Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’

Kathy English
Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor (Toronto Star photo by Lucas Oleniuk)

By Casey Bukro

I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.

Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.

It’s almost heroic.

I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.

Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.

Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.

Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.

English explained she reports directly to the publisher as part of a strong commitment to accountability and transparency.

“Being outside the newsroom gives the public editor essential latitude to weigh in on public complaints and, when called for, make clear to our audiences how newsroom journalists fall short of the Star’s journalistic standards,” English wrote. “Being outside the newsroom also means that the public editor has no say in newsroom decision-making.”

The Star is one of two Canadian newspapers with ombudsmen. The other is The Globe and Mail. CBC and Radio-Canada also have ombudsmen.

English referred to the Organization of News Ombudsmen and its handbook, which refers to the task as “the loneliest job in the newsroom.”

Eight years of experience, wrote English, proves “we can never please everyone.”

National Public Radio also recently posted “How we Work: A Week in the Ombudsman’s Office,” also in response to questions.

“The ombudsman’s office serves primarily as a liaison between the newsroom and listeners, to make the newsroom leaders aware of how listeners feel and help listeners understand why the newsroom makes the decisions it does,” said ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen.

The NPR ombudsman has no management authority, however, “the newsroom can take my suggestions (or not). I don’t speak for the newsroom or for NPR – just for myself – and I don’t have the power to print a correction or set policy,” Jensen wrote.

Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, recently pointed out that sometimes he has to side with a newspaper’s owners and editor, since they decide policy.

A reader wanted to know why The Blade denied the “Dr.” title to everyone except holders of medical and veterinary degrees. Lessenberry asked The Blade’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, if it was time to change the newspaper’s policy. No, said Block. The policy is consistent and does not need to be changed.

“As far as your ombudsman is concerned,” wrote Lessenberry, “style decisions are up to the newspaper’s owners and editors. There is no fairness issue involved as long as the policy is consistent and consistently applied.”

In another example, the Columbia Journalism Review points to concerns raised by The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about a front page story that cast Hillary Clinton as the subject of a criminal investigation, which turned out to be false. First The Times revised the story, but did not issue a correction until 12 hours later. That did not meet Sullivan’s standards.

“When mistakes happen, the Times Needs to be more transparent with readers about what is going on,” she wrote. “Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.”

The ombudsman trade got more than the usual passing glance in 2013 when the Washington Post decided to replace its ombudsmen with a reader representative.

Financial planner and blogger Larry M. Elkin objected.

“I liked things better when the ombudsman was the reader’s representative,” wrote Elkin. “What sounds like just a change in title, substituting a more readily recognized job description for an obscure bit of jargon, is really something more. It is a mark of how the commitment of American newsrooms to impartial reporting is fading.”

The rise of the newspaper ombudsman, beginning in the late 1960s, “coincided with the golden age of American newspaper journalism in the 1970s,” wrote Elkin. He, like others, believed that the job was being watered down.

It’s understandable why ombudsmen are vulnerable as news organizations cut staff in a punishing era of digital information, wrote American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder in 2013.

“But it’s a big mistake to look upon the position as a frill,” Rieder wrote. “The credibility of the news media is low. Mistrust on the part of the public is high. Having someone dedicated to listening to readers or listeners or viewers and dealing with their concerns can be a major plus.”

And it could be a step toward getting back to the idealism mentioned earlier. Idealism often accounts for the reason journalists get into the business in the first place. In this raging age of digital communication, that idealism gets lost. Let’s find it again.

Bomb Threats Tilt GamerGate Event

SPJ AirPlay panel
SPJ AirPlay panel (SPJ Florida photo)

By Casey Bukro

GamerGate from its beginning a year ago seemed touched by lunacy, and that was borne out when bomb threats forced the abrupt closure of a video-game program in Miami.

The Society of Professional Journalists event AirPlay aimed to pin down the social-media campaign GamerGate – whether it’s about journalism ethics and accurate reporting about the video-game industry, attacks on women in the male-dominated industry, or resistance to political correctness and censorship. Or something else.

