It was a fine idea at the time

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.






48 replies
  1. 1
    pablo says:

    The question is, and I think it’s what an Ombudsmen’s job is…What is News?
    Epic Fail!

  2. 2
    Dennis G. says:

    Spot on.

    Alexander is useless. His job seems to be to speed up the destruction of standards at the paper. It is amazing how energetically he works to help spread conservative bullshit. If it is repeated enough on Fox old Alexander thinks it must be true.

    What a dope.

    Cheers

  3. 3
    Jayackroyd says:

    The ombud has mostly served the publishers pretty well….

  4. 4
    Brick Oven Bill says:

    Republican voters scared of a black man with a baton?

    Good thing the Iraqi voters weren’t so cowardly back in 2004.

  5. 5
    Kryptik says:

    These ombudsman are just a symptom though, remember. They’re an essential cog in the noise machine, but they’re still just a cog. Yes, I agree with the death of the ombudsman experiments at the ‘papers of note’ since they’ve become little more than press releases for the right. But we also have to keep in focus that they’re representative of the whole system of perpetuating bullshit that we have to fight to neutralize and dismantle.

  6. 6
    Mudge says:

    The late Deborah Howell, if you hadn’t heard. She died in a tragic pedestrian accident in New Zealand.

  7. 7
    Shalimar says:

    I really don’t understand the New Black Panthers case anyway. Aren’t conservatives in favor of armed people in public intimidating whoever they want? Is it bad because they used clubs instead of guns? Or is this a black people don’t deserve the same rights as white people thing?

  8. 8
    gizmo says:

    Commercial media will never produce good journalism on a consistent basis, because they have advertisers to answer to. Their continued survival depends upon staying within the parameters of “accepted” political thought. It’s true that we find the occasional piece of brilliant reporting in the NYT or WaPo, but in general those institutions operate within an established culture that doesn’t encourage telling of the unvarnished truth. Media revenue flows from the corporate sector, not from we the people, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when the end product advances the agenda of the economic elites. It was always thus…

  9. 9
    DougJ says:

    @Mudge:

    Yes, I know. I didn’t add “late” here because I didn’t want to make it sound like I was just trying to speak well of the recently deceased.

  10. 10
    Dennis G. says:

    Also. Too. This takedown by Joan Walsh over at Salon is well worth the read. I especially liked the kicker:

    It’s the job of editors at big papers like the Post to expose those lies, and the movement behind them – not to flagellate themselves for not saying “How high?” when right-wing media watchdogs say “Jump!” Andrew Alexander botched his job today.

    Alexander will always botch his job. It could be him or it could be that the OmBud idea is a failed experiment. I suspect a combination of the two.

    Cheers

  11. 11
    MikeJ says:

    @Shalimar: I’ve been wondering where they draw the line between armed in public and intimidating. I’m guessing it has something to do with melanin. After all, Reason(sic) mag said that gun toting tea baggers weren’t violent and that anybody who thought carrying a gun implied a wish to do violence was crazy.

  12. 12
    Shalimar says:

    @MikeJ: I suspect we are going to find out this year. There will be quite a few examples nationally of tea party members armed with guns outside of polling places on election day, and conservatives and libertarians will defend their rights. It remains to be seen how they will distinguish those cases from this one if they even bother to try.

  13. 13
    MattF says:

    The fallacy here is the notion that there is an ‘administrative’ solution to a political process. The wingers are simply doing what they do– trying to push media coverage into an arena where they believe they have an advantage. The Post’s response of selecting an ‘expert’ to deal with these efforts was bound to fail.

    Folks, this is politics– if you can’t join them, you’ve got to beat them.

  14. 14
    Vince CA says:

    Tangent: I’m often wrong too. Only liberals admit that they’re fallible. It’s why I like Matt Yglessias and John Cole. They were really liberals but didn’t know it yet. I find it’s really easy to say I’m right, but I feel a real sense of pride when I recover from a mistake.

  15. 15
    Shalimar says:

    @MattF:

    if you can’t join them, you’ve got to beat them.

    Isn’t the threat of beatings what got the New Black Panthers in trouble?

