Your ombuddy

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  June 19, 2006

The ombudsman column is clearly the most visible aspect of the job — and the subject matter can vary from the inflammatory to the mundane. In a memorable 2004 column, Okrent touched the third rail of his paper’s image by writing a column headlined “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”
His opening paragraph consisted of four words. “Of course it is.” (In his book, Okrent acknowledged that many of his colleagues found that sentence “too inflammatory.”)

Other recent ombudsman columns have touched on topics ranging from reader anger over a front-page photograph of a fatally injured racehorse to a discussion of the differences between reporting “homicides” and reporting “murders.” Sometimes the subject matter is a hot news story, such as the Raleigh News & Observer public editor Ted Vaden’s examination of the paper’s coverage of the Duke-lacrosse-team rape case. And sometimes the topic is a hot button, such as when NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin addressed complaints that NPR staffers should not be appearing on, and lending credibility to, the conservative-tilting Fox News Channel.

One of the more interesting ombudsman-style experiments is CBS News’s “Public Eye” online feature, which began last September with a goal of “making the operations and deliberations of CBS News more visible and transparent to our readers and viewers.”

One example of how well it’s worked occurred last October, when an e-mailer asked whether Mike Wallace’s appearance at an anti-gun-violence event and his use of an unflattering clip of a 60 Minutes interview with former NRA president Charlton Heston represented a conflict of interest or violation of CBS policy. After discussing the issue with the network’s senior vice-president for standards and special projects, the “Public Eye” concluded that “we won’t be seeing Mr. Wallace doing any more stories involving Second Amendment issues.”

Public Eye editor Vaughn Ververs believes that the mere fact the network is responsive to public concerns serves a real purpose.
“My sense is so far ... that people are willing to at least give you a lot of credit and are very happy to have their complaint addressed,” he says. “The level of vitriol and the anger goes way down just by engaging in the conversation.”

A few big dust-ups
This past January, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote a column on Jack Abramoff stating that the scandal-ridden lobbyist “had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.” Her admitted error — in not indicating that Abramoff had directed his Indian clients to give money to both parties, but donated personally only to the GOP — touched off what she called a huge political “firestorm” in which she was largely blamed for toeing the Republican line on Abramoff.

“Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of the Post’s Web site was shut down,” she wrote. (Among the printable epithets, she was called a “right-wing whore.”)

In explaining his decision to turn off online reader comments, washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady bemoaned the inability to “maintain a civil conversation” in the wake of Howell’s column.

While Howell was the victim of a nasty online mugging, the Times’s Calame, — who is not as gifted a writer or as sweeping a thinker as Okrent — has antagonized some of the media punditariat with his style and subject matter.

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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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