Bonfire of the ombudsmen

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at the abuse heaped upon Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton and New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. And though they clearly deserved to be criticized for their lazy, ill-considered commentaries, the over-the-top nature of the reaction says more about their critics than it does about them.

Fading ombudsmen

It’s been nearly two years since Boston Globe ombudsman Richard Chacón left to take a job with Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign. Chacón remains with Patrick, and the Globe remains without an ombudsman.

Though the Globe has not, to my knowledge, abolished the position, it seems unlikely that a new internal watchdog is going to be designated at a time when the news staff is shrinking and good journalists are walking away seemingly every week. After all, if you pay an ombudsman, you can’t pay someone else. Nor are the Globe’s financial problems unique.

Which is why I was intrigued by this piece in Advertising Age by Simon Dumenco headlined “Is the Newspaper Ombudsman More or Less Obsolete?” Dumenco writes in praise of New York Times public editor (i.e., ombudsman) Clark Hoyt, but adds: So what? We live at a time, Dumenco argues, when bloggers and the ubiquitous Jim Romensko do a far better job of holding the media to account than an ombudsman can. Besides, he says, ombudsman columns are boring.

“Maybe it’s not me, and maybe it’s not really even Hoyt,” Dumenco writes. “Maybe it’s the very idea of the public editor/ombudsman — a position whose time may have come and gone.”

My reaction: Not so fast. Dumenco’s probably right that the ombudsman movement is fading due to financial pressures. The Web site of the Organization of News Ombudsmen is so moribund that it links to Chacón’s predecessor, Christine Chinlund, who gave up that role in 2005. But though bloggers certainly do much to hold the media to account, something important will have been lost as well, and that is the loss of an authoritative, inside voice.

I could point to numerous examples, but let me suggest one recent piece by Hoyt, in which he blasted the Times for its report that some former anonymous aides to John McCain were worried nine years ago that he might have, maybe, well, you know, been having sex with an attractive lobbyist many years younger than he. Everyone on the planet was ripping the Times for that story. But it was Hoyt’s column that was the show-stopper — not because it was better than all the other commentary, but because it came from inside the paper.

Then, too, a good ombudsman bases his or her columns not just on commentary, as bloggers generally do, but on reporting. Yes, in Boston, the Phoenix has a long tradition of media critics who report pretty thoroughly on the Globe, the Herald and other media organizations. (My disclosure is in the right-hand rail.*) But though Globe staffers have never been required to cooperate with the ombudsman, they’re certainly encouraged to in a way that’s not necessarily the case with respect to the Phoenix or Boston magazine.

And as former Globe ombudsman and former Phoenix media columnist Mark Jurkowitz has told me, the ombudsman’s column is actually the tip of the iceberg — most of the job consists of politely handling reader complaints about everything from smudgy ink to the cancellation of a favorite comic strip. This is basic customer service, and no blogger is going to do that.

I’d like to see every serious, 24-hour news operation in Boston have an ombudsman. Why stop at the Globe? But, barring an unexpected return to financial health, it’s not likely to happen. It’s too bad.

*Whoops. No, it’s not. OK, I was the Phoenix’s media columnist from 1994 to 2005.