  16. 16
    burnspbesq says:

    @gizmo:

    Nonsense. Media revenue only flows from the corporate sector to those outlets that deliver eyeballs. If “we the people” (whoever the fuck that is) want to influence a particular media outlet, the way forward is obvious. Vote with your eyeballs, and let advertisers know what you’re doing and why.

    If you really want to influence the behavior of a major media outlet, follow the example of the Manchester United Supporters Trust: organize and buy stock. Two million people cough up $250 each, and you’ve got half a billion. That’s enough to buy a seat at the table. Or it’s enough to organize a real internet-only newspaper, with global reach; the internet eliminates the need to have presses and a physical distribution channel, so you can funnel all the money into putting journalistic boots on the ground.

    Instead of whingeing about the capitalist system, become a capitalist. I’m in. Now put up or shut up.

  17. 17
    MattF says:

    @Shalimar

    ‘Beat’ as in ‘defeat politically’.

  18. 18
    burnspbesq says:

    Is that the real BOB, or a spoof? Inquiring minds want to know.

  19. 19
    Bill H says:

    @Dennis G.:

    it could be that the OmBud idea is a failed experiment.

    Far from it. The role of ombudsman is not an experiment in any sense of the word; it has been around for a very long time.

    The San Diego Union-Tribune used to have a very fine one that had no problem being critical of the paper when criticism was called for. They replaced her with one who was an inveterate cheerleader and who actually criricized readers on a regular basis, and eventually ditched the position altogether.

    Modern corporations are becoming less and less willing to respond to their clientele, and thus the role of client representative is diminishing.

  20. 20
    russell says:

    Republican voters scared of a black man with a baton?

    Yes, that’s right.

    One black man, at one polling station, in North Philly (bastion of white Republicanism), with one stick.

    Number of victims of this outbreak of race violence: zero.

    Our Republican friends are a brave lot.

    Or is this a black people don’t deserve the same rights as white people thing?

    Not really. Black guys can bring AR-15s to health care town meetings, no worries. Just as long as they are clean-cut, Randian libertarian conservative black guys.

    Brothers in the hood, different story.

    Okrent stepped into a big stinky pile o’ crap when he took on the ombudsman job, so maybe we should all give him a break.

    Then again, he sucked as an ombudsman, so maybe we shouldn’t.

  21. 21
    El Cid says:

    Why is it such a big deal that major newspapers cover a fake, ginned up, race-baiting story as a legitimate attack on a criminal institution which soon turns out to be deceitful propaganda?

    After a while of boosting such a fake story into a hysterical public mindset and endorsing politicians who go after anyone whom they falsely associate with the falsely accused group or the wildly exaggerated events, they’ll issue a minor correction and say that sometimes in making omelets you have to break a few eggs, though I never seem to be able to find these omelets we’re supposed to be getting.

    It’s not as if a big newspaper is taking a leftist group seriously, which would be a major threat to the Republic.

  22. 22
    gizmo says:

    burnspbesq,

    Have you ever considered a career in diplomacy? Your writing style is so inviting. You bring a wonderful, welcoming attitude to the discussion that is sure to win friends and influence people.

  23. 23
    jwb says:

    @Dennis G.: Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the ombuds going away. It wasn’t a “failed” experiment at all. In fact, I think it’s worked exactly as designed. The experiment would only be a “failure” if the ombuds didn’t serve the function they were designed to.

    I actually think Hoyt was a bad public editor (from the NY Times’ perspective) because he seems to be a decent man and so he had a very difficult time writing convincing bullshit to cover the NY Times’ ass. No, he wasn’t so decent that he resigned rather than continuing to write bullshit once it became clear that that’s what he’d been hired to do, but I always came away from his bullshit with the impression that he knew very well that he was just writing bullshit and was only going to do the bare minimum of what he had to do in order to keep his job. With Andrew Alexander, on the other hand, the bullshit believes itself to be gold.

  24. 24
    jwb says:

    @burnspbesq: That can’t be the real BoB. It’s not even one of the better fake BoBs.

  25. 25
    burnspbesq says:

    @gizmo:

    I’m sowwy I hurt your fee-fees.