The conference goal was to “make a good gaming press better, or a bad gaming press good,” said Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director who organized and moderated. The conference “concocted some novel yet practical ideas for achieving that,” he said, such as an SPJ award for games journalism or recruiting games media critics.

A Twitter feed and hashtag and a YouTube channel suggest the event provoked lively discussion. SPJ secretary/treasurer Lynn Walsh said “if mainstream media jumps on this, it should be done well and ethically.”

Topics included plagiarism, fabrication, anonymity, fair reporting and the performance of Gamer writers. Koretzky asked about a “troll patrol,” how to vet or write about their social-media statements, and how to expose anonymous digital mischief-makers.

Then it all ground to a halt.

Miami police cleared the building after a series of bomb threats, UPI reported. Breitbart.com reported that the event got 10 bomb threats before police stopped the program and moved participants out of the building and into the streets.

Koretsky said two separate conferences in the building drew about 135 participants, of which about 60 attended the AirPlay event.

AirPlay was supposed to teach us something about GamerGate. AdviceLine asked Koretzky what the abbreviated conference taught him.

“I learned I was right about one thing,” Koretsky responded in an email. “Face-to-face opens minds. As for the bomb threat, it was awesome. It happened only 30 minutes before we ended, and it made @SPJAirPlay trend worldwide.”

Such threats are not new to GamerGate. Earlier this year a bomb threat cleared 300 people from a Washington, D.C., event aimed at GamerGate supporters. And Anita Sarkeesian, creator of a video series of pop-culture critiques, canceled an appearance at Utah State University last year because of the threat of a mass shooting.

AdviceLine asked Koretzky if continued threats of violence prove that some of those GamerGate folks really are nuts.

“I knew some GGers were nuts from the get-go,” he said. “But I learned just how many aren’t. I’d say it’s 50-50 &ndash which might offend both sides. But really, that’s a ringing GG endorsement, since so many folks told me the stat was 100 percent.”

And what else did he learn from the event?

“I’ve been talking to some gaming journalists post-AirPlay about why it wasn’t covered. Interestingly, the reporters are cool, editors are not. So once again, it’s age more than philosophy.”

As for his next move, Koretzky said he’s considering hosting a feminism-and-media debate.

Mark Samenfink, a lifelong gamer, wrote that he was frustrated by the way the Miami GamerGate event ended.

“This feels like a hollow victory,” Samenfink wrote. “But since at least half of the event took place (and was streamed live, worldwide), it’s not completely hollow. I was excited all day, my hype was real, I sat down to watch the debates and was overjoyed by them, but this … it just killed the mood.”

Did the gaming press cover the event?

“No,” said Koretzky, “just the bomb threats, and some not even that. It says more in defense of GG than anything else to date.”

 

GamerGate Revisited: Is It Really About Journalism Ethics?

AirPlay

By Casey Bukro

Is GamerGate about ethical violations in video-game journalism?

Or is GamerGate just a smokescreen for harassing women who want to work in the male-dominated gaming industry?

Or is it something else?

A live-streamed debate will sort it out Aug. 15 in Miami.

Elements in the controversy include the $15 billion video game industry, the video game press, game reviewers, developers, commentators and those who sell advertising in gaming magazines. It’s a volatile mixture.

Michael Koretzky, a regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, organized the conference and will moderate. His region covers Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Sponsors are the region and SPJ Florida.

AdviceLine questioned Koretzky on the key issues:

Why is GamerGate a journalism ethics issue?

Because GamerGate says it is – its supporters insist the movement started after years of shoddy journalism by the gaming press. What’s that mean? It means game reviews that aren’t objective, because the reviewers are too cozy with the manufacturers. Are they really? I dunno, that’s why we’re hosting AirPlay (the conference). GamerGate critics say the ethics charges are a smokescreen for a group of mostly white males who don’t like gaming journalists promoting diversity in their culture.

Why is the gaming issue worthy of SPJ’s attention? Reporters on the travel industry and the auto industry also have been accused of biased or inaccurate reviews in hopes of capturing magazine advertising.

