NPR pushes back, says it’s not demoting ombudsman job

NPR is backing off its plan that many journalists thought was intended to take the teeth out of its ombudsman position. The radio network was criticized for its job posting for the position when it included this language:

The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.

The language appeared designed to weaken the position, especially after outgoing ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos heavily criticized his employer’s ethics in an investigation of the removal of Native American children from their families in South Dakota.

Journalism commentator Jay Rosen said the move “downgrades” the ombudsman’s job:

To understand why, just think about the effect that “your job is not to pass judgment” has on the pool of potential applicants. It’s likely that similar moves by the Washington Post helped clear the way. It’s possible also that dissatisfaction with the performance of previous ombudsmen contributed to the decision, along with a feeling that criticism rains down from all sides nowadays, so why do we need an in-house critic?

In my view, NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman. Its own internal standards are much improved since the position was created. Its ethics handbook — a public document — is a model of transparency and accountability. Whoever is responsible for the downgrade made a bad call.

Yesterday, NPR chief executive Jarl Mohn said the critics were wrong about NPR’s intentions, but the wording was a mistake. In a statement  to Media Matters, Mohn wrote:

The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it.

I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.

The acknowledgement of a mistake came a day after two executives defended the job description change.

“The job description was in no way meant to diminish the role, limit the independence or handcuff them,” Kinsey Wilson, the executive vice president and chief content officer for NPR, said in a conference call with public radio station employees.

“What we want in the job is someone who can do really thorough, smart reporting, lift the veil on the process and make it understandable to the audience and hold us accountable to the ethical guidelines,” Wilson added. “We believed the more traditional role of an ombudsman, someone pronouncing the sermon on the mount, being the voice of god, seen as the final arbiter of what happens around our journalism, is probably an antiquated one.”

Wilson was hardly contrite, saying he told Rosen he “did a lousy job of reporting and instead chose to opine based on singling out some words in a job description and a couple of words from ex-ombudsmen.”

Margaret Low Smith, the outgoing news boss at NPR, chastised public radio stations who objected to the job description language.

“I honestly thought (the Rosen article) was sort of a lazy piece of reporting. I would ask you to believe and give us the benefit of the doubt. The kind of time and care and effort we make … requires 24/7 attention and I think stations should know that and trust first before doubting.”