By Casey Bukro
What if the American public lamented the loss of media ombudsmen as much as the loss of sports stars?
When basketball superstar Michael Jordan retired in 1993 from the Chicago Bulls, and again in 1999, public reaction was strong both times. You’d think he was a member of the family.
Even Sammy Sosa, once described as “the heart and soul of the Chicago Cubs,” provoked an outpouring of some grief when he left the Cubs under a cloud of steroid allegations. A sports writer says Chicago should welcome Sammy back to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Contrast that with the departure of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman. There was some short-lived grumbling in the journalism community, but little from the public. And that’s the interesting part. An ombudsman works on behalf of the public, and keeps an eye on their organization’s ethical standards and relationship with its audience.
The Post had employed an ombudsman for the past 43 years. The Post’s ombudsman was replaced by a reader representative, a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints.
Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, in a column to readers, said the ombudsman duties “are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.”
That word appears often these days when management justifies major changes. The business is “evolving,” as in undergoing change.
You’d think that an ombudsman would be most useful in a time of change, especially in a time of budget-cutting and layoffs — just to be sure the public interest is served, and the quality of journalism is strong.
But the number of ombudsmen at U.S. news organizations declined in the last few years, according to Marc Duvoisin, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen.
What do ombudsmen do? “You hold journalists accountable in much the same way that the media holds the public accountable,” said Duvoisin. They provide “tough, independent oversight.”
It’s the kind of job that tells the public “you matter.”
And it’s the sort of job the public should cheer as much as a home run or a three-point basket from mid-court.