In his Sunday column yesterday, the Washington Post Ombudsman, Andy Alexander, found a steady tone, even as he characterized the paper’s recently proposed lobbyist-journalist salons as an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”
Politico was the first to break news of these “salons” after reporters there got hold of an internal Post flyer advertising the policy driven sessions intended to engage lobbyists, politicians and Post journalists: all for a fee. The concept was devised as a revenue generator for the paper. Like most American newspapers, The Post is facing a new and unprecedented financial crisis. As the idea floated its way from the senior offices to the beat reporters in the newsroom, the ombudsman’s recap states that many staffers felt uneasy about how this compared to trusted journalistic ethics standards: Wasn’t the salon effectively a way for lobbyists to pay for face time with journalists? Is this any different that passing along a “brown envelope”?
As concern quickly passed along the Post staff, so did the responsibility to speak-up. Lower-level reporters assumed that their senior editors and staff would “clean up” the event. The Ombudsman’s column details the thoughts of top-level officials in a play-by-play of how the salons still made it through the filters. Subsequently, Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have taken full responsibility for the concept and the flyer.
Clearly, the salons, especially the way in which they were advertised (as a “non-confrontational” forum to “build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting”), broke journalistic ethics standards by promoting soft-censorship through financial constraints. We have highlighted this emerging form of censorship on the Commons in the past. The Global Integrity Report: Argentina and a recent CIMA global study both mention that political or government driven advertisement is leading to journalistic bias and unreliability of print media outlets.
The Ombudsman as (self) regulator…
The Post Ombudsman’s column could have serves as a viable case at last week’s CIMA event on the role of self-regulation in the media. This discussion revolved around a paper written by Bill Ristow on how the roles of media ombudsman and press councils differ internationally. According to Ristow, internationally, press councils or ombudsman do not usually field citizen complaints. Instead, they receive journalists’ claims either against other journalists or against the government. Ristow thinks citizen participation is low because the councils or ombudsman’s offices are typically set up by international donors and lack local buy-in. Also, he notes that it’s pretty common to see media councils that pretend to be independent but are in fact set up by government in an attempt to amass more control. In the US, Ristow states that media outlets are less likely to respond positively when approached by councils or ombudsman and see these requests for information as attacks on “press freedom.”
According to the online job description, the Washington Post Ombudsman position exemplifies the difficult conflicts of interest involved in media ombudsman or councils:
“As The Washington Post ombudsman, he serves as its internal critic and represents readers who have concerns or complaints on a wide range of topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process. In his role, he also promotes public understanding of the newspaper, its Web site and journalism more generally. He is operates under a contract with The Washington Post that guarantees him independence.”
There is a fine line here between being accepted as a member of the Post staff—responsible for heralding the paper’s strengths— while also remaining independent and able to admonish and criticize its faults. For these reasons, at last week’s event, Alicia Shepard, the National Public Radio Ombudsman, characterized her job as one of the loneliest on the planet.
In his response to the salon scandal, Alexander found a hard balance, proving to be publicly-responsible if not completely impartial. Fitting to his role, he openly criticized the ethical errors made but also couched his dismay with an insider’s knowledge. The blame was there without harsh denouncement or wild outrage. While Alexander claims the effect of this misstep on the Post will be “lasting,” the tone of his piece suggests that the paper’s strong investigative reputation may survive.
— Norah Mallaney