...don't even ignore 'em.
-- Samuel Goldwyn

Sunday, May 22, 2005

How to be an ombudsman.

As a Militant Moderate, I have a soft spot in my heart for the ombudsman, that brave person who is paid by an institution to be its lonely in-house critic and represent the public in their complaints against it. When a news organization hires an ombudsman, they must know that they're literally asking for trouble. The New York Times hired its first--they decided to call it "Public Editor"--just as the Jason Blair scandal peaked, only one of several messes they're still working to overcome. Daniel Okrent ends his term in the job today, with a column called "13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did." As an example of what the product of an ombudsman should be, here's an excerpt:

2. Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. Maureen Dowd was still writing that Alberto R. Gonzales "called the Geneva Conventions 'quaint' " nearly two months after a correction in the news pages noted that Gonzales had specifically applied the term to Geneva provisions about commissary privileges, athletic uniforms and scientific instruments. Before his retirement in January, William Safire vexed me with his chronic assertion of clear links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, based on evidence only he seemed to possess.

No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd's way, and some of Krugman's enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. But that doesn't mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn't hold his columnists to higher standards.

I didn't give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.
Ouch. Now that's what I'm talkin' about. The other twelve items are just as candid and wise. Thanks for all your work, Mr. Okrent. By contrast, I give you Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman of National Public Radio, whose title they evidently define as "explainer," not public advocate. Mr. Dvorkin is clearly NPR's advocate, as I've demonstrated here before. NPR could, and should, take a page from the Times.

No comments: