Media lose credibility when in-house watchdogs are cut

The New York Times announced today that it is ending the public editor position — the ombudsman — and that’s a shame.

So, too, are the tweets from some journalists who don’t think it’s a shame.

For an industry that claims the importance of credibility and demands accountability at other institutions, the news industry is woefully resistant to being held accountable, and although the latest Times public editor — Liz Spayd — has been unconscionably derelict, the answer to the problem isn’t to eliminate the position, it’s to find someone better.

The position was created at the Times around the time reporter Jason Blair was peddling phony stories, and America had gotten itself into a war based on a lie with the news media unwilling to be viewed as unpatriotic by doing its job.

But the ombudsman position in newsrooms extends back far longer as readers of the Star Tribune, where Lou Gelfand once demanded accountability of its editors, might recall.

The Star Tribune no longer has an ombudsman; neither does any news organization in Minnesota. The Minnesota News Council was shut down, MinnPost has eliminated the last remaining position in a Minnesota newsroom dedicated to covering the news media. To top that off, many news sites no longer allow reader feedback.

These are the dark ages for media accountability despite the claim by Washington Post boss Marty Barron, who axed his newsroom’s ombudsman by noting that criticism comes from “all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age.”

That’s nonsense. Newsrooms don’t really care about public criticism, which is often uninformed, but historically they have cared when someone with some journalism chops questions the decisions.

Nowhere was that more clear this week than at NPR, where Elizabeth Jensen allowed us all to see the professional criticism of the NPR newsroom over an April 27 Morning Edition report on the likelihood that North Korea could launch an electromagnetic attack on the nation’s grid.

It featured an expert who disagreed with former CIA director James Woolsey on the possibility and did so by laughing, seven seconds of which was broadcast.

Jensen did us all a favor by reporting on the process by which reporter Geoff Brumfiel developed his story.

Brumfiel sent me a detailed breakdown of his reporting process, and it’s everything you would expect of a seasoned reporter. He drew on his own knowledge, read the reports, talked to experts. One suggested that he interview Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey and a leading expert on North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. He is frequently called on as a guest on NPR.

And then she allowed us to hear the editorial justification for the laugh…

That seven seconds was just a fraction of Lewis’s full laugh, which ran more than 1 minute and 14 seconds of the interview. Given the magnitude of that response, Brumfiel said he “felt that leaving it out would have the effect of sanitizing his reaction to the original statements.” The piece’s editor, Larry Kaplow, said he agreed with that choice.

Brumfiel added, “We realized the decision to use the laugh would stir things up, but in the end, we agreed it would help drive home the point of the piece in a memorable way. Many people both within and outside of NPR have since remarked on it. I feel it had the desired effect, which was to offer a crystal-clear rebuttal to a statement made the previous day.”

And then concluded with an explanation of why it was a bad idea.

To many listeners, including me, it came off as disdainful and disrespectful of Woolsey. More important, by effectively treating the subject as a laughing matter, it had the unintended consequence of obscuring Brumfiel’s main point: The threat of EMP attacks may be real, but North Korea, in particular, is most likely not capable of such an attack in the near future. This is a weighty topic and NPR listeners deserved a report that invited them to consider it seriously, in style as well as substance.

The NPR newsroom doesn’t have to pay any attention to what Jensen says. But she reports directly to the NPR CEO. More importantly, however, she also reports to the listeners.

That’s a philosophy that, as the Times showed today, is out of vogue in the nation’s newsrooms.

Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in announcing more staff buyouts and the elimination of the public editor position, said the job’s responsibility has outgrown one office.

“When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves,” he wrote to his staff.

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.

That’s fundamentally flawed. Readers simply do not carry the weight of a fellow journalist where criticism is concerned. If it did, the Times might re-examine more of its recent decisions.

Margaret Sullivan, the former Times’ public editor, tweeted a few minutes ago that the job can do what no amount of reader feedback can.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect financially strapped news organizations to pay someone to publicize its flaws or, when necessary, to tell the customers that they’re wrong too.

But even if trust in newsrooms weren’t eroding, it would still be true that readers and listeners deserve someone on their side in a position of power.

Because nobody likes being ignored.

  • Gary F

    More and more people every day don’t take the NYT seriously anymore. The Old Grey Lady ain’t what she used to be.

  • MikeB

    Twitter can provide push back and criticism, some of it actually useful, but cannot get an Editor to reply as a public editor could. Sullivan was very good at the NYT but the defensiveness shown by other editors (my read) probably limited her long term effectiveness. It was a good idea to turn over this position as the NYT did, a fresh voice was healthy.

    It was refreshing to see some self accountability now and then.

  • Zachary

    I don’t know. I find myself becoming more and more, shall I say ‘cynical’, of ‘news’. I used to be a news junkie, 10-15 years ago, consuming as much as I could. These days – it’s pretty much All Things Considered on my drive home and the Sunday Strib – and even that it’s mostly for the funny pages, coupons, and the home plan.

    I don’t have the energy or the time to watch TV news (whether the ‘evening news cast’ or talking head opinion programs) so I don’t. Cynical me even takes the stuff I do consume with a grain of salt. If something does come up, I side check it with several different sources.

