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A Vanishing Emblem Of Newspapers’ Golden Age

The Washington Post recently announced it will replace its ombudsman position with that of a “reader representative.” I liked things better when the ombudsman was the reader’s representative.

What sounds like just a change in title, substituting a more readily recognized job description for an obscure bit of jargon, is really something more. It is a mark of how the commitment of American newsrooms to impartial reporting is fading.

The rise of the news ombudsmen coincided with the golden age of American newspaper journalism in the 1970s. The very first American newspaper ombudsman appeared in the late ‘60s, and subsequently gained traction in newspapers nationwide. While the number of newspapers in major cities dropped during this period, in most cases down to only one, we did not yet have 24-hour news coverage or the Internet. Evening news on television was limited to 30 minutes (more like 22 once commercial breaks were factored in). Thus, newspapers were the primary news source for Americans.

At the same time, newspapers were under rhetorical attack - notably from President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew. Agnew led the charge in accusing the media of bias, both generally and specifically in the case of the Vietnam War. In the face of these accusations, and in the newly restructured landscape of newspaper coverage, journalists committed themselves to fairness and lack of demonstrable bias. When large cities had multiple newspapers, their respective slants had tended to cancel one another out; when a city relied on one newspaper, the papers had greater motivation to promise independence, objectivity and accuracy in order to broaden their readership.

The Washington Post was one of the early pioneers of the idea of a news ombudsman as a way to give readers an independent advocate in the newsroom. In general terms, an ombudsman is an independent agent who receives and investigates complaints, generally from the members of the public against a government agency or private organization. For journalists, the ombudsman became a crucial liaison between a newspaper’s staff and its readers. An ombudsman did not aspire to become the paper’s editor-in-chief. He (or later she) was unlikely to one day become the boss of the reporters whose work he critiqued. The ombudsman could speak up if he felt the newspaper failed to live up to its own standards without fear of professional repercussion.

The concept of the news ombudsman became especially popular in metropolitan environments like Washington, D.C. and New York City, but it eventually spread widely throughout the country. Today, enough individuals hold the position to merit an organization.

But today’s journalism is quite different from that of the ‘70s. Accuracy is still important. Most news organizations are forthright about publishing corrections for demonstrably false statements in news columns, even when the errors are insignificant or harmless. Online copy is regularly corrected, and reputable organizations flag the corrections to draw readers’ attention. The ombudsman as a fact-checker has been made, to an extent, redundant by technological advances and industry practice.

But what about the ombudsman as an arbiter of fairness? Increasingly, readers turn to news outlets that reinforce their own biases and preferences, in both the topics they cover and the ways they cover them. An ombudsman today who wants to take on the topic of fairness would have to challenge some of the basic philosophies of his or her own news organization, getting at core questions such as “What is news?” and “How do you report a story?”

Take, for example, The Washington Post’s coverage of Mitt Romney’s high school pranks, including the forced haircut he and his friends gave to classmate who, The Post reported, recalled being “terrified” by the incident. The paper’s ombudsman largely endorsed the reporter’s approach to the story, which ran at roughly the same time that President Obama publicly endorsed gay marriage. In the story, the classmate in question, who had long, bleached blond hair, was described as having been bullied for his “nonconformity and presumed homosexuality.” This poses the question: Presumed by whom?

Then, as now, being different was enough to get a high schooler bullied by his or her classmates all on its own. There was no such thing as an openly gay high schooler in 1965. Whatever the relevance of Romney’s high school behavior towards his classmate, nothing in the story supported the idea that his actions demonstrated an anti-gay bias. That bias may have existed, but it also existed across America in 1965.

The story read as if it had been inspired directly by Obama campaign staff members. I don’t know that is what happened, but it does not seem far-fetched. Reporters take news tips wherever they can get them. But is it fair to readers to base a news story on events a half-century old without disclosing that the initial research was performed by the staff of the subject’s political opponent? In evaluating The Post’s coverage, its ombudsman should have articulated why the story was news and addressed whether it was stimulated by a rival campaign’s opposition research.

Another example comes from a more recent story in The New York Times. The article reported that corporations are earning strong profits but are not adding workers in the United States due to greater domestic productivity and expansion overseas. The article also noted that the federal budget sequester will probably cause layoffs at certain companies, especially in defense-related industries.

I have written previously about the ways in which American tax law punishes businesses that earn profits abroad and then seek to bring the money back to this country, either for reinvestment or to pay shareholders as dividends. The Times reporter did not talk to executives at companies like Apple, which generate mountains of cash that are now effectively locked up overseas. Yet an ombudsman (or the Times’ equivalent, a public editor) will rarely challenge a story like this over the editorial decisions about which angles are to be presented and which are left out.

Regular readers can conclude that both The New York Times and, to a lesser extent, The Washington Post, carry news columns that regularly reflect the political and social views of their respective staffs, and that the papers do not always fully explore other viewpoints. The presence or absence of an ombudsman evidently does not make a big difference, at present. Nor are these two news outlets alone.

The organizations we can trust to be fair in their news coverage are those that are committed to fairness, whether or not they employ ombudsmen.

So while I’m sorry to see the Washington Post’s ombudsman position go, I am sorrier that the philosophy of journalism’s golden age - that, beyond simple accuracy, news should present all significant sides of an issue - is succumbing more often to a more ideologically biased perspective. We look to journalists to inform and educate us, a process that is not most efficient when they tell us only the things they believe and those which we like to hear.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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