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Will NY Times’ naming of ‘public editor’ energize media’s self-scrutiny?

When the New York Times announced late last month that it would soon appoint its first “public editor” -- an ombudsman, in effect, who would review reader complaints, recommend corrective measures and write “independent, uncensored commentaries” on the paper’s coverage “whenever he or she feels that it is warranted” -- I thought immediately of a conversation I had 22 years ago with Abe Rosenthal, then the executive editor of the New York Times.

“I do not believe in the ombudsman system,” Rosenthal told me. “It’s a red herring ... a PR gimmick ... a great way to get the editor off the hook.”

Given that even now, only about 30 of the nation’s more than 1,400 newspapers have ombudsmen or public editors or readers’ representatives -- the titles and duties vary from paper to paper -- I have to assume that most editors agree with Rosenthal. Either that or they just don’t want to provide a public forum for the scrutiny and criticism of their judgments and their journalism..

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Frankly -- regretfully -- I’m inclined to think it’s largely the latter.

I can still recall discussing this with Bill Thomas, then the editor of the Los Angeles Times, not long after my Rosenthal conversation. I had been writing about the media for six or eight years then, and I told Thomas I wondered why a particular editor whom I’d always found insightful and cooperative didn’t have a medic critic or ombudsman at his paper.

Thomas laughed.

“I know you like him and you think he likes you and your work,” Thomas said, “but the last time we had a drink together, he asked me, ‘Why do you let that bearded pipsqueak Shaw second-guess you all the time on the front page of your own paper?’ ”

Thomas had originally asked me to write about the media -- including The Times -- because he thought news organizations had lost much of their credibility with the public during the late 1960s and early ‘70s when we’d begun to take a much more critical approach toward virtually every powerful institution in society except our own.

Thomas said he also wanted me to write about the media in a way that would “hold us as accountable as we hold the government and big business and the police and all those other institutions.” He said he wanted stories that would help “demystify us to the public -- explain what we do and how and why we do it and what our standards and limitations and decision-making processes are.”

Thomas didn’t want an ombudsman per se. He wanted a reporter/critic writing stories that would appear in the news columns of the paper “so they’ll carry the institutional weight of the paper and not be dismissed as just one man’s op-ed page opinion.”

I did that job for the next 28 years, until I began this column last fall -- by which time a subsequent Times editor had also created the position of readers’ representative here.

(The current readers’ representative at The Times responds to readers’ questions and complaints, gives the editors a weekly summary of those comments and, when warranted, offers her evaluation of the validity of those comments. But unlike her predecessor here -- and unlike most ombudsmen, including those at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe -- she does not write a column for the paper about these criticisms.)

Editors’ reluctance

MOST newspaper editors, even the best of them, remain reluctant to authorize the publication, in their own papers, of unfettered in-house criticism.

I once asked Gene Roberts, who led the Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzer Prizes in his 18-year tenure as executive editor, how he felt about ombudsmen and in-house press critics. Roberts, too, had been a good, quotable source for me over the years, and he seemed to see some value in the way The Times wrote about the media. But he had no interest doing anything similar at the Inquirer.

“We’re locked in a death struggle with the Bulletin,” he said. “If we printed stories on our front page that said we’d screwed up something, they’d beat us over the head with it.”

Not long after that conversation, the Bulletin folded. The next time I saw Roberts, I again raised the question of an Inquirer ombudsman or media critic.

“No,” he said. “We have too many other priorities to spend our money on to do that.”

That’s what most editors still think.

But what journalistic priority can possibly be higher than maintaining -- or rebuilding -- reader confidence in our credibility and in our commitment to accuracy and fairness? If the news media exist to serve our readers -- as we constantly say when waving the First Amendment banner in response to government restriction, obfuscation and censorship -- isn’t responding to our readers’ questions and criticisms a matter of the highest priority?

Is hiring another science reporter or sportswriter or political reporter really more important than hiring someone who will critically examine how we do our job and who will explain that process -- and, when warranted, its flaws -- to an increasingly dubious readership? After all, public opinion surveys show that people are even more critical of us -- more suspicious of us, more hostile to us--now than they were when Thomas first broached the subject to me almost 30 years ago.

In announcing that the New York Times would soon appoint a public editor, Executive Editor Bill Keller noted that his paper had “traditionally resisted” doing so because “we worried that it would foster nit-picking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale and, worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interest of readers.”

That latter point -- embodied in the “We are the ombudsmen for the New York Times” statements that top editors of the paper repeatedly made to me, in virtually the same words, over the years -- is characteristic of the arrogance that found both its institutional nadir and its most personal expression in the reign of Executive Editor Howell Raines.

Outgrowth of scandal

Now, in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fiction-writing scandal -- a scandal that led to the forced resignations of Raines and his top deputy -- a New York Times committee assigned to examine that sad affair has persuaded Keller that, as he said, “we can profit from the scrutiny of an independent reader representative.”

Because Keller announced that the public editor would serve only a one-year term, after which the experiment would be evaluated, many skeptics have suggested that if the public editor is too critical too often, the experiment might be shelved faster than you can say “Rick Bragg.”

But I think Keller is determined to make the Times an even better and more responsive newspaper, to restore both reader confidence and the Times’ suddenly tarnished reputation. That could be his greatest contribution to the paper he’s devoted 19 years of his life to.

The Times’ public editor announcement came a mere 36 years after the Louisville Courier-Journal became the first U.S. newspaper to appoint an ombudsman, but even if Keller and his colleagues take a few hard hits in the pages of their own paper, I don’t think he’ll pull the plug on the public editor at the first opportunity.

More important, with the New York Times -- long an industry leader in both excellence and innovation -- finally appointing a public editor, I hope that many heretofore timid, insecure editors at other newspapers will do likewise.

That would be the best possible legacy of the Jayson Blair debacle.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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