former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘ombudsman’

Post Op-ed Gained Attention but Not Respect

In Blog on September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

I guess if The Washington Post was attempting to provoke strong reader reaction to an op-ed questioning whether sexual relations between teachers and minor students should be criminalized, the paper got when it sought. My daughter brought my attention to the opinion piece, published August 30th, and by the time I looked at it on September 1st, it had more than 3,000 reader comments.

But surely attention shouldn’t be the only goal for the opinion pages of what is still considered one of the nation’s most prestigious papers.  I often read Post op-eds and disagree with them, but this op-ed was written by someone who seemed to have no actual data or expertise around which to marshal her pretty outrageous arguments.

The news peg of the op-ed was the very light sentence a Montana teacher, who pleaded guilty to non-consensual sex with a 14-year-old student- or what many would call a rape- received in August.  Two years after the assault that student committed suicide, an event her mother felt was brought on by the trauma of the rape.  The teacher, who had failed to follow through on a plea deal that included mandatory treatment for sex abusers, was hauled back into court and the Montana judge gave him a 30-day sentence.  The judge averred that since the sex didn’t involve extreme violence or a stranger, it really didn’t count as a “forcible beat-up rape,” and implied that the 14-year-old in question may have been  more Lolita  than an innocent victim. (The judge did apologize for some of his remarks, but stood by his sentence.)

The judge received much criticism, including a very good editorial from the Washington Post, calling for the judge’s resignation.  For reasons I can’t fathom, The Post then decided to give very valuable column inches to a non-expert, described as a “writer and former lawyer” to rebut its editorial position. She opined that she had lots of friends in the sixties and seventies who had sex with teachers in high school, college and law school, and they’re in her estimation, just fine. To be a law student and have sex with a professor is unwise, but surely it can’t be compared to being a 14-year-old having sex with a teacher.

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Readers Lose As Washington Post Cuts Ombudsman

In Blog on April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

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.

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Washington Post Ombudsman Lowers the Bar for “Great” Journalism

In Blog on February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I often agree with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton. But not this week.

He begins his column with a question: “You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?”

The answer? “Reporters reporting.”

Uh, right. Presumably, however, reporters also report for The Post on its worst days and on all the mediocre days in between. So perhaps Pexton had in mind some extraordinary examples of great reporting.

No such luck. “It is reporters” he points out, who sit “through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing,” to get the quote or fact that prompts a surprising news story. “It is reporters” who wait until (egads!) “after midnight” to witness a controversial zoning decision vote. “It is reporters” with “ringing ears” no less, who make phone calls to talk to sources to get the information they need to write a story they were assigned to that morning. “It is reporters” who have to go to “bloody crime scenes” and encounter “people who are upset, stressed and crying.”

This is what supposedly “separates” the work of Post reporters from the “…thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.”

I agree there’s a lot of “thin reporting” out there. But the work Pexton describes is so basic to plain vanilla journalism that it should not be cast as heroic. It should be the floor for the profession, not the ceiling.

Pexton could as easily have written, “It is dentists” who “bravely attack tooth decay, put their hands into dirty mouths, and who have to extract dead, bloody teeth from people who are upset and stressed.”

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