what it wants to do, and he doesn't get the full extent of the section's relationship with its readers."


Getler counters, "I am kind of traditional. I fully understand that newspapers need to grow and evolve, but they need to do it in an acceptable way, in a way readers will accept. That doesn't include being smartass or smart-alecky or arrogant, or using vulgarity unnecessarily. That is foolish. That is diminishing the newspaper for no good reason."


Newspapers, Getler says, "are not like 'Saturday Night Live.' People say, 'Look what's on television.' But you can turn off the TV or change the channel. Newspapers come into homes. I think people expect newspapers to be one of those bastions of American culture that maintain standards. If we don't, if we're snide or arrogant or insulting, we're going to pay a price."


Robinson says he had two main initial concerns with Getler's views. He didn't want his younger staffers to be afraid to try new approaches in their writing and reporting out of concern that they'd be criticized in a memo. And he feared that his old friend would be dismissed by veterans as "the neighborhood scold, complaining in a wild and very predictable way" that would make him easy to brush off.


Robinson says he took care of the first issue with constant reassurances to his staff, while Getler has avoided the latter by "picking his shots better."


Milbank, a frequent target of the Omb Memo, describes Getler as a "lively and prolific" ombudsman but adds: "The question is, does the criticism become so pervasive about every nook and cranny of the organization that it discourages risk-taking? It could make us more cautious, cautious to the point of boring. It could make our copy read more like the Associated Press."


For all his critical observations, Getler still seems to have the respect of staff, even those who've become memo material. "I really think he is doing a very good job," says Style columnist Gene Weingarten, who is no slouch when it comes to envelope-pushing. "In my experience, most people feel he's almost always right, except when he's talking about them. Then he's blitheringly wrong."


Weingarten says Getler has "a swaggering ego. I don't think it's self-importance. You need that in an ombudsman. Some of the previous ombudsmen didn't show that self- confidence."


As for his feelings about Getler's views on Style, Weingarten offers, "I think he'll be the first to tell you that [features] is not his strong point."


Getler is unbowed, in part, perhaps, because "most of the feedback I get is good," and because staffers contribute ideas or raise issues to him. Yet, he says, "there's a lot of tension to the job. If you do your job right, you must not pull your punches. You say what you feel is useful and important.


"I don't ever intend to be mean," he continues. "If you approach the job from the standpoint of constructive criticism, criticism that is not mean, that will be absorbed in an open way, then you have to see it as helping a newspaper."


He seems to take the (B)omb memo and other flak in stride. "I think it's clever," he says of the parody. "I hope I can take criticism. It's a newsroom, and newsrooms do those things."


While the (B)omb memo maintains a mostly good-natured tone, it nonetheless scores some hits on the Omb. For example, one Omb Memo noted that a number of librarians among the Post's readers were upset to read that Wimbledon tennis champion Goran Ivanisevic, upon tearing off his shirt in celebration, "revealed a chest that looked like a librarian's."


The (B)omb, noting that the Omb had spelled 'shirt' as 'short,' retorted: "Is it possible the Omb meant that the tennis star tore off his 'shorts' and revealed a chest that looked like a librarian's? This would indicate that Ivanisevic is in even worse shape than the article indicated. But if we assume that the Omb meant 'shirt' where he wrote 'short,' it appears the Omb has come down firmly on the side of buxom librarians. The Bomb can only speculate that this is because the Omb has not yet had his workplace harassment training."


Most of the Omb memo deals with weightier, if standard, newspaper issues: Story selection and play; balance, fairness and accuracy in reporting; misspellings and other technical errors; misdirected lead paragraphs; elements of style; and matters of taste. Though the memo doles out compliments as well, the preponderance of items and the amount of space given to criticism dominates. Some of this may be simply a function of the job, says Byrd, now editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. As she points out, readers generally don't call an ombudsman unless it is to complain. "You're evaluating the paper from the point of view of finding flaws or suggesting improvement," she says. "It's all pretty negative. That's sort of the downside to it."


One of the upsides, Getler says, is "how much interaction I have with reporters, and especially with young staffers who really like the memos. They tell me they learn a lot about the paper and they get a lot of tips about what to avoid and what kind of traps not to fall into. I like that. That's one of the better rewards of the job."


