On March 2, The Washington Post confirmed what had been rumored for weeks. After a 43-year run, the paper was eliminating its ombudsman, trading in the independent critic of the Post’s journalism practices for an in-house “reader representative.”
Patrick Pexton, The Post’s outgoing ombudsman, had implied money problems were driving the change. The Post’s management denied that money was a factor, explaining rather that different times required different measures. They contended that the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of online media critics, and the ability of readers to comment directly about stories or to email reporters ensured enough accountability. So The Post no longer needed an independent, presumably thoughtful, journalist, to publicly assess its performance. Instead, what was really important was responding to individual complaints from readers.
While I have liked Pexton’s work in the past, I criticized him recently for heaping unnecessary praise on reporters for simply doing their jobs, and I must say this explanation for the elimination of the ombud is also just plain silly. The fact that readers can post comments on Post stories or contact Post reporters electronically in no way means that the paper no longer needs an independent assessor of how it measures up to journalism’s highest standards. Outside media commentators lack the ability to get the attention of the paper’s editors, or have the power to defend the paper from accusations of bias or unfairness the way an independent ombudsman can.
I actually think that this decision wasn’t about money or the rise of new technology. Could it be it was the Margaret Sullivan phenomenon that drove The Post to cut and run? Sullivan, after all, made huge waves at The New York Times when she took the post of ombudsman seriously and brought it into the 21st century, critiquing the paper both online and in print columns. She even went so far as to question the judgment of its senior editors in naming Mark Thompson as its new CEO. A brave move I wrote about previously in this blog. Thompson, a senior executive at the BBC, was at the network’s helm when accusations surfaced that one of its personalities abused hundreds of children. The Post might have feared that Sullivan’s success might tempt a new ombudsman to elect to be more visible and more vocal in his or her scrutiny of the paper. A recent commentary by The Nation made the point the Sullivan’s approach demonstrates what an ombudsman can bring to the table, making relevant a position that too often seems timid and irrelevant.
Whatever the real reasons for cutting the ombudsman’s position, it marks a loss for the paper and its audience. You can dress up a “reader’s representative” all you want, but when The Post announced the changes, two words were missing from that new position’s job description—independence and journalism.