Michael Getler, a Washington Post foreign correspondent and editor who later led the Paris-based International Herald Tribune and served as an incisive in-house media critic at The Post and PBS, died March 15 at a hospice center in Washington. He was 82.
The cause was complications from bile duct cancer, said his wife, Sandra Getler.
A former Navy aviator and defense-magazine writer, Mr. Getler joined The Post as a military affairs reporter in 1970 during the waning years of the Vietnam War. He later chronicled Cold War tensions from Bonn, the capital of West Germany. In subsequent editing roles, including as assistant managing editor for foreign news, he directed coverage that resulted in two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting.
But he achieved his greatest public renown as an ombudsman, a sensitive and often thankless role that entails critiquing colleagues for the tone, tastefulness and fairness of their stories — while seldom satisfying the most vehement outside critics.
His time as Post ombudsman, from 2000 to 2005, coincided with intense scrutiny of the media for their coverage of the deadlocked 2000 presidential election, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the polarizing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Getler became known for sharp observations that became the talk of the newsroom — and other newsrooms. The New York Times reported that work virtually came to a standstill when Mr. Getler’s criticism — “lobbed like hand grenades” — became available internally before it ran in the Sunday paper.
“Like an Old Testament prophet,” read a Times profile of Mr. Getler, “this respected journalist has come back . . . to thunder at his people about their wayward ways.”
The article cited his displeasure with a piece in The Post’s Style section on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who played a decisive role in the 2000 election recount, that opined, “One of the reasons Harris is so easy to mock is because she, to be honest, seems to have applied her makeup with a trowel.”
Mr. Getler called the cutting quip “a classic example of the arrogance of journalists that undermines people’s confidence in the media.”
After his contract at The Post expired, Mr. Getler moved to PBS as the broadcasting system’s first ombudsman. His appointment followed complaints that PBS newscasts displayed a liberal bias. During his 12 years on the job, Mr. Getler drew periodic attention for challenging powerful forces inside and outside the media.
He denounced the PBS Kids Sprout network’s 2006 firing of Melanie Martinez, host of “The Good Night Show,” for having appeared years earlier in videos lampooning public service announcements for teen sexual abstinence.
The firing, Mr. Getler wrote, had “too much of a whiff of after-the-fact loyalty oaths and purity checks on performers.”
In forceful commentaries in 2011 about Chevron, the primary corporate underwriter of “The PBS NewsHour,” Mr. Getler plowed through company financial reports and spoke to experts to argue that the oil conglomerate made misleading and “troublesome” statements in its sponsorship messages touting its role as a force for good in the community.
“I support their basic right to advertise or help sponsor programs, and I have no green-eyeshade credentials that make me certain their statement is inaccurate,” Mr. Getler wrote. “But I have to say that the words in that spot, especially the ones that state with such force and certainty that, ‘Every penny and more went into bringing energy to the world,’ also sound implausible, at best, to my layman’s ears and then up the scale to misleading.”
Michael Getler was born in the Bronx on Nov. 13, 1935. His father was an advertising salesman, and his mother was a homemaker who later in life sold high-end silverware.
In elementary school, Mr. Getler’s teachers handed out copies of the Times, sparking a precocious interest in world news. After graduating in 1956 from the City College of New York, he spent four years as a Navy officer based in Quonset Point, R.I., and then was a reporter and editor for trade publications specializing in defense, aviation and space.
Mr. Getler said his favorite story at The Post was covering the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland, the pontiff’s first such visit since his election to the papacy a year before. The trip, Mr. Getler later told PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose, felt palpably momentous, “the beginning of a sense that something was really happening” to loosen the Communist grip on Eastern Europe.
After a stint covering national security and a year as a reporter in London, Mr. Getler was named foreign editor in 1985 and subsequently assistant managing editor for foreign news.
Two of the entries in Frankel’s Pulitzer package stemmed directly from questions raised by Mr. Getler. One was about Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers; the other was an account of Israel’s secret military operation in Tunis to assassinate a leader in the Palestinian Fatah movement.
“Mike was innately curious,” Frankel wrote in an email. “He saw very young Palestinian kids — 4 or 5 years old — throwing stones on a CNN report and wanted to know what it was about: Who, if anyone, was directing them, what did it say about the depth of anger in the West Bank and the creation of a new generation of resistance to occupation?”
“He read the day-to-day piecemeal coverage of the assassination and aftermath — with Israeli officials applauding the deed but refusing to confirm they were responsible — and wanted something deeper and more authoritative,” Frankel added. “Although he had a reputation as a hard news guy, for him the news event was just the beginning, not the end, of his intellectual interest.”
In 1993, Mr. Getler headed an internal Post newsroom task force that criticized the newspaper as having a “confrontational and male-dominated” environment in which minority journalists “do not seem to rise through the ranks.”
The 90-page report made several recommendations, including the appointment of a deputy managing editor to direct recruitment, training and career development. Mr. Getler was appointed to fill that job in 1993. It was the No. 3 position in the newsroom.
“I’d like to make sure that the next Woodward and Bernstein in American journalism come to The Washington Post, whether they’re white or African American or Latino,” he told the paper at the time.
After leaving The Post in 1996, Mr. Getler served four years as executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, which was then owned jointly by The Post and the New York Times. The Times obtained sole ownership in 2003 and has since integrated the paper into its other products.
In 2013, The Post replaced the role of independent ombudsman with a reader representative, a staff member who fields questions and complaints. Mr. Getler was named to the City College Communications Alumni Group’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Sandra Curhan of Washington; two children, Warren Getler of Washington and Belinda Getler of San Francisco; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Dan Morgan, a retired Post reporter and editor, described Mr. Getler as someone who “believed journalism is a calling, almost a priesthood,” and did not have “much tolerance for people who are not doing their best.”