    Most of this I attribute to the spawn of ‘opinion masquerading as journalism’ or ‘info-tainment’ type stuff. (Like the Dude said – “That’s just, like, your opinion man.”) Plus – I just don’t care anymore. I don’t even watch ‘news’ videos (partly, because I can read faster than watch something, and partly because of filters at work)

    I spend more time looking up old WW2 battles on Wikipedia then I do on ‘current events’, sad I know – but there is only so much I can take. Events – like what happened at the Times – are a big turn off for me. I used to be able to trust “the news”, and that made me happy. This does not make me happy. I don’t read the Times, or the Post, or Weekly World News, as News Apathy has taken over.

    I appreciate what you do here Bob, as it does open me to, like you say – “…about events that might not typically make the front page.” That’s the stuff that really interests me.

    Until the rest of the journalism catches up (or backtracks, I guess) count me out.

    • X.A. Smith

      I think that anyone who listens to most of All Things Considered, most days, is more informed than–I dunno–maybe 78% of eligible voters.

  • Mike

    Your main point – that public editors/ombudspeople serve a valuable role – is hard to disagree with. Media outlets are poorer without them.

    But as for the specific example involving James Woolsey, I would say that all mainstream media, including NPR, is in general far too deferential to various public officials and politicians. If more people had laughed at George Tenet, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, and George W. Bush (for starters), we might have avoided the military debacle and humanitarian tragedy called the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    Government officials don’t deserve any automatic respect, especially if what they’re saying is of dubious honesty or intelligence. They work for us, after all. More mockery and ridicule of the truly absurd things they say and do are a virtue, not a vice.

    • Laughter and mocking is a very poor substitute for a good argument and facts. It makes the Internet feel good; I’ll give you that. But it’s a very, very poor substitute.

      I would argue that mocking as a tool in debate is why we got into Iraq. That’s why journalists didn’t their job. They were mocked as unpatriotic.

      No, the solution to the war was good reporting and facts.

      • Mike

        Good arguments and facts are unfortunately poor substitutes for effective mockery in the court of public opinion. There were various sober, credentialed experts who predicted disaster in Iraq; they weren’t listened to because the most powerful people in government (and their enabling media) were busy concocting, distorting, and exaggerating their way to war.

        Mocking the powerful is qualitatively different from mocking the less powerful (or powerless). The warmongers in our government were doing more than poking fun at anyone who didn’t sign on to their agenda; they were characterizing their opponents as seditious and treasonous.

        That’s precisely the kind of pompous and dangerous rhetoric that needs to be punctured – at least in part – by satire and sarcasm.

        • I can’t think of a single time when mockery accomplished anything but entertain someone.

          I think news as entertainment has been the forerunner of the dumbing down of America and, in particular, the young.

          • Mike

            It’s a rhetorical tool to be employed. It’s very effective in political campaigns, and that’s what all this comes down to: politics.

            Think of Ronald Reagan’s “I’m not going to hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him” dig at Jimmy Carter.

            Or of the Bush I campaign’s mockery of Michael Dukakis in a tank helmet.

            Bill Clinton ran commercials in 1992 with old footage of Bush I saying, “You’ll be better off in four years than you are today,” followed by the question “How are you doing?”

            The powerful hate really pointed satire because they recognize its power to deflate their image. Think Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006.

          • But there’s more to journalism than politics so while, yes, rhetoric is swell for the politically engrossed, a news organization is much more than its political coverage.

            The mockery you describe in politics is basically marketing when employed in politics to create a reality for a lazy country that can’t be bothered with facts.

            I’ll take facts any day . but I understand why mockery exists.

          • Mike

            My point is that they’re not mutually exclusive. One can mock in a way that’s grounded in facts. One can also be respectful in a way that’s sycophantic and uncritical.

          • Right, but Jensen’s assertion has nothing to do with suggesting respect comes at the cost of a critical view. Quite the opposite, actually, as she stated in her last paragraphs.

            But sometimes, NPR — and radio in general — goes for the cheap laugh and thrill and that’s what she’s saying. Time is valuable on the radio, particularly in a piece that’s only two minutes long. Don’t waste it on gags.

          • Mike

            By wanting to censor a laugh at a government official because it’s “disrespectful” (not because it took up too much time), she’s giving too much respect to that government official. Especially for apparently debatable claims. These people simply shouldn’t be entitled to white glove treatment.

          • It’s an incorrect assertion to suggest that having the “expert” use facts instead of laughter to rebut a point is “white glove treatment.” But indicative of the times we’re in now.

            But I agree with Jensen. I don’t want NPR to be Twitter. It and PBS NewsHour are the last places that still stand for intelligent exchange of ideas.

          • Mike

            I didn’t make that assertion. I’ve said they’re not mutually exclusive, and they’re not.

            Hilarious that you dismiss all outlets except your own. I suppose The Nation, The Intercept, The Guardian, and many others contribute nothing meaningful to current debate. Keep thinking that – maybe one day it will even be true.

          • Good talk.

  • AL287

    Gee. Silly me. I thought that’s what the editor-in-chief was for.

    • The role of the ombudsman is to respond to the reader and ask editors to explain. And apply a journalistic standard in any dispute between the two.

      But the transparency that the position creates has never been a responsibility of the editor or publisher.