Q&A With The Post Ombudsman

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Todd Cross/TWP)
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." Iím Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. Itís your chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and to key Washington Post editors and reporters.

Our guest today is the ombudsman of The Washington Post, Geneva Overholser. Her job is to collect and respond to complaints and observations of readers.

Geneva Overholser
Geneva Overholser
(File photo)
Overholser winds up her three years as ombudsman at the end of this month. She was previously editor of the Des Moines Register and a member of the editorial board at The New York Times. She has been a Nieman fellow. She is a graduate of Wellesley College.

Your questions and comments for Geneva Overholser are welcome throughout the hour.

Baltimore, Md.: Are comics really worth having in the paper, given that most news reported is comical and that the television is full of comedy?

Geneva Overholser:
Sure. Every medium needs comic relief!

Washington, D.C.: Over the last three years, The Washington Post has engaged in an intense review of the District government. Have you had many readers [who] are turn[ed] off at what some view as "District bashing?" Particularly from the black readers in Washington? Have you forward[ed] their concerns, and what is the feeling at The Post regarding this perceived ridicule of "black Washington?"

Geneva Overholser: Actually, I think if anything, readers wish we were keeping even closer tabs on what goes on in the District. I do hear complaints from folks who think we are bashing -- both black and white. But most people I think would rather have MORE attention to District issues, rather than less.

Bob Levey: I've never seen a paper that is so loved, and also so hated, as The Post. But isn't that good in a way? Isn't that better than blah coverage and blah reaction to that coverage?

Geneva Overholser: Absolutely. I agree with you. The amount of response we get is definitely a terrific sign. People love us or hate us -- but they care about us. In fact, I've always thought that complaints are something to be grateful for. The folks who REALLY can't stand us just give up and write us off. That's the worst outcome.

Hyattsville, Md.: This is a comment/complaint rather than a question.
In today's paper (A section) in the article about Geraldine Ferraro and Alfonse D'Amato, writer Blaine Hardin referred to Ferraro as a "CNN talking head," when he could have used a more neutral term such as "CNN commentator." Not only did I find Hardin's choice of words to be unnecessarily snide, but it colored my belief in the credibility of his reporting. If he wants to editorialize through his word choices, he should be on the editorial page. When I read what is presented as reporting, I want the reporter to keep his biases to himself.

Geneva Overholser: I thought exactly the same thing about the talking head reference. I was surprised to see it there. Increasingly, newspapers are becoming more colorful and a bit "looser" with their language, even in news stories. I think that's probably for the best -- but it does create challenges like this: When we use livelier language that is as judgmental as this term was, we give readers the notion that we're sneering -- or otherwise making judgments in the news columns. Not a good idea. It's the thing I think that makes readers maddest of all -- the feeling that we're sneering at folks we cover.

Bob Levey: Pet theory: In a complex world, readers want simple answers and simple solutions. They get mad at The Post when we reflect complexity, not simplicity. Right? Wrong?

Geneva Overholser: I don't think I agree with that. They get madder at us when we OVERsimplify.

One thing about it I agree with -- if they can't understand something, they get frustrated. And if we don't give readers the basics, they get frustrated, too. I think they look to the newspaper for complexity -- as compared to other media -- but they want it clear and understandable.

Silver Spring, Md.: The Post is often accused of bias in its news sections. It seems clear to me that many stories presented as news have a good deal of analysis and opinion in them. I continue to read The Post because its biases usually (but not always) mirror my own, but that doesn't mean they aren't there, any more than the biases obvious in the news pages of The Washington Times. Does the paper try to eliminate these biases, and if so, how?

Geneva Overholser: It's evident that no newspaper is completely free of bias. We're all human, and all subjective. But The Post does seek to be fair and accurate and comprehensive.

The thing is, this is all happening in an era of fast-paced change in journalism. We're all trying to respond to the fact that readers have (most of the time) already become aware of a big news story before turning to the paper. WE want to give them more.

I think the trick is for us to TELL readers what we're giving them -- if we present a straight news story, we should make it straight. We should label analysis. And we ought to put an outright opinion on the editorial pages.

Bob Levey: In your May 10 column, you said The Post sometimes sneers at people and attitudes in "flyover country." Would you say that's one of the biggest fairness issues at The Post?

