The question most frequently asked of this ombudsman is: How has the staff taken your criticism during these two years?
The answer: Which members of the staff? Believe it or not, this newspaper is written and edited by men and women who have families, mortgages, foibles, strengths and even ideals. As far as I am concerned, they share only one fault: thin skins. There are exceptions, of course, and if any one of them objects to being included in my generalizations, let me say now that he is the exception.
Members of the news and editorial staff react differently to criticism of their work, as you would expect of strong individuals. Take two columnists who were targets of the ombudsman. One responded with a gracious note: "You were dead right." The other hasn't spoken to me in a year and a half. A reporter I'd never met, whose story I had gently suggested in a memo could have been more accurate, appeared in my doorway with a menacing look: "I am the reporter you have just savaged." He has since become quite an agreeable fellow.
The managing editor of The Post, whose judgment I once questioned for not putting a particular local story on page 1, sent me a note saying I was all wet. Two months later, he invited me out to lunch to tell me that, with hindsight, he had decided I was right. That's class.
The publisher himself sent me a note once expressing displeasure at one of my criticisms, but turned it into a nonthreatening missive by adding a postscript: "But you're doing a great job. Keep it up." To keep the record straight (and he was right, by the way, about my harsh criticism), I responded with this note: "The last time a newspaper publisher didn't like something I wrote, guess which one of us went looking for a job?"
The ombudsman, like any referee, is not immune from error. The one that caused most grief was my citing a story in The Post as inferior to one in The New York Times. What I did not know is that the Post reporter -- a newcomer to the staff -- had been called at home late one night and asked to match The Times' exclusive in time for the midnight edition. He did it and did it well; it was less colorful than the Times story, but more accurate. I apologized to the reporter, and I trust that he has since forgiven me.
A reporter who specializes in local features wrote one that I felt unnecessarily affronted an entire ethnic group. He took umbrage at my singling him out. But a year later, he sought me out to say he had come to see it my way. That's grace.
There are those who glare, and there are those who tense up as I approach them in the newsroom but visibly relax when it turns out it's the reporter at the next desk I seek. There are those who express hostility with extravagant courtesy and those who don't mince words in telling me what they think of me. I'll take it that way.
The second most frequent question is about the shortcomings of The Post. I have already gone into the matter of overlong, tedious stories. Lack of humor bothers me almost as much. I don't mean ha-ha humor, but the light touch. Post stories are too heavy.
The third most frequent question is why The Post never tells readers about the backgrounds and personalities of the reporters who bring them the news. What kind of people are they? Well, all kinds. If I can make one general comment, I would say they suffer from -- let me try to put this delicately -- well, from an underabundance of humility. I should quickly add that a touch of exaggerated self-esteem is vital for anyone whose job it is to chip away at the granite mountains of bureaucratic resistance.
There are even reporters -- veterans some of them -- who still pursue their jobs with passion, who professionally burn with a pure blue flame. Two come quickly to mind -- Morton Mintz and Spencer Rich. I recently had occasion to comment to Mr. Rich that a remarkably revealing story he'd written had the mark of a gutsy source in the bureaucracy who trusted him. He replied he was disappointed in that official because he'd since learned that about 25 percent of the story had been withheld. I pointed out that it still took a lot of courage for the source to talk to him. "What do you expect?" I asked. Snapped Mr. Rich: "I expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."