Patrick Pexton might be the Washington Post’s last ombudsman. His two-year contract expires March 1, and the Post might not replace him with a full-time, full-throated, internal watchdog.
“We are in the process of thinking about whether we want to replace Pat with no changes in the role or do it differently,” editorial page editor Fred Hiatt wrote in an e-mail. “We have not made any decisions.”
If the Post decides to spike the ombudsman, it would extinguish a role that has been filled by distinguished journalists since 1970, when Richard Harwood became the paper’s first internal critic. And it would land a heavy blow to the position of news ombudsmen in general, an institution under siege.
“For the Washington Post to downsize, restructure or eliminate the ombudsman position makes it easier for others to do the same,” Pexton tells The Washingtonian. “There are not many left.”
It’s hard to get an exact count of ombudsmen in US news organizations. I count more than 20, including the public editor at the New York Times; ombudsmen at the Chicago Tribune, ESPN, and the Miami Herald, among others; and a standards editor at CNN and the Huffington Post. Many major news organizations are divesting ombudsmen. Revenues are scarce, so it’s not surprising publishers would see the position as a luxury.
“The Washington Post is a place where having an ombudsman is part of the culture,” says Michael Getler, a veteran Post reporter and editor who served as ombudsman from 2000 to 2005. He’s now ombudsman at PBS. “It sets the standard for what an ombudsman does.”
“I’m not sure an ombudsman focused as heavily as they have been on a weekly column makes sense any longer,” says Hiatt, whose editorial pages have hosted the Post’s ombudsmen for the past 43 years. “I think it is still important to have some way for readers/viewers to register complaints and/or ask questions and be assured of getting a response.
“Beyond that,” he adds, “I am still thinking and talking to people about what makes sense.”
In talking to Marty Baron, the Post’s new executive editor, Hiatt might not find a fan.
When The Washingtonian put the question to Baron, he responded: “As you know, there are many commentators who weigh in with their views of our performance as a news organization. Our primary concern as we think about this is assuring that reader questions and complaints are addressed.”
Addressing complaints and comments from readers is the most basic definition of an ombudsman. At their best, they often explore and expose journalistic flaws in coverage, the handling of plagiarism, and instances of conflicts of interest. When the Post in 2009 floated the idea of charging lobbyists to attend salons where they could mix with journalists, then-ombudsman Andy Alexander called it “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.” That stung.
“Anyone who cuts an ombudsman is making a mistake.” says Getler. “It’s a disservice to the paper in upholding its own journalistic standards. It’s important, especially now, for newspapers not to slip in quality.”
Margaret Sullivan, who recently took over as New York Times public editor, explained in her Sunday column how the Times established her position after Jayson Blair was exposed as a fabricator a decade ago. “The Times took many preventive steps, including creating the job of public editor,” she wrote. “That shows a continuing commitment to hearing criticism and enduring second-guessing in public—not a small thing.”
But perhaps too large for the Washington Post.
NOTE: A previous version of this story quoted Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive editor of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, accusing Baron of firing the last ombudsman at the Boston Globe. That is not accurate. In fact, the ombudsman left the job to become a spokesperson for Deval Patrick, during his first campaign for governor. The Globe publisher did not replace him.