Your ombuddy

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  June 19, 2006

But despite all that, we’re beginning to see — if not quite a golden age — at least a flowering of the ombudsmanship movement. In this post–Jayson Blair era, when news outlets are recognizing the greater need for transparency, the ranks of ombudsmen are expanding both nationally and globally. The big psychological breakthrough came when the Times, which had fiercely resisted the concept for years, finally agreed to hire Okrent for the job, in the wake of the Blair fiasco in 2003. Recently, such television outlets as CBS and PBS have either hired ombudsmen or begun employing more ombudsman-ly practices.

Equally important, ombudsmen are generating more attention within their own industry. Recently, the new Times public editor Byron Calame and the Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell have been the focal point of significant controversies or criticism — a phenomenon that is actually a healthy sign in a business that thrives on feuds and furor.

And in one more positive development, Jim Romenesko — proprietor of the most obsessively read Web site in the media universe — began posting Monday roundups of ombudsmen columns a few years ago, giving them considerably greater visibility.

In an e-mail to the Phoenix, Romenesko acknowledged that “I’m interested in what readers are complaining about (or praising), and the various ethical issues addressed by ombuds.”

But he added: “After years of reading these columns, I say to myself: ‘Thank God I don’t have that job! Hundreds of people calling to gripe about Mark Trail being cancelled? I couldn’t deal with it!’”

Slowly swelling ranks
According to material posted on the ONO Web site courtesy of former ombudsman Arthur Nauman, the US ombudsman movement really gathered steam with the growth of the “anti-press mood” in the 1960s. Noted journalist Ben Bagdikian wrote a 1967 piece in Esquire suggesting that ombudsmen might help papers better communicate with their readers, and Times staffer A.H. Raskin authored a piece in his paper calling for a “Department of Internal Criticism.”

That same year, the Louisville Courier-Journal became the first paper in the country to have an ombudsman, and shortly thereafter the Washington Post employed the first ombudsman empowered to comment on how the publication was doing. In 1981, the Post’s Bill Green penned the most-famous ombudsman column in history with his 14,000 word postmortem on the notorious Janet Cooke Pulitzer Prize–winning story about an (invented) eight-year-old heroin addict. The Boston Globe’s Tom Winship was also one of the early editors to name an ombudsman, former editorial-page editor Charlie Whipple, who was selected for the job in the ’70s.

In a nearly decade-old ONO survey, most of the ombudsmen who responded said they write columns evaluating their paper’s performance, and a large majority also said they spoke to community groups. A much smaller number, about 25 percent, said they had actually hosted reader forums or sat in on the daily news meetings at their publications. (Gina Lubrano, who has spent 14 years doing the job at the San Diego Union-Tribune, estimates that in that period of time, the ranks of US ombudsmen in ONO have increased from about 33 to about 40, and the number of foreign ombudsmen has grown to about 23. But she doesn’t see a windfall. “There’s a lot of turmoil going on,” says Lubrano. “Like everything else, it’s a matter of money.”)

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Growing pains
One disputed expansion of the ombudsmen movement came in 2005 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), then under the leadership of controversial chairman Ken Tomlinson, appointed former NBC correspondent Ken Bode and former Readers Digest staffer William Schulz to ombudsman jobs. In some quarters, the move was seen as part of Tomlinson’s campaign against so-called liberal bias and a ham-handed effort to affect PBS programming. Today, only Bode remains on the job, and the CPB is conducting a review of that position. For her part, ONO’s Gina Lubrano makes it clear the CPB ombudsmen were never part of the fraternity, noting that “they are not a newsgathering organization.”
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