Because there isn’t a passionate group of travelers or drivers going nuts over travel and auto magazines. The gaming press is reminiscent of the music press at the dawn of the rock era – not imbued with the ethics traditions of the news press.

You said during an appearance on the Super Podcast Action Committee that “people keep yelling about this.” Does that make it an ethical issue?

Yes. Anytime average citizens cite journalism ethics, SPJ should respond. It’s hard enough to get journalists interested in the topic. Any time anyone else utters the term “journalism ethics,” that should be like a bell to Pavlov’s dog.

Are the GamerGate folks “gaming” everyone, just as the spoofers spoof and the malware devils spread viruses and other crap over the Internet, including hackers who like to cause damage?

Some are. Many aren’t. How do I know? I’ve talked to dozens of both over the past few months. Anecdotal, I know. But I’ve met earnest folks on both sides, and some trolls on neither side.

Some of this seems to boil down to the nature of the computer age. Anyone can say anything on the Internet.
An ethical compass points true north.
Some observers appear to think GamerGate has had its day.

Jesse Singal, Boston Globe correspondent, wrote this:

“Is GamerGate still relevant? Has the loose, mostly anonymous movement, which claims to be about ethics in journalism but whose critics (myself included) see as more a reaction to increasing progressivism and diversity in gaming, lost its ability to garner mainstream headlines, let alone sympathetic ones?”

The last word goes to Vice gaming contributor Mike Diver, who says maybe gamers are “geeks, dorks, or nerds,” or “losers who live with their parents.” But so what?

Standup Guise: Stealing Jokes Isn’t funny

JOKE OF THE DAY

Q: Did you hear about the new “divorced” Barbie doll in stores now?
A: It comes with all of Ken’s stuff.<
Submitted By: Anonymous

TWEET OF THE DAY

Marriage is mostly about knowing which hand towels you can use and which ones are for the better people who visit your wife’s home.
Credit: @_troyjohnson
From Chicago’s Laugh Factory

By Casey Bukro

A funny thing happened on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight show: they were talking about ethics in comedy and joke stealing.

It’s no laughing matter when comics steal jokes from other comedians. How can you stop it?

The Chicago Tonight program was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Alex Kaseberg, a Winnetka freelance comedy writer, who accuses television talk show host Conan O’Brien of stealing his jokes.

“Plagiarism is a huge deal in journalism,” said Phil Ponce, the moderator. “It’s a career-ender. Why is it not a career-ender in comedy?”

Nobody on the panel of comedy experts laughed.

“There’s a history of joke-stealing” that goes back to vaudeville, answered Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Columbia College Chicago. Performers sometimes stood backstage and took notes so they could tell the stolen jokes later.

It’s not easy to prove when a joke is stolen, said comedian Dwayne Kennedy. People accuse others of joke-stealing all the time, he said, but “the topic is so broad,” it’s hard to prove.

Continue reading Standup Guise: Stealing Jokes Isn’t funny

Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct

WBEZ video
WBEZ reposted video it credited to YouTube user King-Dubb.

 

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2011, Chicago radio reporter Steve Edwards was covering gang violence and Chicago police for WBEZ when a video surfaced, showing youths menacing a suspect in the back seat of an open police squad car.

Was it ethical to use that video on a WBEZ broadcast?

That’s what Edwards wanted to know when he called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. The video shows two Chicago police officers standing at the parked blue-and-white SUV with the doors open in Chicago’s violence-prone Humboldt Park area. A group of shouting young men, some possibly minors, taunt a suspect cowering in the back seat and trying to cover his face.

Someone tells the photographer, possibly a gang member, “get a close-up.” The photographer posted the video on YouTube and quickly took it down.

Edwards told AdviceLine that WBEZ had been investigating allegations that Chicago police had a history of subjecting gang members to harm by picking them up, then dropping them off in “enemy” gang territory.

The Chicago Police Department told Edwards that it got a complaint about the incident and released this statement:

“The conduct that is alleged does not reflect the behavior and core values of the men and women of the Chicago Police Department nor our commitment to serve the community in a professional manner.” The department said its internal investigations divisions began an investigation.

