When I first started hearing about the New Black Panther manufactured scandal, the first thing that went through my head was “how long til the Kaplan ombudsman writes that the Post needs to cover this story in order to make its conservative readers happy”? Paul Waldman of TAP describes the process very well:
It’s a very simple formula: take some incident or person who can embody something you want people to believe about the left (elitists, scary black people, etc.); put it into heavy rotation on Fox and conservative radio; immediately begin screaming that the liberal mainstream media are ignoring this vital story; watch while the mainstream media pick up the story to prove they really aren’t liberal. Rinse, repeat. It works pretty much every time.
At this point, one of the primary roles of ombudsmen, at least at the Times and the Post, is to facilitate this process. So it’s time to say it clearly: the Times and Post should get rid of the ombudsman columns and blogs. It’s fine to have someone who answers reader emails and complaints (Deborah Howell at the Post was excellent about giving thoughtful answers to my emails, FWIW — the others were all awful), but don’t give this person a public voice.
The public editor experiment has been an unmitigated disaster, whether it’s Clark Hoyt and Andy Alexander pimping the ACORN story, Daniel Okrent going Malkin on a reader, or the Howell/Abramoff/profanity debacle. The one good thing I can think of that came of the experiment was Orkent’s take-down of the Times over its bogus WMD reporting.
When the Times rolled out the public editor thing, I thought it was a great idea. I was wrong. If papers want to encourage public internal criticism, do it via blogs like Greg Sargent’s and Ezra Klein’s, or even the awful Post Partisan.
An ombudsman will never write anything beyond “shape of earth, views differ”, and that’s not just pointless, it’s actively destructive to the mission of journalism.
Update. The Post has had an ombudsman since 1970. It would be interesting to see if the position has always been as useless and counterproductive as it is now.
Update update. All of this applies only to “national newspapers” — I think that ombudsmen who focus on coverage of local issues can be useful.