Leanna Delap

Limited Visions

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By constantly catering to complaints, newspaper ombudsmen have lost sight of the real issues

In his columns as ombudsman for The Toronto Star, the late Borden Spears was a pioneer in the field, setting his own agenda for criticism and constantly advocating higher standards in journalism. During his tenure in the 1970s, Spears attacked the “Credibility Gap” he saw developing as readers lost trust in the media. When one reader accused the Star of pro-white bias in South America and another protested a perceived bias towards black terrorists in Rhodeia, Spears distilled those complaints into a common truth-both readers felt the Star was cheating them. He was what an ombudsman ought to be, the industry’s most unforgiving watchdog. Today there are six newspaper ombudsmen in Canada, but no reforming voice, no Borden Spears, has emerged to renew a serious discussion of press credibility. Rather, ombudsmen have become a public relations service, answering readers’ complaints like Dear Abbys of the press beat. Though they all claim the freedom to address any subject without fear of reprisal, they have limited themselves to a reactive role-they tend to wait for a reader to call or write before they investigate. According to a study by Ted Glasser, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, “The kind of criticism ombudsmen engage in tends to be very, very limited, focused on reporters’ conduct, and it 0 tends to shy away from the deeper, more penetrating issues management. That reluctance is not surprising, ~ since newspapers have always been fiercely protective of their freedom and hostile to scrutiny. But freedom of the press has been used as a shield from criticism, an excuse to keep publishers and editors from having to explain their actions. There are no industry wide quality control tests-no standards of performance or criticism to protect the public interest. “The traditional attitude in the industry,” says Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario Graduate School of Journalism, “is that accountability is taken care of by the market-if we weren’t doing a good job, people wouldn’t buy the paper.”

That attitude, along with public trust in the press itself, came into question in the 1960s. In a pioneering essay, A.H. Raskin, assistant editor of The New York Times editorial page, suggested that the role of ombudsman could help make the press more accountable to the public. Modeling the concept after the ombudsman used in Swedish government, Raskin wrote that newspapers should have an internal critic to police the quality of the papers’ service to their communities and the authority to make changes when necessary. The first news ombudsman, a former senior editor, was appointed at The Louisville Courier-Journal soon after in 1967.

But it was not long before another American newspaper ombudsman tested the limitations of the role and encountered difficulties. In 1972, Ben Bagdikian left The Wa-shington Post after less than one year as ombudsman, frustrated by the restrictions on his criticism. “I had a feeling that there was no point in pursuing it,” says Bagdikian, now a communications professor at the University of California at Berkeley, “unless there was greater openness to the kinds of things I thought were important to write about.”

Bagdikian wrote about black employees at his paper who felt they were, being discriminated against-but he also defended the. paper on a related issue of racist coverage. Later he suggested in a seminar at Harvard that economic boycotts would be effective in getting all papers to listen to the public. These actions alienated him from his employers, and some of his more critical columns were killed. The Post management could not take the medicine it had asked Bagdikian to administer, and he resigned.

Borden Spears was Bagdikian’s Canadian counterpart. In 1970, the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media headed by Keith Davey placed the question of media accountability before the nation. Spears was a significant contributor to the Davey inquiry, and was appointed as the Star’s ombudsman in 1973. Wary of the dangers of government regulation and concentrated ownership, he devoted his career to the issue of freedom of the press and urged the public to demand better performance by the media. Spears showed that success in the position depended on how strongly individual ombudsmen expressed their views, and certainly no one at the Star could have stifled him. Unlike Bagdikian, he spoke out against abuses in the system and was allowed to remain within it.

Two more Canadian papers appointed ombudsmen- The Edmonton Joumal in 1978 and The Montreal Gazette in 1981 -but many problems raised by the Davey committee remained unresolved. A second national inquiry into the state of the press, the Royal Commission on Newspapers headed by Tom Kent with Spears as a commissioner, was launched in 1981 and again questioned whether the media were serving the public interest.

The Davey inquiry had proposed a national press council, but the Kent Commission recommended even stronger legislation that included the ugly possibility of censorship through compulsory press councils. The media considered both voluntary press councils and ombudsmen to be less painful measures than government regulation, and a cautious new era of self-policing began. “It seems that dozens of publishers across the country discovered the merits of press councils and rushed to join existing ones and create such agencies where none had hitherto existed,” wrote the late media critic Dick MacDonald. “Coincidence, of course, pure coincidence.”

Since the Kent Commission, three more papers have adopted ombudsmen: The Calgary Herald in 1983, The London Free Press in 1985 and The Winnipeg Free Press in 1987. More are unlikely. Of the III daily newspapers in Canada, only those with a circulation of over 100,000 are considered able to sustain an ombudsman. Removing a highly paid senior staff member from the editorial process, setting up an office and writing off administrative costs is an expensive proposition. In fact, there are only about 50 ombudsmen employed around the world.

As well as the economic constraints on the appointing of ombudsmen, the mandate of the role has diminished. In direct reference to the example Spears had set at the Star, the Kent Commission envisioned an ombudsman as a freewheeling critic, “a role of free rein to take up issues hitherto not made public, to interpret and arbitrate points of view, to fight with operating editors if need be.” But the fight has changed for today’s ombudsmen since they rarely address the industry’s larger problems. “I don’t know how realistic it is to ask individual ombudsmen to start breaking taboos which the industry as a whole regards as unbreakable,” says Desbarats. “I don’t think that is how the employer sees their role at all.”