In 2013, the Chicago Police Department announced that it had dismissed the two police officers involved in the incident, saying the charges included “unlawfully restraining a youth, transporting him without a valid police purpose to the turf of a gang that would threaten him and making a false statement about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.”
Continue reading Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct

Searching for the Limits of Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.

A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.

Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.

From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.

Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?

These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.

Nancy Matchett, who teaches ethics at the University of Northern Colorado, answered this way:

“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.

“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”

I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?

“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.

“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”

I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.

“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.

“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.

“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”

David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:

“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.

“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”

Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.

Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.

Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.

Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”

Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.

AdviceLine gets SDX Award for Navigating Murky Ethics Waters

SDX Awards
The Sigma Delta Chi Awards are presented June 26 at the National Press Club (Catherine Trifiletti photo)

By Casey Bukro

Ethics: The word can make you feel drowsy, or start your heart pounding.

It all depends on whether you are suddenly tangled in a job-threatening dilemma, or one that might destroy your credibility.

Ethics: Distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions and between virtuous and non virtuous characteristics of people.

Sounds lofty and maybe even remote from our daily journalism lives, until it’s not so remote anymore.

Seated next to me at the Sigma Delta Chi awards banquet in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was the editorial writer of a Midwestern newspaper who was waiting to collect his award. A fellow winner at the dinner table asked the editorial writer how his publication had gotten embroiled in a highly controversial ethics issue.

The newspaper had revealed the names of two alleged women rape victims. Typically, publications avoid naming rape victims.

Off-the-record, the editorial writer explained the difficult process of arriving at the decision to name the women. Then he added that the newspaper had no ombudsman or other trusted source to discuss the difficult decision before publication.

At that point, I reached into my pocket and handed him several Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wallet cards, explaining how to reach AdviceLine in the event of a similar need for ethics counseling. Call toll free, 866-DILEMMA.

The editorial writer seemed grateful, and said he would carry the cards back to his newspaper and hand them out to management.

SDX Award
Sigma Delta Chi Foundation President Robert Leger presents the Sigma Delta Chi Award to AdviceLine’s Casey Bukro (Catherine Trifiletti photo)

Back to the banquet. The award dates to 1932, when the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity honored six individuals for contributions to the profession. The Society of Professional Journalists continued the honors as its Distinguished Service Awards, then with a nod to its fraternal roots as the Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

The awards recognize the best news reporting in print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online media and research. The contest is open to any U.S. media outlet.

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been guiding professional journalists through ethical minefields since 2001 – more than 900 cases. AdviceLine counsel went online early last year with an expanded ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org website.

AdviceLine’s blog won a 2014 SDX award in the Online Column Writing (Independent) category. The blog comments on current ethics issues and describes the kind of questions it gets from professional journalists on ethics.

Here’s what the judges said in naming the AdviceLine blog the winner:

“Ethics, unfortunately, can be an afterthought in a 24-7/digital-first/anyone-can-publish-content environment. In an area that sometimes has no right or wrong answer, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists helps media pros navigate murky waters. They are doing a public service and helping shape the way forward for our industry, and that deserves recognition.”

Also deserving recognition are the AdviceLine ethicist consultants: David Ozar, Loyola University Chicago; Hugh Miller, Loyola University Chicago; David Craig, University of Oklahoma; Nancy Matchett, University of Northern Colorado and Lee Anne Peck, University of Northern Colorado.

Fellow bloggers Stephen Rynkiewicz and David Craig are named with me on the SDX award plaque.

Probably fair to say each of us has an ethics hero. So as a bow to those who came before us, I’ll mention one of mine: American media critic Walter Lippmann, who said in 1920, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

Ethics of Purging Negative Stories From News Archives

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches.

Would that be ethical, the news executive asked?

It was a small problem then, in its infancy. Today, it’s a hot topic. A French court order holds that search engines must consider requests to remove dated links, including news stories.

In the U.S., search engines entertain appeals to remove links for issues from piracy to “revenge porn” to copyright violations. Editors continue to field requests to “unpublish” stories. “Stay on the phone until you solve the issue,” one company advises aggrieved news subjects.

