News & Politics

Are Ombudsmen a Dying Breed?

Fourteen of the public editors have lost their jobs in the past few years, and the “Washington Post’s” may be the next to go.

Patrick Pexton and Michael Getler are part reader advocates, part ethics police. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

When the Washington Post published breathless accounts in 2003 about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield wounds during the Iraq War and painted her as GI Jane taking bullets for her country, Michael Getler smelled a rat.

“The story was wrong,” he says. “You could tell it was off.”

Getler was the paper’s ombudsman at the time. He was also a respected Post lifer who had put in more than 25 years as reporter and editor. As ombudsman, he was the internal watchdog. When Lynch’s story unraveled, the Post was forced to run what Getler called an “incomplete correction.”

“That, too, was bullshit,” he says. Getler wrote a column that said as much, bringing angry authors to his door. “I had hired one. It was uncomfortable, but it comes with the turf.”

Ombudsmen—also known as public editors—operate on hostile turf: Their role is to represent consumers of news and to serve as internal critics within the news organization. They receive comments or complaints—from readers, listeners, and viewers at the rate of 200 to 300 e-mails a day—and they render judgment in columns.

“A certain amount of tension is inherent in the relationship,” says NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos.

The tension seems to be wearing on the Post. The paper might not replace ombudsman Patrick Pexton, whose two-year contract ends February 28. Word at the Post is that it will reorganize the position. Says Pexton: “It’s a bad harbinger for ombudsmen in general.”

Pexton used social media to serve as the readers’ advocate; his columns delved into the Post’s handling of four plagiarism cases, among other touchy topics. Top brass, in particular publisher Katharine Weymouth, might still be smarting over the way Pexton’s predecessor, Andrew Alexander, investigated the paper’s 2009 plan to hold “salons” at which lobbyists would pay to meet with reporters. He called the project “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

Ombudsmen can stick their pen in the eye of the publisher because their contract guarantees them independence. Says Pexton: “I am unfettered.”

Now at PBS, Getler enjoys the same arrangement, so he can write that the network often errs by allowing corporations and friendly funders to finance programs in which they have financial stakes.

Take the 2010 TV series on former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, funded in part by corporations he’d worked for. The program “created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Getler wrote. A recent Nova documentary on drones, funded by Lockheed Martin, was “handled poorly,” he said, and PBS “flunked” its internal standards by allowing Dow Chemical to be the sole corporate sponsor of last year’s America Revealed, a series about systems ranging from wind power to manufacturing.

Getler senses he’s an endangered species, noting that 14 ombudsmen have lost their jobs in the last few years. He laments the Post’s possible gutting of the position: “It’s an easy cut. You get rid of someone who can be a pain in the ass. But it’s a mistake.”

This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.