Geneva Overholser: Readers definitely think we're creatures of the great eastern megalopolis thinking -- sophisticated snobs who have dumb stereotypes about the rest of the country. It's probably true for a lot of us here. (I was proud when City Paper referred to me shortly after I came here from Iowa as "Prairie Marm.")

But I wouldn't say it's one of the biggest bias problems. They worry more about race and religion and ideology.

Arlington, Va.: What is the thought process behind The Post's recent trend toward more feature-type leads on news stories? Is this part of a campaign to grab casual readers, and is it linked to the increased play of entertainment news in the A section?

Geneva Overholser: It's fair to say it's part of an effort to reach out to more readers. And it is indeed controversial. When we put some article out front about a kid who has really big feet, it affronts readers' traditional sense that the front page will have the Biggest News.

On the other hand, life is fuller and richer than just politics and government. I think (and I think a lot of readers think this) that it's a good idea to reflect more of life on the front page.

But it represents a change, so we need to do it carefully. Make sure the writing is compelling enough or the subject interesting enough to justify it, if the news doesn't. I think The Post is doing this pretty well now -- after some kind of goofy slipups when they first began to diversify front page offerings.

Athens, Greece: Is there home delivery to Athens?

Geneva Overholser: No home delivery. But I bet you can get the National Weekly delivered. And of course, there is ever-convenient home delivery of washingtonpost.com!

Morgantown, W.Va.: I did my master's thesis on newspaper ombudmen in 1983 at the University of Maryland. There weren't many then, and I haven't seen a sweeping movement. How many are there today?

P.S. I read your column online every week now. Love the Web!

Geneva Overholser: You're right: ombudsmanship is a movement that never caught fire. Alas!

The Post was among the very early ones, almost 30 years ago -- after the Courier-Journal in Louisville. Now there are fewer than 40. Partly it's an economic issue. An editor who has a slot would rather have an education reporter.

Also, they tell themselves (I did this, when I was editing a newspaper) that THEY ought to deal with readers directly. No middle man. Sounds great, but two problems:

No editor has that much time. Readers really want to weigh in, have discussions, get their questions answered. And, second -- and even more important -- the attitude is different when you're not repsonsible for the joint. When you're editor, no matter how hard you try not to be defensive, you seek to justify what you've done. An ombuddy (as some call us) is there to listen. The next unhappy reader may have great column fodder!

Bob Levey: "You're just doing it to sell newspapers." I've heard that charge a million times. You've heard it another million. How have you responded as ombudsman?

Geneva Overholser: I've always thought it was funny that people think that's The Great Insult: You're just doing it to sell newspapers. Of COURSE we want to sell newspapers. The better the job we do, the more earnestly we hope that more and more people will read us. And of course we are, after all, a business.

The flaw in the thinking here, it seems to me, is that the desire to sell newspapers would inevitably make you do bad things. I think what most newspaper readers -- and even would-be-but-aren't-quite-yet readers -- want is good stuff -- what's really happening to their tax dollars, in their kids' classrooms, etc.

If anything, the dumbest thing we're doing now in newspapering is being so DOWN on everything that we make people feel hopeless -- not a recipe to sell newspapers. Also bad for the government, the society, people in general.

Washington, D.C.: The "Barry Watch" feature in the Style section is cute and gets in some well-deserved shots, but doesn't anyone there realize that it's just making it more difficult for Hizzoner NOT to run again? Surely, he'd never want to be accused of "letting The Post run him off."

Hey, give the District a break and put a sock in it for another four weeks.

Geneva Overholser: I wouldn't EVER want to guess what motivates Marion Barry.

Bob Levey: As ombudsman, you have crusaded against punsterish headlines in The Post. Were readers as exercised about this as you were?

Geneva Overholser: Yes. Readers were VERY exercised. Trouble is, they were exercised both for and against.

I'm all for good puns, well-used. We have too many sophomoric puns, misplaced, in my mind. But I'm not gonna live or die over that one. It's one of the few ways copy editors have to have fun!

Rockville, Md.: I have admired your actions during your tenure. It has become obvious your frustration with the powers that be at The Post has increased over time. Was your latest column a culmination of your frustration? Good luck in your next endeavor(s).

