At a recent meeting of newspaper ombuds(wo)men in Washington, I learned that there are about 38 of us in this country, six in Canada -- not many when you consider the 1,688 daily papers in the United States alone. Many of those I met at this gathering are called "Readers' Advocates" by their papers, rather than ombudsmen. They all write columns at regular intervals. At The Post, writing a column and its frequency is at the discretion of the ombudsman.
Since my advent on The Post in March, I have written 25,000 to 30,000 words, mostly of criticism, in the form of internal memos. These critiques covered about 300 separate items and were distributed to the publisher and key editors. During this time, I have written only one column. That was a mistake. While I may have had some impact on editors and reporters with my confidential, internal memos, it is equally important for readers of the paper to know they have a friend in court.
*The protests I have dealt with in my internal memos range from matters of questionable taste, misleading headlines and alleged breaches of national security to charges of racism in, of all places, the Sunday comics. I have not always agreed with these complaints.
sk,2 The other day I received a call from the head of a group of scientists who are concerned about the astrology column that appears daily. He said scientists have decreed that astrology is a nonscience and that editors would do well to include a footnote every day at the end of the column, advising the unwary reader that the horoscopes are meant as entertainment only.
I never read the astrology column, but I have a strong sentimental interest in it. Some years ago, astrologer Sydney Omarr and I used to work side by side, writing the news shows for the CBS western radio network. At the end of the day, I'd slip off to the beach, but Syd Omarr would withdraw to his typewriter to do a column on astrology, which he would then distribute to anybody who would publish it. I would ask him between news shows -- and he was a first-class newsman -- how he reconciled writing hard news by day and astrology by night. He said he suspected more people believed his astrology writing than the hard news we were both grinding out every hour on the hour.
The fact is that there are a lot of people who believe, or half believe, in astrology, some of them highly intelligent and well educated, rational in all other areas, but devoted to their horoscopes. I do not happen to agree with them, but I respect their right to indulge themselves. And I wonder that scientists don't have anything better to do.
I am reminded of a story -- perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not -- about a scientist who once called on Dr. Albert Einstein in Princeton. After ringing the doorbell, he noticed a horseshoe nailed above the front door and remarked on this to the eminent physicist: "You know, Dr. Einstein, in this country, a horseshoe above the front door is considered an omen that brings good luck to the household."
"Yes, I know," replied the distinguished physicist.
The astonished visitor said: "But surely, Dr. Einstein, you do not believe in this superstition."
"Of course not," replied Dr. Einstein, "but they tell me it works for you whether you believe in it or not."
As I said earlier, the key editors of The Post have been receiving a steady stream of confidential memos from me for three months, telling them what they have been doing wrong. I had assumed these memos were closely held, and I pulled no punches. Imagine my surprise when I ran into a Wall Street Journal correspondent one Sunday morning at Safeway near the cereal shelves. "Joe," he said, "aren't you being a little rough on some of my friends in those internal memos of yours?"
* I was taken aback, but the shock was mild compared with my reaction next day when a similar incident occurred. This time, I encountered an old colleague just as he was turning into the north gate of the White House. He waved at me. "Great job you're doing at The Post. Keep socking it to them." I looked at him in utter astonishment. This, I thought, as I watched him walk up the curved driveway, is a historic event. It may be the first time a confidential Washington Post document has ever been leaked to the federal government.