Your ombuddy

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  June 19, 2006

Early this year, Sydney Schanberg, then the media writer at the Village Voice, accused Calame of nitpicking in a column critical of the paper’s top executives for not being more forthcoming about the process of producing the Pulitzer-winning story on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps. Slate media critic Jack Shafer offered similar criticism about Calame’s handling of the issue in a distinctly unflattering column in which he assailed the public editor for a “bloodless performance” and compared him to the “assistant principal in charge of detention hall.”

The truth is that ombudsmen tend to leave everyone unsatisfied. Colleagues and bosses are often taken aback by any level of criticism, and the public is usually deprived of the full-throated assault it wants.

Still, the Howell and Calame cases were good omens for ombudsmanship because of the level of attention they generated. More people — both inside and outside the profession — seem to be paying more attention to ombudsmen these days. And for a group of journalists accustomed to working at a thankless task in relative obscurity, it’s a definite step up to work at a thankless task that is registering on the media Richter scale.

On the Web
Mark Jurkowitz's Media Log: http://www.thephoenix.com/medialog
Organization of News Ombudsmen: http://www.newsombudsmen.org/
CBS News's Public Eye: http://www.cbsnews.com/sections/publiceye/main500486.shtml
Byron Calame, New York Times public editor: http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html

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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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