“There are a number of companies out there in the business of helping people scour themselves out of online archive data,” said the digital news editor of the California media organization from which the AdviceLine question originated 10 years ago. The executive editor who posed the question retired, and a lot more has changed in the news world.

Because the deletion issue is so controversial now, the digital news editor preferred that his identity remain confidential, along with the identity of his news organization.

“It’s been an issue for years,” said the digital news editor, “since Google started indexing news content and since people began to realize that as part of a standard for employers, many look at what you do on social media and what you do on the web.”

Here’s the organization’s policy today:  “What we’ve posted online is part of our record online for publication. Our general rule is we do not remove that. If there is an error in fact, we will correct it. Or if it needs an update, we will update.”

The editor pointed out that policies change, and that could change in the future.

For that California executive editor, here’s how it started 10 years ago. One person, now divorced, wanted mention of the marriage removed from the website. A person convicted of a felony five years ago wanted the story removed, and was threatening to sue. A beauty shop owner wanted the name of a beautician removed from a story about the beauty shop because the beautician doesn’t work there anymore.

The editor asked: Is there anything unethical in keeping electronic archives? Is there any ethical requirement to honor requests for deletion? If it’s expensive to do so, would it still be ethically required? Is there an ethical requirement that a newspaper contact Google about selective removal of items from their search engines?

The AdviceLine ethics consultant at the time, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago,  said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.”

The ethicist and the editor discussed whether there is any significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive. They decided an electronic archive is more useful to the community because it is more easily accessed and searched. Therefore, the electronic archive is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive.

Both archives, however, might contain old information that some individuals might prefer was not easily accessible.

Ozar decided after that discussion that there was no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may choose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All of this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said the AdviceLine ethicist.

Although today’s digital news editor at the California publication was not aware of that long-ago exchange, he is following that advice given by the AdviceLine ethicist.

CBC Acts Fast, NBC Acts Slow

By Casey Bukro

Consider the differences in the way Canadian and United States broadcasting officials reacted when their star performers got into trouble.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation swiftly fired political anchor Evan Solomon, one of the biggest names in Canadian journalism, for moonlighting as a fine arts broker.

NBC is still trying to decide what to do about high-profile anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months in February for saying he was aboard a helicopter over Iraq that was forced down by enemy fire, which proved untrue. Reports say Williams’ lawyer is making negotiations “excruciating” for NBC as it tries to decide what to do with Williams.

The comparison is interesting because both Solomon and Williams have been described as among the biggest media names in their countries.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, officially known as CBC/Radio-Canada, serves as the National Public Radio and Television broadcaster.

CBC acted swiftly after the Toronto Star reported that, for commissions of about 10 percent, Solomon had been working with a Toronto art collector and had earned at least $300,000 over two years, and believed he was entitled to another $1 million.

Solomon had disclosed to CBC in April that a production company he owned with his wife had a business partnership with an art dealer that would not conflict with his CBC News work.

After an independent investigation, CBC/Radio-Canada CEO Hubert Lacroix said Solomon was fired to protect “the integrity of the content and the journalism that we make.”

Reaction at CBC reportedly was mixed with anger and frustration, in part because of other ethics issues that had surfaced in the past. Some called it a “disproportionate response” and Solomon could appeal.

Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner, called what Solomon did a “crime against journalism.”

CBC’s sensitivity to ethical lapses no doubt was heightened by the earlier downfall of another CBC star, Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired for rough sex with women. He is facing trial on charges of sexual assault and choking.

The Guardian quoted critics who said the broadcaster’s decision to “groom celebrity journalists” led to a “corrosive culture” of stars with tremendous power and little self-restraint. Said one: “When you create these celebrities, you create monsters.”

Meanwhile, the Brian Williams case drags on. After suspending Williams, NBC reportedly found other instances where the anchor had exaggerated his involvement in events. Williams had apologized for the helicopter event, after military sources pointed out that Williams was not riding in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire.

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,” Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, said in a memo.

The outcome remains to be seen. The suspension ends in August.

Nothing so far has been finalized in the Williams affair, reported columnist Lisa de Moraes, calling it a media cliffhanger.

