Signing off as Post ombudsman
My two-year term as The Post’s independent ombudsman has run out. It has been both a privilege to serve Post readers as a pipeline to the staff and an honor to work in a newsroom of such distinguished journalists. I hope I succeeded even a little in explaining how journalism is changing in a media world transformed by new technology and new business models.
The No. 1 topic of complaint to the ombudsman during my term: The Post’s online comment system. About 10 percent of those complaints were about its functionality, which The Post has improved. Another 10 percent were from people who feel they were unfairly censored. But the rest were from readers who like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of The Post’s commenting stream.
Early on, I was a fan of the give-and-take and anonymous nature of this electronic Hyde Park corner. Now I’m not.
What turned me were the truly ugly comments on a Feb. 4 article by Krissah Thompson on the high school football coach who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere. I was watching the online comment stream the night the story was published, and the moderators could barely delete fast enough the racist, sexist and crude comments. I don’t think comments like those should be within 10 miles of The Washington Post’s masthead. And readers agree; those who wrote in said it hurts the publication’s brand and reputation.
I think The Post should move, as the Miami Herald did recently, away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook. It would reduce the volume of comments but raise the level of discussion and help preserve The Post’s brand.
The second most common area of complaints to the ombudsman was from readers whom I call the “grammar police.” I mean that in a positive way. These are the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post. I dutifully forwarded these complaints to Post copy editors and the corrections desk. I know this kind of criticism can be annoying, but the grammar police help keep standards high.
Speaking of copy editors, they are the unsung heroes of journalism. Because of the copy-hungry maw of the Web, copy desks are often editing double the amount of material they did just a few years ago, and in many cases they are doing it with half the staff. You would miss mistakes — and make some, too — under those trying conditions.
I want to thank all of the copy editors who reviewed my words and made them clearer every time — particularly Scott Butterworth, Vince Rinehart and Lauren Taylor.
The Post’s former executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, and former managing editors Liz Spayd and Raju Narisetti were always accessible and patient with me in explaining their points of view. I thank them and Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, who oversaw my selection as ombudsman and who never pressured me to write, or to not write, anything.
The same was true of Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham and Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth. I’m sure they didn’t like some of what I wrote. But they never interfered. I thank them for giving me this opportunity to be ombudsman; I treasure my time here.
And readers, you should know that, although the future Post may not look like the present Post, the commitment of Graham and Weymouth to the survival of this publication is ironclad.
Readers also need to know — and those who own businesses surely know this — that the choices The Post faces are achingly difficult and, in these cost-cutting days, invariably come with a human cost. There are only tough choices now in the media business. Have some compassion for those making them.
Finally to Post journalists: You have the power to help sustain American journalism of quality, toughness and fairness, journalism that — to echo the words etched in the lobby of The Post’s building — gets as close to the truth as may be ascertained.
This is no small thing. The power of truth is the power to humble governments, to obtain justice, to foil hypocrisy, to help the downtrodden, to reveal the world as it is, not as we might like it to be. But this power can also ruin careers, harm reputations and make the subjects of our stories sometimes feel falsely accused.
Exercise this power wisely and responsibly.