At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mike King performs many of the tasks associated with the job of ombudsman. He takes readers' calls and e-mails -- as many as 150 a day. From those complaints and compliments, he comes up with ideas for a weekly column. He keeps track of how many corrections the paper publishes. He even belongs to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an affiliation of scribes whose goal is to "help the journalism profession achieve and maintain high ethical standards in news reporting, thereby enhancing its own credibility among the people it serves."
King, though, is not an ombudsman. His title is "public editor" and his job is "helping readers understand how and why the AJC works the way it does."
In King's columns, you'll find explanations for why the AJC made the crossword puzzle bigger, or why newspapers no longer employ proofreaders. You'll learn that the AJC has focused on three areas in its post-Sept. 11 coverage -- explanation, expertise and expression. You might even learn some copy editing tips, if you read the Nov. 24 column, which challenged readers to find errors in 10 sample sentences.
The problem is, this isn't a public criticism of the paper; it's public relations for it. King's columns -- and those of his predecessor in the position, George Edmonson -- are most notable for what they are not: an unflinching, public look at where the paper is falling short.
In reading King, you won't find any attempt to deal with much of the grousing among readers (and staffers) about the newspaper's limp efforts to uncover Atlanta's important stories.
King makes no excuses. "You don't see a lot of conclusions drawn. You don't see my commentary. ... It's more an explanation of why we decided to do something. Some want me to bare the paper's dirty laundry, and that is not the purpose of this column."
The AJC, it seems, feels free to cover every institution in town except for one of the most important -- itself. True, the paper is erratic at best in being Atlanta's watchdog -- but if the AJC is consistent at one thing, it rarely ever wants to you to suspect that it isn't infallible.
This is hardly unique to Atlanta. As famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein has noted, the press is an institution that "remains closed while insisting that all others be open." Only a tiny handful of publications have ombudsmen, in the purest sense of the word. These critics are charged with publicly examining how well their papers or magazines are doing their jobs. They have true, contractual independence, and are free to take their news organizations to task without fear of recrimination or hurt feelings.
Such a position, says The Washington Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, "conveys a sense of openness that [the paper] can take criticism, that it's invested in criticism, and that [publishers and editors] are not afraid of it."
Unfortunately, most major American newspapers that boast a similar position (and they number just a few dozen) go only halfway, as is the case with the AJC. The person often is appointed from within the paper, must answer to the editor, and is faced with the prospect of criticizing colleagues who are often friends.
Too often, the columns end up being little more than a clearinghouse for reader complaints -- a necessary and important task, but only a part of what they should be doing.
"It's really hard for the fish to criticize water," says Jay Black, a University of South Florida (St. Petersburg) journalism ethics professor. "It's really hard for people to take an unbiased, critical look at the institution of which they're part."
At the AJC, the public editor position seems to be defined almost solely by what readers think about the paper, and not what the public editor himself thinks.
King acknowledges his position is not truly independent.
He discusses ideas for columns with Editor Ron Martin, who also edits them. Much of what King writes seems selected to boost the newspaper's image -- the very definition of a publicist.
King also takes part in news meetings, helping other editors figure out how readers may react to certain stories. In this way, he is the reader's representative. But it's a pretty limited representation. There is little doubt that many politicians and the public were dismayed at the lack of coverage of the recent Atlanta mayor's race -- yet King didn't address these concerns in his column.
He also issues periodic memos to the staff, telling them what he's hearing from readers. Any of his own criticism is very general -- and likely not offensive to his bosses. Says King: "Of course I have conversations [with reporters or editors] where I'll say, 'You really blew that,' but I don't do that in a note to the staff."
As King explains it, "The primary goal is to be the readers' first step to sound off about what we do. In the three years we've been doing it, it has accomplished that."
The highest compliment paid to King's columns from the reporters I contacted was that they're "inoffensive." Said another: "King is generally well-liked personally. I think everyone realizes his column and role is basically as an interpreter of the paper's policies and corrections guru."
But where true ombudsmen are at work, reporters are a bit more on edge -- and that could be a good thing.
When Steven Brill founded the now-defunct media magazine Brill's Content in 1998, he knew he wanted an ombudsman. He first hired former AJC Editor Bill Kovach, and when Kovach's contract ran out, he recruited Michael Gartner, former president of NBC News and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
"I used to joke that when we created an ombudsman, we created our own little Ken Starr," says Brill, referring to the special prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton. "I think a Ken Starr is good for journalists." (But not, he adds, for the country.)
Of course, having what amounts to a professional second-guesser can be demoralizing to reporters. But, as Brill says, "journalists are in the business of hurting morale all the time." If they can dish it out, they should certainly be able to take it.
Brill himself bristled more than once when his work, or his reporters' work, was dissected by the ombudsman. "I thought some of the stuff was wrong, I thought some of it was inane, I thought some of it went on too long. ... Our reporters were a little on edge about it. And that's great."
Gartner says he sometimes would go so far as re-reporting stories, asking sources if they were quoted correctly or if the reporter got the facts right. The Brill's staff got "testy" about his column, Gartner says, but "they never tried to edit it. They lived up to their agreement. ... More power to them."
Perhaps the only newspaper in America that hosts an ombudsman in its purest form is The Washington Post. There, current employees cannot hold the job. The outsider who is brought in works under a fixed contract. The only person who sees the ombudsman's column before it goes into the paper is a copy editor. And once the contract expires, the ombudsman cannot be hired by the paper.
King sees the merits of the Post system, but says his familiarity with the AJC newsroom (he was metro editor up until becoming public editor last year) makes his situation preferable. "What you miss by having a total outsider is the ability to translate what's going on inside. You're in a better position to explain things."
As it turns out, though, the Post's Getler is a veteran of the very newsroom he critiques. Despite that -- or maybe because of it -- he's cultivated a reputation as one of the paper's hardest-hitting ombudsmen yet.
"I suspect by the time I'm through I will have written about many, many people who are colleagues and some of whom are friends," Getler says. "I'm prepared to do that, and hope that somehow the relationships survive my tenure."
To Getler, a column that pulls no punches scores with the readers.
"They appreciate that and it bonds them to the newspaper. Plus, I think newspapers cannot afford to coast. They need to be challenged. They need to think hard about everything they do. They need to keep getting better to ensure a better future for themselves."
That better future means fighting the public's perception that the media is arrogant. And what's more arrogant than saying the rules apply to everyone but you?
Editor's note: This column launches CL News Editor Steve Fennessy as our regular commentator on the media. Before you ask, no, CL doesn't have an ombudsman. But we're exploring options to provide independent criticism of our newspaper, and we pledge to provide a progress report during the first quarter of 2002.
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