"Hey, Morris, better cancel your lunch plans. I hear the ombudsman wants to talk to you."
"That rat? What does he want?"
"Something about that piece you did on the mayor."
"Oh, come on. That was strictly by the book. I followed standard journalistic procedure from start to finish."
"Well, I guess the issue of fairness came up."
"Fairness? That liberal pipsqueak pinhead of a mayor has the gall to talk about fairness? And our rat chooses to put any credence in it?"
"Well, that's his job."
"No, it's also his passion. He just loves to to make honest, hard-working journalists look bad."
Sorry about that. I had a flashback to all those police movies and TV shows I've watched about how all the cops hate the internal affairs creeps always lurking around and trying to get the goods on the officers who extort milk money from school kids and beat up senior citizens just for fun.
It was triggered by the news that The New York Times has decided to eliminate its "public editor," an accountability role that was created in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. On some papers, that position is called "ombudsman," which sounds much more impressive; leave it to newspapers to try to create instant credibility with a fancy word. When The News-Sentinel very briefly had such a position, we called it "reader representative." The position was held by Joe Sheibley, who wore that as one of his many hats. As near as I could tell, Joe's main job was to talk to disgruntled readers so other editors didn't have to. Then he'd tell those malcontents that he had made sure the powers be knew about their upset, and I guess everybody felt better.
Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger announced the elimination to the staff in a lengthy memo explaining that although the public editor position was being eliminated, the newspaper was "focusing on readers" in a lot of other ways:
But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.
We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.
We will work hard to curate and respond to the thousands of daily comments, but comments will form just one bridge between The Times and our audience. We also, of course, engage with readers around the globe on social media, where we have tens of millions of followers. We publish behind-the-scenes dispatches describing the reporting process and demystifying why we made certain journalistic decisions. We hold our journalism to the highest standards, and we have dedicated significant resources to ensure that remains the case.
[. . .]
As the newsroom announced yesterday, we have created a Reader Center led by Hanna Ingber, a senior editor, who will work with Phil and many others to make our report ever more transparent and our journalists more responsive. The Reader Center is the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism, but the work will be shared by all of us.
Whew! Seems like there's a lot going on there. Seems like. Wade through all the "social responsibility" nonsense, and it looks like business as usual pretty much. More people will get to comment online to more stories. Whoop-de-doo. I can tell you from our experience that when the moonbats and wingnuts start going at each other, then join forces and turn on us, there's not exactly a rational dialogue bubbling up to make newspaper editors take stock of how they do their jobs, I don't care how well "curated" the comments are. Same deal with the internet and social media, which are like "comments" on steroids. People on those platforms don't need "empowered." The need tranquilized. And what the hell is a Reader Center? Sounds a lot like "reader representative."
I guess this is the part where I say, "Oh, of course" the NYT is dropping its public editor, because the last thing in the world it wants is an honest discussion with its readers. The paper has no more credibility than it did during its plagiarism scandal. In fact, it has less. It has always had a mostly unacknowledged liberal bias, and with the advent of Trump it has thrown every ounce of journalistic integrity out the window and gone all in on the throw-the-bum-out resistance movement. And that venomous spite has so infected the news pages that I find it difficult to trust a single thing I read in the "paper of record."
But I don't have to say that, because a lot of other people already are. That's the one thing we do have these days that can work to keep news outlets a little more honest. At one time, there were the news networks and a handful of big papers, and they were all in lockstep, and if you didn't like what they had to say, tough cookies. You were the out-of-touch, weirdo crank. Today, there is a robust collection of news purveyors representing every stop along the political spectrum. And they are more than happy to keep an eye on each other and let us all know what everybody is up to. When Dan Rather tried to take down George W. Bush with phony National Guard reporting, it didn't take a day for his credibility to be shredded, and he has not recovered to this day.
I've always been more than a little skeptical about all these touchy-feely efforts to make readers think they are getting a peek behind the curtain. The "transparency" everybody is supposedly so concerned about is built into our product. We find out stuff, and put it right there in the paper for everybody to see. It's right or it's wrong, and we have to stand by it and defend it as best we can. The kinds of tasks an ombudsman are given are the same things good reporters and editors are supposed to do every day. We either earn readers' trust or we don't, and when we don't they certainly let us know about it.
Some places need an outreach person, and some don't. The customer service departments of retail outlets exist to provide services the shoppers can't get out on the floor, like check cashing and gift cards and stuff like that, so that's a needed offering. But when municipal governments start hiring "taxpayer representatives" or "citizen services" or such, my BS detector sounds the alarm. What "services" is that person going to provide that I can't get by calling my district City Council member? In how many ways are my elected and appointed representatives goofing off while this poor, overburdened chump is fielding calls about potholes and streetlights and that lousy neighbor next door who just will not turn the music down?
Maybe I'm just being cynical (nah! couldn't be), but I put newspaper reader reps. in the "you ain't foolin' me none" category. I've been doing editorial pages for more than 30 years now, and I've al;ways had plenty of feedback without especially having to ask for it. "Letters to the editor" make up the best Readers Center ever invented.
Of course, the efforts of someone like a public editor can be good or bad depending on the quality of the journalist holding the position. Apparently, at least one previous holder of that position on the Times was very well respected as someone who could hold editors' feet to the fire and get real answers out of management, and the current occupant of the office isn't exactly a ball of fire. So, duly noted, but I still think the position is a waste of an FTE.