What do I think of The Post?
It's a great newspaper. But that doesn't mean it can't be improved.
This is my 100th and final column in the two-year stint as ombudsman, and most of these pieces have held the paper to account for some fault. In addition, I have turned out almost 300 in- house memorandums, averaging about six complaints each. It is clear I haven't run short on grist for my mill.
Not all the complaints originated with me. Many readers contributed, and when I say readers I mean to include Post staffers who have been willing to point out problems in others' stories (never in their own), rival reporters in bureaus of other newspapers, retired editors who can't stand facts missing from stories, concerned friends and strangers. The first "catch" of the day usually came from my wife, a Post reader with 40 years of experience.
While all these tipsters like the paper enough to pay their news boy each month (I can hear Publisher Donald Graham cheering in the background), they wonder about some Post priorities. For example, one reader asked, "Is there a policy that there has to be a political story on page 1, 2 or 3 each day?"
There isn't, but if you like politics, you won't go hungry by reading The Post. In election years coverage is by the platoon, and even in off-off election years there's always room for a political yarn. The theory is that Washington is a government town and the heartblood of government is politics. But now that Uncle Sam is no longer the major employer in the area, is this premise faulty?
The preoccupation with politics is sometimes at the cost of other coverage -- environment, consumer, labor and workplace news, for example. While The Post staff includes writers with skill and experience in these areas, they are often posted to other fields.
A few readers, sometimes with special causes, wonder why certain stories appear in The New York Times and are missing or abbreviated in The Post. I have felt some of the comparisons are unfair -- The Post is essentially a local paper with modest national aspirations, and The Times, whose coverage of its local affairs is modest, is essentially a national paper. In the days when I was an assistant to a New Jersey senator I used to crab regularly about The Times' coverage of the state.
But somehow Post people are themselves self-conscious about the New York City paper. How else does one account for the three-day Post series this month on who is to be the next editor in New York? It is difficult to envision a three-day series in The Times on who is to be the next editor of The Post.
Post strengths are not always recognized. It seems to me that its foreign staff does a remarkable job -- take South Africa, for example. The coverage shows foresight and planning as well as a major investment in personnel and funds. The worldwide effort to cover countries in human interest terms, rather than governmental fiats, has attracted and educated readers.
The foreign news coverage has not gone without criticism. A few readers suspect an inside conspiracy to defame anti-communism, or to injure Israel, or to ignore attacks on Arabs. After looking into such complaints I have concluded they are unfounded, more motivated by suspicions than facts. There may have been occasional slips in the flood of news flow, but if it's conspiracy they're looking for, they better go back to Agatha Christie. A newspaper cannot permit reader partisans to edit stories to suit their views.
The local news content has had its ups and downs, but there are fewer essential facts missing from stories than before. However, complaints about missing stories are frequent. A recent one involved a major conference on relations between blacks and Jews held at the University of the District of Columbia. The prominent speakers attracted an op-ed page column and letters to the editor, but there was not a line of news coverage. There is a reluctance to covering "contrived" events such as demonstrations, rallies, conferences and conventions, but city editors may have let this feeling outrun their news judgment.
The local desk continues to struggle with the logistics of finding space for obituaries. Last week, for example, the obituary for a well-known fur shop founder ran two days after the paid funeral notice had appeared. Since most readers rely on the obits to draw their attention to the notice of services, many probably missed the funeral details. (The New York Times, a national paper that carries only a handful of local obituaries, does not face this problem.)
A few of my pet peeves: Post corrections so brief they become breakfast- time mysteries. What was the story about? Where did it appear? (Give us a clue at least on which section.) The usual excuse for brevity is that the longer the correction, the more chance for error. By that theory, any story running longer than a sentence is hazardous to readers.
Some errors have gone uncorrected. Arrogant editors or reporters argue that the error was inconsequential or that the article was substantially right, instead of exactly right.
Another gripe: Post identification of authors on opinion pieces is sometimes so brief it fails to alert readers to possible bias. For example, on Jan. 7 there was an op-ed piece by J. Marshall Coleman, former Virginia attorney general, headlined, "Chuck Robb Didn't Do It All." Missing in the identification were two essential facts that Mr. Coleman is a Republican and that he ran against Democrat Robb for the governorship.
So, looking over two years of papers, columns and memos I come to the bottom line: I think The Post is a paper with plenty of talent, plenty of arrogance, but plenty of integrity. It is always interesting, sometimes surprising and always informative. When the chips were down, the paper stood up, threats notwithstanding.
Now that I have made my contribution to newspaper accountability, it is probably wise to set off on my next project -- a worldwide study of ombudsmen in state, county and local governments, followed by some teaching in San Francisco and perhaps Copenhagen, some arbitration here and reading The Post for pleasure -- and without pain. Ombudsmen were not meant to be loved.
My predecessor, Robert McCloskey, a veteran diplomat, received his farewell from the news staff in the form of three cakes, inscribed, "Picky," "Picky" and "Picky." It goes with the territory, but the experience was fascinating.