Posts about ombudsman

NPR blames us for its problems: Insane

Oy. I should be writing a book right now and not responding to the zillionth linkless attack on the ills of the blogosphere, this time from NPR’s outgoing ombuds, Alicia Shepard, who blames the “dark side” and “lousy job” of the blogosphere for NPR’s own admittedly unclear (not to mention wrong-headed, in my view) memo forbidding staff from so much as stepping near the Jon Stewart Restoring Sanity rally. She does so without linking to a single blog … except mine. Sorry, blogosphere, I guess I’ve single-handedly lowered your standards.

Shepard acknowledges that management’s memo failed to say that NPR would cover the rally and then she gets all high and haughty that people wondered whether it would. That fails a pretty basic test of journalism: does the story answer the obvious questions? And if it doesn’t, who’s to blame for confusion, pray tell?

She includes in her litany of blog dastardliness my argument that NPR is forbidding journalistic curiosity. She doesn’t attribute or link to that opinion, nor to any of the other probably equally out-of-context smears she alleges. In our low standards of the blogosphere, we think that’s a sin for it robs the reader of the chance to judge for herself.

Shepard doesn’t really address the many other quite legitimate questions NPR’s Papal bull also raises in the fetid mind of the blogosphere. The fact that NPR felt obliged to put Stewart’s rally off limits to its staff but didn’t feel it necessary to issue such an order for Glenn Beck’s rally does obviously raise the presumption that NPR staffers would be interested in the former and not the later — ergo, NPR staffers are liberally inclined. (I have no problem with that, only that it is masked under NPR’s Shroud of Turin Objectivity.) Shepard merely repeats and accepts the company line without real discussion of it. She doesn’t deal with the journalistic questions I raised, only repeats the cant of freshman journalism seminars about objectivity:

But at the end of the day, they have to be professional – and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

If you really mean that, then you should follow Washington Post ex-editor Leonard Downie’s vow of voting chastity and order that staff may not cast ballots. For that is taking sides. Except it’s done in private. So it doesn’t create perceptions. That, then, is what this entire episode is really about: perceptions, the PR in NPR.

“She sees her job as explaining NPR to listeners, and listeners to NPR,” says Shepard’s network bio. I’d say she does the former and not the latter. Shepard’s term is about to end (note my restraint, please, in making further comment on that event). NPR: I’ll repeat: Love ya. But please, please this time give the public a representative who sees it as her job to represent the public, not management and the Priesthood of The Way It Has Always Been Done, Amen.

: UPDATE: NPR CEO Vivian Schiller’s response to the kerfuffle is more intelligent and nuanced than Shepard’s. But it still comes down to the same bottom line: appearances.

We live in an age of “gotcha” journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility. We need to err on the side of protecting our journalism, our journalists, and our reputation. While the credibility and trust that attaches to the NPR brand depends principally on the quality of our news reporting, it can be easily undermined if our public conduct is at odds with the standards we seek to uphold as a news organization.

Mahombudsman

I keep thinking over Jason Calacanis’ contemplation of hiring an ombudsman for his new service, Mahalo, and his kind (I think) inclusion of my name among the candidates (sorry, Jason; lots of irons in that fire). Though I agree with others that this is a laudable step — I think we can name the new-media sites with ombudsmen on no fingers — I still couldn’t help thinking that there’s something so old-media about this.

And then it hit me as I used Mahalo this morning. As my daughter and I started into our occasional German lessons, I went to Mahalo’s good speaking-German page, recommended on Jason’s blog. And I wanted to add something: Annik Rubin’s mellifluous Schlaflos in Muenchen and her new Slow German podcast. My choices were to send an email to the Mahalo guide, which I’m never crazy about because it’s so one-way, or start a forum discussion, which requires registration, a speedbump. Neither immediately affects the page itself. What I wanted, though, was a wiki. I wanted to contribute my knowledge then and there.

And so it occurred to me that the best ombudsman is everyone. Every one of your readers with an addition, correction, or challenge is an ombudsman. And every one of your writers, dealing directly with the people who know more, is an ombudsman for your brand and product. You have to have the faith in your public to do this. This is what I’ve been saying to newspapers: It’s not right to ghettoize contact with the public through one person so that the rest of the staff thinks that the public is somebody else’s problem; everyone needs to be responsible for conversation with the public.

So that’s my advice to Jason: Set up the systems to that every employee and every reader is your ombudsman. Fire me before you hire me.

Reconsidering Calame

I’ve been critical of Barney Calame, the Times outgoing obmudsman, but as he ends his tenure, I do want to acknowledge that he did become more aggressive taking on the paper’s missteps and it’s fascinating that he’s critical of his own writing. The ombud ombudding himself:

“If I could write the way Dan Okrent could write, I think some of the things I wanted to say would have penetrated the readership of the Times better,” Calame said during a phone conversation from his Manhattan apartment. “I think it could have been done much better, the writing, conceptualizing of how you told a story. I am simply not that good of a writer.”

Here‘s Calame’s own clear-eyed assessment of his tenure.

By the way, in two weeks, I’m going to the annual gathering of ombudsmen to be on a panel about — what else? — blogging. I’ll be blogging from there.