  26. 26
    burnspbesq says:

    @Bill H:

    Modern corporations are becoming less and less willing to respond to their clientele, and thus the role of client representative is diminishing.

    That’s an awfully broad generalization. Got data?

  27. 27
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Okay so watching the opening of This Week, Tapper starts with this, complete with graphs:

    “Obama’s approval ratings: Last month, 50% approved, this month, 43% approve. A seven point drop in just one month, mainly among Democrats, and here’s the reason, if you look at this chart: as unemployment has gone up up up, the President’s approval has gone down”

    And right off the bat some right winger gets the first question and starts in on how the approval ratings are proof that Americans don’t like “the expansion of government”… and George Will with the second response, agrees.

    If you put the figures in front of them, right on TV with people watching, they’ll still lie about it.

    NB: It looks like he’s talking about “trust to handle the economy” poll question, not overall approval, since I know that Gallup has Obama right now up at 48% overall. The point is just that even the one with the big drop, it’s almost entirely Democrats concerned about unemployment, quite the opposite of concern about “the expansion of government”.

  28. 28
    Corner Stone says:

    As usual, this is a win for Republicans either way.
    1. WaPo doesn’t cover the “scandal” ~ their hard core members scream to high heaven and get to feel victimized by liberal media
    2. WaPo “caves” to pressure to cover this story ~ rightwingers feel vindicated that there really was something the liberal media was trying to hide but they made them cover it, AND moderately leftish individuals feel disgusted and exasperated that this non-story is getting any traction in a real paper

    The wingers get to further trash the image of supposed papers of record, either in their core tribe or by further disillusioning members of the Other.

  29. 29
    Corner Stone says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Oooohh! Don’t spoil it for me man! Now I’ve got to wait 11 more minutes to see this beauty in action.

  30. 30
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Corner Stone: Oh sorry. It’s posted on the Web site already which is where I see it.

  31. 31
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @DougJ:

    I think you’re right when you say…

    At this point, one of the primary roles of ombudsmen, at least at the Times and the Post, is to facilitate this process.

    …with reference to Paul Waldman’s description of the process. So isn’t it interesting that the WaPo (which, as you note in your update, has had an ombudsman since 1970) says in the history you linked to that the ombudsman’s job is to be a “readers’ advocate”? Quite a selective definition of “readers” they’re using these days. But in response to your comment…

    It would be interesting to see if the position has always been as useless and counterproductive as it is now.

    …my guess is that it was once a useful and productive position. 1970, after all, was the leading cusp of the Post’s glory days. I do agree it would be interesting to check out some of the early “readers’ advocate” columns.

  32. 32
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    I’ve had e-mail responses from Alexander, somewhat to my surprise. He really sees himself as a hard-nosed, traditional newsman with lots of newsroom experience and so are his tough editors and reporters and so on, who won’t let anyone influence them and he really doesn’t think that they’re biased more to the right than the left and blah blah blah.

    Of course not, he lives and works in Washington DC and it’s been a Republican atmosphere for so long, nearly wall to wall, that it skews the whole view. Once the Republicans slid more and more to truly extreme right wing insanity land, these guys just slid with them. They don’t even see it, at least some of them don’t.

  33. 33
    Corner Stone says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Not sure why Clarence Page is allowed to speak for ostensible Democrats.
    This Nicole Wallace R is a real piece of work. They must have a finishing school for these people.

  34. 34
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Corner Stone: Yes, on the right, rabid extreme right-wing ideologue, and on the left, moderate mild-mannered Democrat-ish type person.

    To be fair they’ve had both Kos and Rachael Maddow on those shows recently, but it was definitely a shock, it’s usually the formula above, for decades now, week after week.

  35. 35
    Elizabelle says:

    Some of the previous WaPost ombudsmen were very good. I thought Geneva Olverholser was splendid; trying to find a list of others, but they had better professional judgment too.

    Deborah Howell, immediately previous ombud, was clueless and beyond obtuse.

    Andy Alexander seems to trump her.