All ombudsmen work according to individual agreements with their employers but their mandates are similar. Canadian ombudsmen claim that there are no restrictions on the subject matter of their columns, and most report only to the publisher. Editors check the copy for factual and style errors but are not permitted to tamper with the content. On the other hand, ombudsmen cannot alter newsroom policy and, like press councils, have no authority to effect lasting improvement.

On the larger issue of public trust, no ombudsman disputes the need to make changes and rebuild credibility; But they feel that the best method is “to give the reader a voice within,” according to Barry Mullin, ombudsman for The Winnipeg Free Press. “The ongoing thing we are working towards is strengthening our ties to the community and our credibility by reporting accurately and quickly confessing to our mistakes.” The office of ombudsman, then, has become a bureau of justification whose function is to explain to the public the internal factors affecting a story. Adds Mullin, “You become an apologist for some of the failings of the newspaper.”

The ombudsmen react to complaints but do not often initiate criticism. “You sit here and wait for people to respond,” says Mullin. “You can see a glaring error and yet no one will call in about it.” But there is no lack of calls: when he became the first ombudsman at the Free Press, Mullin found “a pentup need” for someone to handle complaints: “The feeling I got was of a little boy with his finger in a dike with 20 holes instead of one.” In his first 10 months in office, he handled 1,200 calls and letters.

The load is typical. At The Montreal Gazette, former ombudsman Clair Balfour handled more than 3,000 complaints in 1987. Balfour believes in addressing the larger issues by fixing small problems first. “Borden Spears was operating at a different level,” he says. “That’s not to knock what he did -but he wasn’t down there getting his hands dirty with individual problems. The long-term fallout is that if you solve enough problems in a consistent way by demonstrating over and over again the way things ought to be done, it establishes patterns and standards.”

Wading through day-to-day complaints is the staple of an ombudsman’s life. There’s always the one from the reader who says that the newsprint keeps rubbing off on his hands, or the person who calls to complain that the TV guide is missing. Most complaints are about routine coverage rather than journalistic principle. It’s not surprising that, since The Toronto Star’s current ombudsman, Rod Goodman, used to be the consumer help columnist, readers sometimes confuse his new role with the old.

The consumer help aspect that has taken over the role also has benefits for senior staff members-the ombudsman deals with irate customers so they don’t have to. Also, from the publishers’ point of view, by deflecting heat from their readership ombudsmen get senior editors out of the kitchen and make the operation run more smoothly. As a result, ombudsmen may lose sight of their first concern-the readers. “There are some who seem to be doing mostly promotional columns that in the end boost their paper,” says Bagdikian. “Nobody ever reviews the paper itself.”

Having graduated from the ranks of senior editors, most ombudsmen are certainly qualified to review the paper and dish out criticism. But this experience also limits critics suddenly stranded in the middle of a newsroom full of old colleagues whom they are required to judge in print. The appointment means questioning career-long loyalty, and ombudsmen may not address certain problems because of the relationship with their employers. If they represent that paper at a public function or before a press council, their loyalty can jeopardize the neutrality that gives them their authority. For years Goodman represented the Star before the Ontario Press Council but stopped last year. “I realized it was sort of hypocritical,” he says, “for the ombudsman to go and defend the Star in a case where I believed they were partly wrong.”

Frequently ombudsmen end up completely isolated from their colleagues. “It’s a very lonely occupation,” says John Brown of The Edmonton Journal. “Sometimes you seem to be ranged against the entire newspaper.”

Generally he doesn’t socialize with people in the newsroom and has removed himself entirely from the editorial process. “Distancing myself was difficult-I know lots of people who just can’t do it. They keep writing about what ‘we’ did, when they mean what ‘they’ did. They just can’t separate themselves from their colleagues.”

Bruised egos heal very slowly, as Jim Stott discovered at The Calgary Herald: “I’ve had editors cross me off their Christmas lists when I’ve taken shots at them and columnists write outraged memos to the publisher demanding that I be fired and run out of town.”

One solution to the problems of an in-house ombudsman has been to appoint an outsider. In Sweden the first newspaper ombudsman was, in fact, a judge. When Bagdikian left the Post, he suggested hiring outside ombudsmen on two-year contracts that can neither be canceled nor renewed, to ensure the integrity of the position. Since then, the Post has had ombudsmen from the competing daily, The Washington Star, the government, universities and outside industries. These ombudsmen are free to comment on the larger issues facing the media without fear of losing the job. However, having outsiders come in and sift through their pages is too dangerous for papers that don’t want to wash their dirty linen in public.

Almost all newspapers still hire their ombudsmen from inside, expecting that a fellow staff member can command respect and cooperation. “An ombudsman is not in any sense a disciplinarian,” says Balfour. “It is an office that operates on the basis of perceived moral authority.” Ombudsmen defend their position within the ‘newspaper, saying that if the position were held by an outside media critic, the news staff probably wouldn’t heed the advice. “It’s got to be a senior editor,” says Goodman, “so that, if they had to, they could pull rank.”

Whether ombudsmen are hired from inside or out, the major issues have not changed since Borden Spears wrote: “No question about it, the popular press is not universally popular. Its credibility is under attack, its motives are suspect, and its influence is often seen as destructive.” But since today’s ombudsmen define their roles as problem-solvers, they are so bogged down with paperwork they can’t address the larger issues-nor are they encouraged to do so by their employers. Balfour believes that if more senior managers felt secure about their product, there might be more ombudsmen and a wider mandate. “The industry needs more publishers and editors with more self. confidence,” says Balfour. “It’s the people at the top who set the tone for criticism and change.” But until then, the voice of dissent will have to remain a mumble. “


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