After almost two years on deck as ombudsman, it is time to head for home. This is the first of three columns summing up the experience.
The Post has afforded me an unusual opportunity to enter into a fascinating world peopled by many stars and some duds, to learn more about how a worldwide organization of reporters and editors functions, to see how readers react to their work and to evaluate and criticize their product.
It has not all been joy and enchantment. There have been days when some readers seemed to want only to rant and rave, loudly and at length, when letters arrived single-spaced and multi-paged (a sure sign of trouble), and when it was time for lunch I could not find any coworker yet unbitten by my critiques. Taking in criticism and doling out criticism makes for a heavy drain on the emotional bank. A two- year certificate is long enough.
The Post, for all the complaints, deserves credit for having had an ombudsman for the past 15 years. I am sure that no matter how gentle and discreet the ombudsman, his very presence -- and the suggestion of accountability -- makes some editors shudder. Imagine being criticized in public -- and paying for the critic! This is probably why The Post is one of only 38 papers among the nation's almost 1,700 dailies with an ombudsman.
The arrangement here is unique in providing for a two-year, nonrenewable contract for the ombudsman. There were days when I suspected if there had been no contract there would have been an unemployed "om"
TAKE 020132 PAGE 00002 TIME 10:35 DATE 01-08-86 on the street, the day's column tattooed to my britches.
On the other hand, the nonrenewable contract discourages any temptation to parlay compliments for the management into longevity in office. It would be easy for an ombudsman to exaggerate the importance of his role, but editors are quick to remind that they are in charge.
One editor, confronted with an ombudsman's complaint, responded with a curt, "You have 90 seconds." While his arrogance was fortunately not typical, his attitude made me wonder about executive editors on other newspapers who pooh-pooh the need for an ombudsman by declaring sanctimoniously, "Every editor is an ombudsman."
Readers without titles would have trouble getting even 10 seconds. The om is just one more tool in the daily process of trying to correct error, overcome unfairness or insensitivity and make the newspaper more readily understood and useful to its readers. While there are improvements stimulated by my comments, there seems to be almost a tradition that the ombudsman's suggestions are read but not acknowledged by editors.
On the other hand, an editor volunteered that "whether they admit it or not, you can be sure they won't make the same mistake again." So when asked what an om mostly does, my usual reply is "consciousness-raising." There are reporters and editors who are willing to take their lumps in my in- house memorandums, but who go ape when their names appear in a weekly column. Those who are so accustomed to naming names in stories chastising others are discomfited by seeing their own shortcomings in print.
Many readers, particularly past victims, feel it is good for the reporters and editors to have a taste of their own medicine. But readers are not always charitable, either. There have been occasions when they have cited a day's coverage in The Post as inadequate when compared with a New York paper, but rarely called when the situation was reversed. For what it's worth, my experience has been that over time a reader will be exposed to the important facts. Coverage should not be a one-day test.
I know I have disappointed some readers by not sympathizing with all their coplaints or taking their suggestions for columns. For example, a veteran reader thought I should do a column on how The Post has turned to the right editorially over the years. I don't disagree, but then there are still some stalwart voices from the old days sounding forth.
Some think the paper hasn't gone sufficiently anticommunist, and I was urged to complain about not enough anti- Soviet stories from the recent summit. These readers haven't fully forgiven President Reagan for sitting down with the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and I don't think they feel any better about The Post.