Getler has been equally unafraid to cite flaws in his Sunday column, where he has provided a forum for debate on what turned out to be controversial articles and offered his thoughts on journalistic issues likely less apparent to readers.


Twice, for example, Getler has responded with columns to pieces that readers felt were unfair, even mean, in the physical descriptions of their subjects, South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.


The story on Thurmond vividly described the 98-year-old politician, noting his blotchy skin, blank stares and shaking hands and legs "flopping around like a puppet's."


"The Thurmond piece was a very well done story in a lot of ways," Getler says. "But the whole top of that story was a description of his physical infirmities and limitations. The idea of the image of somebody's legs dangling like a puppet's, to me, and to many, many readers, conveys a sort of meanness, a mocking, even though it's real. It distracts from a good piece. People were so upset by the way that story began that it lost its journalistic quality. It needlessly alienated many readers." Harris was criticized for the makeup job she displayed in her public appearances: "Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls...."


In both cases, Getler wrote, readers viewed the descriptions as personal assaults. Robinson and Downie defended the stories in the column, but Getler agreed with readers that the articles had gone too far. The Harris piece, Getler wrote, "was a classic example of the arrogance of journalists that undermines people's confidence in the media."


Fashion Editor Robin Givhan, who wrote the Harris story, says she wasn't angry with Getler, even though "reporters, myself included, can be very thin-skinned about what they write. I was more surprised because [reader reaction] was so far from what I intended." She points out that Harris' appearance was "of her own making" and that it was "troubling" given that she had to deliver very serious news in a delicate manner.


Givhan says she is accustomed to readers disagreeing with her because her job involves criticism and requires a point of view. Still, when Getler wrote about her, it was somewhat different. "When it comes from someone with the title of ombudsman, there's immediately a sense of reprimand. It sounds and feels like a paternalistic rap on the knuckles."


In the end, Givhan is in favor of having an ombudsman. "Even if people don't feel they take away a journalistic lesson, it's always good to have someone remind you to be sensitive and aware," she says. "Not that you'll change the way you write or report, but you'll tread cautiously."


By contrast, reporter Natalie Hopkinson was greatly concerned when she learned she would be in an ombudsman column because of reader reaction to an Outlook section piece she wrote in June. Hopkinson says she "meant it to be a piece to encourage the black middle class to invest in the inner cities while gentrification is going on."


One line in the piece states, "We damn sure are not about to let white folks buy up all the property in D.C." Some readers branded the piece racist, flooding message boards with their comments, and Getler told Hopkinson he intended to write about it.


"Wednesday, he e-mailed me, saying he was going to write about me in his column. He said he spoke to the Outlook editor and some other folks, and asked me to address the question of am I a racist. I'm 24, so I was like totally freaking out. If [Getler] supports these people who say I'm a racist, that's the sort of thing that could brand me forever."


Hopkinson and Getler talked, by e-mail and in person, and when the ombudsman's column came out Sunday, she says, "I was pleasantly surprised. It was fair, and at least he tried to see what I was trying to do. He didn't respond in a knee-jerk way."


Getler wrote that "Hopkinson's thoughts are revealing and worth knowing," adding, "I wouldn't label them racist." He did write that her views "were presented in inflammatory, in-your-face, racial rhetoric that alienated many readers rather than illuminating a complicated issue of history, place and emotion."


"That was a case of a lot of reader response to this article, which was in the commentary section," Getler explains. "It was unusual in the sense that this person was also a staff writer. People took great exception to it. And I took exception to it as well."


The following Sunday, Getler wrote a follow-up, noting that readers had complained to him that racism apparently was acceptable at the Washington Post, so long as it comes from a black writer, and that his initial column smacked of damage control.


Getler responded, "There was a great deal that was offensive and divisive about this article," and called it "journalistically flimsy in addressing a controversial topic." "Yet," he added, "it was commentary and an authentic expression of the emotions felt by one young, black family, and maybe many others."


Hopkinson says the second column "took some shots at me. He sort of undermined me. I e-mailed him and told him I was really upset. I tried to explain my position even more. I didn't appreciate the backtracking, but there are no hard feelings. We wound up leaving it like that."