    Don’t think either Howell or Alexander appointments were an accident. They are there as rubber stamps for management, which wants to follow the Fox News Channel poutrage model.

  36. 36
    Bill H says:

    @burnspbesq:
    Well, if you want to be picky, no. It’s just a reaction to BP and watching Olbermann too much. Thanks for calling me on it.

    Although San Diego Union-Tribune did eliminate their ombudsman.

  37. 37
    Josh says:

    Great Elvis reference, DougJ. “She said that she was working for the ABC News . . . “

  38. 38
    russell says:

    That’s an awfully broad generalization. Got data?

    Spent any time on hold with a “customer support engineer” recently?

    Had your credit card rate bumped up to prime plus 14% for no other reason than that the bank would like to make 14% off your back?

    You don’t have to get to the BP flameout level to see this kind of crap.

  39. 39
    burnspbesq says:

    @Bill H:

    No biggie. It just struck me as odd, because in my line of work (professional services) we are trying harder than ever to figure out why clients hire who they hire, and trying to differentiate based on responsiveness ( that asshole whose BlackBerry stays lit throughout the movie is probably a lawyer or CPA).

  40. 40
    burnspbesq says:

    @russell:

    As to your anecdotal evidence, no and no.

  41. 41
    DougJ says:

    @Josh:

    It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.

  42. 42
    somethingblue says:

    A lot of the time Howell didn’t even write about the Post’s coverage at all; she was too busy doing puffy little profiles of ol’ Bob down in the mailroom.

    I remember her predecessor Michael Getler as not being too bad, though maybe just in comparison with what followed.

  43. 43
    Frank says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    And right off the bat some right winger gets the first question and starts in on how the approval ratings are proof that Americans don’t like “the expansion of government”… and George Will with the second response, agrees.

    I haven’t watched This Week (or any of the other useless Sunday shows) for years due to its pathetic right-wing agenda.

    But when the right-winger made that statement, did the host bother to bring up Reagan? At this juncture in Reagan’s presidency, his approval ratings were at the same level as Obama’s. Yet, he is known among Republicans as having tried to curtail the expansion of government. So, if expansion of government is so evil, then why did Reagan’s ratings plummet?

    I won’t hold my breath. I doubt the host bothered to ask the question.

  44. 44
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Frank: No but the host had just presented solid evidence that virtually all of the drop in approval had come from Democrats disapproving because the government hadn’t done enough about jobs.

    Which is as close to the opposite of “people disapprove because of all of the government expansion” as you can get.

  45. 45
    Frank says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    No but the host had just presented solid evidence that virtually all of the drop in approval had come from Democrats disapproving because the government hadn’t done enough about jobs. Which is as close to the opposite of “people disapprove because of all of the government expansion” as you can get.

    Yup.

    It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that it is all about the economy. This is why Reagan’s numbers were down in 1982 and it is why Obama’s numbers are down right now.

    The economy came back during the last two year’s of Reagan’s first term, and it is likely to come back in time for Obama’s re-election. Govt exansion or not.

  46. 46
    Brachiator says:

    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.

    Ombudsman and public editors are universally useless. One of the most craven examples of this was the NPR ombudsman defending that organizations refusal to use the word “torture” when applied to the U.S. military.

  47. 47
    Anne Laurie says:

    @DougJ: Because I am evil, I have to mention that the key graph from Howell’s WaPo obituary struck me as comically poignant:

    She was on vacation with her husband when she stepped out of a car to take a photograph. She was struck by an oncoming automobile. In New Zealand, drivers use the left side of the road, and her husband said he thought she looked the wrong way.

  48. 48
    Sleeping Dog says:

    The whole ombudsman concept fails at a local level also. When I lived in Mpls, the Star Trombone appointed some semi-retired executive editor ombudsman and left him in the position until they finally noticed that he had keeled over. For the first year is was useful and then in began a rather quick decline into difference splitting. Various interest groups would lobby the ombudsman through letters and phone calls claiming that this or that coverage was unfair.

    Pretty soon the only thing that he considered accurate reporting were the facts (which as we know are in the eye of the beholder), as long, of course, if the facts didn’t offend some group.

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