March 8, 2013

As a former intelligence analyst and someone who has met with past Post ombudsmen, it pains me to learn that The Post will discontinue its ombudsman position [news article, March 2], thus ending a long era of self-examination.

In the late 1990s, I organized a meeting of ombudsmen with intelligence analysts to underline the importance of self-criticism and introspection — a necessary characteristic in both of our fields. Neither journalists nor intelligence analysts are free of bias or personal agendas, and neither profession can afford to be too insulated and self-assured of our correctness. We owe our readerships the confidence that someone outside the chain of command is watching and critiquing our work, to ensure we are not misjudging a situation or missing an important story or point of view.

The Post’s argument that a “reader representative” can suffice with fielding readers’ questions or concerns misses the point. The ombudsman must not only respond to readers but also provide a truly independent view, by remaining outside the chain of command and having the gravitas to challenge other journalists in the way they report an article. In the intelligence business, this is called a devil’s advocate or a “red cell” — designed to challenge a current line of argument or the evidence used by an analyst.

Without some self-critique, analysts get complacent and overconfident. Likewise, journalists can become too wedded to a story line, a source or their infallibility. If journalism is indeed similar to the intelligence business, the absence of such self-criticism within The Post will lead inevitably to failures.

Roger George, McLean

The Post’s decision to replace the position of ombudsman with an employee designated as a reader representative is unfortunate.

An independent ombudsman does more than channel questions and complaints from readers to the newsroom. The ombudsman is positioned to make and publish judgment calls, including on cases where news coverage challenged by readers is found to have been complete, correct and fair. He or she must inform those of us who read the paper when we are wrong, while also informing Post staffers when they are in error. No employee could credibly do that. 

Patrick B. Pexton’s final ombudsman column [“Signing off,” Sunday Opinion, March 3], in fact, took to task the (small minority of) readers who misuse The Post’s discussion options by posting offensive remarks.

In pursuit of accuracy and completeness, reporters must often intrude on privacy — not only of government officials and celebrities but also of blameless citizens who have merely been caught up in an evolving story. There are practically no checks and balances counteracting this dangerous power, which can (in Pexton’s words) “ruin careers, harm reputations and make the subjects of our stories sometimes feel falsely accused.”

Just as journalists can, and should, call out abuses of power by governments or corporations, an independent ombudsman can, and should, call out abuses of the extraordinary power of the press. An employee cannot have the detached viewpoint to do this effectively, any more than a baseball game can be fairly umpired by a player from one of the teams.

William R. Whipple,

Secane, Pa.