Hopkinson, too, remains an advocate of an ombudsman. "It just keeps people on their toes a little bit," she says. "Nobody wants to be called out, whether you're a reporter or editor. He may not have power directly, but he's still the voice of the Post. If he'd come out and said my article was racist and the Post should not have printed it, that could have stuck with me the rest of my career.


"But it's not his job to worry about morale. It's his job to determine if the paper is right or wrong. I don't expect him to worry about my feelings, but I do expect him to be fair. And overall, I do think he's fair."


Of course, Getler could have avoided pressing such a hot-button issue. Or he could have simply printed the responses of the writer and the story's editor and avoided the brickbats from inside and outside the newsroom. But that's not the way he sees it.


In fact, Getler says it's essential that his own views are presented. "If you're an ombudsman who only reflects readers' complaints, reporters will not take you seriously," he says. "But if you can sort out those complaints and bring to them your own understanding of how those stories evolve, and how reporters and editors work and put it in a context, then they do pay attention. Whether it changes anything, I don't know. I do think they pay more attention if you have this internal understanding you can provide."


It has been said that the ombudsman has the loneliest job in the newsroom (that, in fact, was the headline on AJR's article on the subject in March 1993), so Getler may be quite serious when he says he likes his office near the elevators at the Post because it gives people a chance to say hello as they pass by. "There is some isolation that comes with the job, in the sense that if I write critically, which you have to to be taken seriously in the job," he says, "fewer people sit at the lunch table with me."


If this is true, Getler doesn't seem to mind. Not enough, anyway, to change his approach. "At this stage in my career and life," he says, "I'm willing to accept that because I think it's an important job."


One can understand why upon hearing Getler talk about the ombudsman's duty, to the American newspaper and to readers. He speaks on the subject with something that would approach messianic fervor, were he inclined to raise his voice.


"I am very devoted to newspapers and their role in American society," he begins. "They are absolutely crucial. To me, it's imperative that newspapers survive, and that the big metropolitan newspapers, in particular, be absolutely as good as they can because of their central role in the coverage and dissemination of news and analysis and commentary in the country."


But to do so, he adds, they must constantly evaluate themselves — how they gather and present the news, whether they are being arrogant or biased or insular. If they become too inwardly focused, he says, "they are in danger of a really serious disconnect with their readership."


Just the kind of thing an ombudsman can help prevent, painful though the cure can be. "Even a first-rate newspaper like the Washington Post has to be challenged," he says. "It has to fix what it's doing wrong, improve around the edges."


Readers do much of the challenging. While some call solely to vent, collectively, they can send a message, says Getler, who tries to absorb "what's journalistically useful" and translate that to the staff accompanied with his own observations. It is, he says, similar to editors filtering through several reporters' information to determine the real story.


"I don't think reporters should be unduly concerned about readers," he adds. "They need to be focused on getting the news and presenting it as thoroughly and as fairly as they can. But I do think it's important that management have some sense about how their work is perceived by readers and that it understands the often valid points that readers make about how the news is presented."


Downie tapped Getler last year as his four-year commitment to the Herald Tribune wound down. Getler says that because of his varied, insider experience, Downie "felt maybe I had a better chance to be listened to. [And] Len probably knew I'd be a tough but fair critic."


Downie says Getler has "a strong independence of mind and strong journalistic values" and that he "knew about the newspaper but hadn't worked here for a while." This allows Getler some distance and perspective. What's more, Downie says he knew that Getler "could write a good column."


Which isn't to say that the two always concur. To the contrary. "We have strongly disagreed on occasions," Downie says. But, he adds, "I appreciate the outside view. We don't want everybody to be exactly alike. And I learn a lot from his columns and his memos."


Getler liked the idea of becoming ombudsman, in part because "it was the most make-a-difference job that was out there for me." Besides, "it builds on everything I've done for my whole career. I love newspapers, and I think a lot about them."


The fact that he had a long history at the paper, Getler says, has helped. "I know how things happen here," he says. "I know [the Post's] culture and instincts."


He also was a natural for the job by inclination. "Even when I was here on the payroll as an editor and a reporter, I always spoke up critically when I felt the paper was doing something it shouldn't or not as well as it should do.


"So, it's probably not a bad fit for me."

David A. Markiewicz is a staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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