Geneva Overholser: No. The NEXT two columns will be the culmination of my frustrations!

Actually, I have been grateful to have this job. It's a fascinating place, a great newspaper and an interesting time to be in journalism. But I'm very glad to be moving on.

Bob Levey: Is it sufficient for The Post to publish corrections in a clump on page three? If an error is made on page one, should the correction appear on page one?

Geneva Overholser: Lots of people think so. The argument for the current status is that readers know where to look.

I think the main problem is our reluctance to publish corrections, period. The culture here is definitely not one that rushes to correct ourselves.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser.

Alexandria, Va.: Why does The Post claim on its editorial page to be an "independent" newspaper? If it is so independent, why does it not present balance in its editorials, etc.? Rarely will The Post editors write a positive comment about Republicans. And why, is Herb Block, a stated liberal, the only cartoonist with a regular weekday space?

Geneva Overholser: I think The Post claim to be an independent newspaper is sound. A newspaper ought to have a clear and consistent voice. Because it is consistent on a given issue over time doesn't render it less-then-independent.

I think the commitment ought to be to provide a wide range of opinions on the op-ed pages. My own view is that op-ed pages across America are narrower than they ought to be. More of life ought to be reflected on those pages.

Arlington, Va.: It seems that that the Web would be a great way for newspaper reporters and editors to improve their interaction with readers, but most papers seem slow to embrace it. Do you think people in the news business paper might be afraid of such contact?

Geneva Overholser: I agree with your assessment all around. We have been too fearful of the Net. At the beginning, of course, that fear came along with the idea that the Net was going to eat our lunch.

Then there's a general fear of technology. Newspaper people are actually pretty conservative folks (not politically; but change-averse).

Now I think a lot of it is about not wanting to take the time. Reader contact takes time. It's also inspiriting and refreshing, but there is a lot of pressure on folks in newsrooms, generally. I think having people rotate in and out of discussions like this is a great way to resolve these challenges.

Bob Levey: I hear a lot from readers who think standards are different from one section of The Post to another. For example, the Style section can use a certain phrase, but the Metro section can't (or doesn't). Big problem? Little problem?

Geneva Overholser: I think they should be different. A feature story is something completely different from a news story. One of the reasons sports sections are such fun is that the writing can be so colorful.

I know it's harder to know exactly what to expect this way. But one thing I think we all ought to expect is different writing in different sections.

Bethesda, Md.: There is one question which has been on my mind for some time now, and I was hoping you could answer it for me. What the heck does "ombudsman" mean? I know it's the person who deals with readers, but beyond that, what does the word itself mean?

Geneva Overholser: Isn't it an awkward word?! That's one reason I didn't ask to be called "ombudswoman' -- which is something another reader asked. It's already awkward enough!

It's a Swedish word meaning representative of the people. Here at The Post, it really involves two things -- being an internal critic, and being a reader representative.

Bob Levey: In your May 3 column, you quoted a reader as asking if your job is "to change the way things are done or ... to keep complaining readers at bay." You never answered directly. Here's your chance...

Geneva Overholser: That's one the editors would have to answer.

Arlington, Va.: Since the creation of the ombudsman position, do you think Post reporters and editors have avoided tackling a particular kind of story, and if so, what kind?

Geneva Overholser: No. I don't think the existence of the ombudsman's position here keeps any kinds of stories out. I hope it does cause reporters and editors to think about various issues differently -- as they're writing a story, for example, think about how a particular phrase is going to sound to readers.

Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Does The Post going color have anything to do with the NY Times beating you to the punch? Is this just a question of just playing catch-up? Don't you feel there's something in the tradition of a print newspaper being in black and white?

Geneva Overholser: The Times was pretty late in that game, actually, so I can't imagine that The Times was the goad. The theory is that people today are accustomed to seeing color, and that readers appreciate its availability.

I think great newspaper photos are often in black and white. I hope The Post will continue to use them. And I assume they'll use color in ways that aren't too garish. A Food page, a Travel front, with color -- those are so much more attractive, I think.

Fairfax, Va.: Why does the Post always take such a pukey liberal editorial position?