The case drew attention from The New York Times. It said the episode “has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture of NBC News.”

Politico media writer Jack Shafer writes that Williams knows he’s dead, but is negotiating the terms of his burial.

In Vanity Fair, correspondent Bryan Burrough says the newsman is too damaged to return to the anchor’s desk. Burrough toyed with possibilities for a return.

Clearly, there are cultural and historical differences between Canada and the United States, as anyone who has traveled the two countries can attest. But maybe it’s possible to generalize and say that among the similarities between the two countries, which are fast allies, is a faith in media ethics. The details usually are messy, but ethics matters.

Ombudsmen Slice and Dice Media, Face Cuts

By Casey Bukro

The thing I like about news ombudsmen is they do to journalists what journalists do to everyone else.

Journalists hold everyone accountable; ombudsmen hold journalists accountable. It’s not a popular job, considering that their ranks grow thinner.

A report for New York’s Capital website points out that “the trend line is pointing down” because “the position is often the first to go when news executives are trying to trim their budgets.”

Associate editor Jeremy Barr quotes Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor, who estimates that about 20 news ombudsman exist today in the United States. Meanwhile, the job is growing in other countries, Dvorkin contends, because they value independent journalism “in a way that I think is being lost in the U.S.”

A pity.

It’s interesting to see how a good ombudsman works, sometimes finding fault with the way a news organization works, sometimes defending it.

Toledo Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry is a good example. In a recent column, Lessenberry tackled questions from readers about why The Blade presents corrections without stating the original error, whether the placement of a political cartoon in the text of an opinion column gave the wrong impression and why The Blade’s ink is smudging a reader’s hands.

Lessenberry dutifully investigates each question and reports back to the reader in a mild-mannered, patient way, admitting the paper is being printed with a different ink but “it also comes off easily when you wash your hands.”

An ombudsman is a modern King Solomon, famous and feared for his divine gift of wisdom. To decide which of two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant was telling the truth, Solomon proposed cutting the infant in half, so each woman could have a share.

One woman thought that was a good idea. The other, horrified, said she wanted the infant to live, and offered to surrender the child. The king declared that the woman who wanted the infant to live was the true mother, and awarded her the baby. The story is more complicated, but that’s the gist.

No ombudsman that I know has ever been confronted with such a challenge. Instead of cutting a problem neatly in half, they are more likely to slice and dice it, as does Lessenberry.

An ombudsman must look at a problem from many angles and perspectives, then come to a decision that might criticize his own organization. By comparison, King Solomon’s job might have been less stressful.

There is an existential quality in the way the job seems to be fading.

The exit of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman in March 2013 brought some attention to the role of ombudsman. Pexton was replaced by a reader representative, a role considered less probing and critical.

Pexton offered insight to the job as he was leaving, pointing out that the No. 1 topic of complaint to the ombudsman during his term was the Post’s online comment system.

“About 10 percent of those complaints were about its functionality, which the Post has improved,” wrote Pexton. “Another 10 percent were from people who feel they were unfairly censored. But the rest were from readers who like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of the Post’s Commenting stream.”

Veiled by anonymity, the posters were just mean and vicious in a way they would not attempt if identified.

Pexton said he originally favored the anonymous nature of those online complaints, but changed his mind. He favored moving away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook.

“What turned me,” wrote Pexton, were remarks by a high school football coach “who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere.”

More laudable, said Pexton, was the second most common type of complaint, from readers he described as “grammar police.” These are “the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post.” Such criticism can be annoying, “but the grammar police help keep standards high.”

In a sense, these volunteer editors are unofficial ombudsman. They don’t really take the place of someone officially charged with investigating missteps. Yet, that may be where publishing is headed.

A USA Today report quoted Dworkin saying that there are about half as many media ombudsmen working in the U.S. today than a decade ago.

“The public is really hungry for them,” he said. And it does seem odd that while news organizations cut ombudsmen from their staffs, they also try to engage readers and viewers via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

It appears they think social media can take the place of ombudsmen. Wonder what wise old King Solomon would say about that?