Wanted: One Good Ombudsman  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Wanted: One Good Ombudsman   

Naming one would be a smart step indeed for the New York Times.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


One of the many remarkable things about the Jayson Blair imbroglio was the fact that so few readers contacted the New York Times about his dizzying array of errors and fabrications.

Why would that be? A couple of reasons. Many people are so cynical about the news media that they assume the paper wouldn't care. And trying to get through to the right person at a large, imposing institution like the Times can seem a daunting task.

In recent years many news organizations have tried to reach out to their readers, to get past the impregnable fortress or defensive crouch posture that was so common for years. The Times, safe to say, has not exactly been a leader in that movement.

On the contrary, it has often acted as if it were above the fray, as if it didn't have to condescend to answering questions about its own reporting. Now, as the paper strives to repair the damage of the Howell Raines era, would be a good time to change that approach. And a terrific way to start would be to name an ombudsman.

Not that an ombudsman is a magic bullet. But it certainly offers a lot of positives.

For one thing, it provides one-stop shopping for people with concerns. Aggrieved readers have a designated avenue of appeal, and a known quantity at the other end of the phone or the letter or the e-mail.

Of course, there's no reason why editors can't play that role. That's one of the arguments used by opponents of the ombudsman concept. A good editor, according to this view, is his or her own ombudsman.

But in real life it's not always that simple. Editors, you may have noticed, are busy people. The last thing they need is to spend much of the day talking to unhappy customers. Not to mention the challenge for the reader of finding the right editor.

The ombudsman plays another important role, one that can be extremely useful for a paper that has taken a big hit to its credibility. At many papers ombudsmen write columns addressing concerns of readers. And when they're done well those columns can create and enrich two-way conversation.

If you're looking for a good example of how to do this, I commend the columns of Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler. On two high-profile stories--the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the rescue of Jessica Lynch--Getler has done a stellar job of holding his own newspaper accountable. (See Free Press, page 10, and "Miller Time," page 30.)

As is often the case, the value of the job has everything to do with who's holding it. I remember one ombudsman who busied himself with the little picture and never dealt with broader themes. At times it seemed the only questions that interested him were whether the burned building had been equipped with smoke alarms and if the people in the car accident had been wearing seat belts.

Ombudsmen of this type are generally dismissed as irritating gnats. But those who confront serious matters head-on, in an even-handed and intelligent way, can earn the newsroom's respect and have a powerful impact.

Clearly the Times would have no trouble enlisting an ombudsman of stature, someone who could play a key role in restoring order at a great newspaper. Naming an ombudsman would be an important step toward rebuilding the Times' relationship with its audience. Scuttling the autocratic Rainesian management style--which new Executive Editor Bill Keller will doubtless do--will pay big dividends internally.

Newspapers can't run as pure democracies. Somebody has to set the agenda and make the hard calls. But as has often been proven, ruling a bunch of creative people with an iron hand just doesn't work, at least not forever (see "Down with Top-down," page 36). You need some finesse. You need to get the troops, or at least a good chunk of them, to buy into the vision.

Stunningly, that has registered with Raines not at all. In an almost surreal appearance on "The Charlie Rose Show," the ousted editor made clear that all of the turmoil, all of the embarrassment, just wasn't his fault. He was simply trying to implement his publisher's mandate to make the paper quicker off the mark and broader in content. A designated change agent, he was done in by change-abhorrent bureaucrats, to hear him tell it.

Watching Raines on TV, it became painfully obvious how he had missed so many signals of the dangerous situation in his own newsroom. He seemed to be speaking from a parallel universe.

Now it's Keller's chance to right the ship. Here's to a successful stint at the helm.

###