Geneva Overholser: Funny. I think pukey liberal or pukey (puky?) conservative is in the eye of the beholder.

Some people gripe that the page has become much more conservative. Some gripe that we're constant Clinton-bashers. Many gripe, as you have, that we're pukily liberal.

I'm just glad they have an editorial page and take strong views. One trend in newspapering that I really deplore is to move away from editorial positions on the grounds that you don't want to offend readers. Now THAT'S pukily cowardly.

Bob Levey: In your May 10 column, you took the gloves part of the way off when you said The Post newsroom has a thin skin. Let's take the gloves off the rest of the way: Is this because top management is overly resistant to criticism?

Geneva Overholser: That's a good question. I don't know exactly why it is. I think newsrooms in general tend toward arrogance and defensiveness.

I do think that top editors can set the tone for change -- and that they should set that tone here -- a tone that says, never forget that we exist because of readers. Spurning them is about as stupid a move as we can make. And we do make it here at The Post, far more often than is acceptable.

Arlington, Va.: Do you ever get complaints about Bob's columns? Details, please.

Geneva Overholser: The main thing I hear about Bob's column is people asking me how they can get into it. People want Bob to focus on their issue. It's one of the accessible places in the paper.

Oh yeh. They gripe about the fund-raising campaigns.

Washington, D.C.: Do you feel that the journalistic standards at The Post (and other "esteemed" news publications) have been in a constant freefall since the late '70s? Does having to react to the new brand of Web journalism affect these standards?

Geneva Overholser: Constant free fall seems strong. I do think journalism has changed radically, and in many worrisome ways.

A lot of folks would say the Web is a problem in that it increases the rush to print and therefore may reduce thoughtfulness. But I think there are other, larger problems. Cynicism. That's my favorite villain.

Clarksville, Md.: I have been a Post fan for years but it does seem that The Post is adding more gossip. The Clinton coverage has certainly been short on facts and long on rumor. The Al Kamen column in [the] magazine is another example. Is the trend across the nation?

Geneva Overholser: I think the Kamen column and the things that bother you about the Clinton coverage are two very different things. Seems to me gossip has a place -- and that that column is one of its places.

But news stories should NOT be including gossip, and we shouldn't be allowing people to make disparaging remarks about others anonymously -- that sort of thing. I agree with you there, absolutely. I think this is worse in Washington than elsewhere.

Fairfax, Va.: Last year, I subscribed to the Journal because I felt that the Post wasn't providing enough local news. I now have a new appreciation for the quality of writing and journalism of The Post, but I still see it as a national newspaper and not my "hometown" paper. How can this change?

Geneva Overholser: Good points. The Post really can't be a local-local paper, though I think it has strengthened its local news coverage over the past couple of years.

I'd hope people would want both their more local paper, where it exists, and also The Post. I know I like reading the Northwest Current every week for news of my neighborhood. But it surely can't supplant The Post.

Rockville, Md.: Having lived in a number cities, I've noticed The Post does not seem to invest much in community discourse. In other words, in many markets, the newspaper will hold forums, townhalls, etc., and mediate some of the more difficult issues facing the community it serves (forums on race relations, etc.). Personally, I've found this very productive for both the community and the newspaper in opening and maintaining a dialog toward facing common problems. Frankly, I've been highly dissappointed in The Post's activism in this kind of community facilitation. Are there plans to increase The Post's participation/leadership in this kind of activity? If not, why?

Geneva Overholser: That is very unlike The Post, isn't it? I'm not sure why. Part of it is that much of this activism has been on the part of somewhat smaller papers. Also, there is a great deal of debate about such movements as civic or public journalism.

But I do feel strongly that a newspaper ought to be very aware of its impact on its community, and make it as constructive an impact as it can be, within the bounds of newspaper professionalism.

Bob Levey: What will you tell your successor?

Geneva Overholser: 1. Look elsewhere for your friendships.

2. Get them to make your column longer! The redesign took two inches off the column. It's not enough!

3. You're going to enjoy the readers of The Post.

4. Be glad the job doesn't last longer than three years. It goes amazingly quickly.

Bob Levey: That's it for today. Many thanks to Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, May 26, when our guest will be Steve Coll, the newly named managing editor of The Washington Post.

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