The ombudsman's job

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 26, 2006

An ombudsman is also occassionally knowns as the "reader's representative," they are someone in newspaper newsrooms who is the first contact for the public and is not supposed to be wedded to the company line.

Unfortunately, it appears Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has abdicated this duty to the readers first, the paper second. The victims of this betrayal are the Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the readers of the Post. I encourage you to read the entire column, but I wanted to highlight this portion.

I didn’t ask the Post for a correction. But I did write a brief letter to the editor in an attempt to set the record straight. I also registered a second complaint; The article identified me only as “a former Republican National Committee spokesman” despite the fact that for the past five years I have directed a bipartisan foreign policy institute, that I serve as well on the board of the Committee on the Present Danger, also a bipartisan foreign policy group, and that I’m a former New York Times foreign correspondent. Gerecht’s relevant credentials – he’s a former CIA operative in the Middle East – also were omitted.

When I opened the Outlook section on Sunday, my letter wasn’t there. I approached the Post’s Ombudsman. I said that while this wasn’t a big deal, Post readers were misled about my position (though the respected blogger Paul Mirengoff at Powerline quickly and accurately sorted fact from spin for his readers). Shouldn’t the Post want to get the story right? She replied: “The author of the piece disagrees with your letter.”

I wrote back: “She maintains that I was indeed ‘won over’ … that I was persuaded and that I changed my views? How would she know that? And how could I be unaware of it? For her to be right, wouldn’t she need not just the skills of a reporter but also the powers of a psychic? And for me to be wrong, would I not have to be an amnesiac?”

"The author of the piece disagrees with your letter?" That's an incredibly lame response. A disagreement over what was said might be a reason to refuse a correction -- after all, May might have been embarrassed by how the story turned out and changed his position after it appeared (I find this unlikely in this case because the contemporaneous e-mails paint a different picture than the one the reporter described).

I've had this happen to me as a reporter when the subject of a news article said something politically incindiary, I reported it and she later denied it -- it happens.

However, this is not a reason to refuse to run a letter to the editor. Howell damages her credibility when she lets her natural reflex to protect the Post overcome common sense.

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