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.