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A cause for concern

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A.S. Panneerselvan
A.S. Panneerselvan

There seems to be a tectonic shift in the global media scene. After providing the leadership for nearly three centuries, the legacy media in the United States is slowly ceding the ground to the media houses of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Media organisations from these emerging economies are not only growing but are also recognising the value of investment in quality and ethics.

For two generations of journalists, the sheer reference to The Washington Post was an exhilarating experience. It was the first standard for investigative reporting. The Watergate Scandal, the meticulous investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the way it shook not just the United States but also the entire world, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon are intertwined with the highest journalistic standard set by The Washington Post . It was one of earliest newspapers to employ an independent ombudsman. But last week, it ended its 43-year-old practice of employing an independent ombudsman to critique the newspaper’s journalism and field readers’ questions.

In one of the last columns, The Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, wrote: “But I think the tea leaves are clear. For cost-cutting reasons, for modern media-technology reasons and because The Post , like other news organizations, is financially weaker and hence even more sensitive to criticism, my bet is that this position will disappear.”

He further shared the rationale of the paper’s executive editor Marty Baron’s argument against the practice of having an independent ombudsman. Baron’s reasons: “it is not as if The Post doesn’t come in for criticism, from all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age. There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries. “

Stephen Pritchard, Readers’ Editor of The Observer and the president of the worldwide Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), called The Post’s new editor, Marty Baron, to express global concern. Pritchard shared his talks with Baron: “Like so many other editors across the world, he needs to cut costs and sees other papers in the U.S. making drastic economies. He said The Post was exploring other ways to respond to readers and anyway it wouldn’t be his decision. That would fall to the publisher, Katharine Weymouth. I recall inviting Ms. Weymouth and the great Watergate editor Ben Bradlee to an ONO conference in Washington four years ago. They both spoke warmly of the valuable role played by the succession of journalists who had taken on the job at The Post . Things were bad for the U.S. media then. Today, they are even worse, but I would argue that Ms. Weymouth would be making a false economy if the role were to disappear.”

‘No accountability’

Further extending his argument for the job, Stephen Pritchard said: “It's now convenient at cash-strapped U.S. papers to lose the ombudsman and describe it as a dying, irrelevant job. The argument goes that giving the readers online access to comment and contribute instantly on stories removes the need for the ombudsman. That’s clearly a cheat: readers may enjoy the cathartic experience of seeing their complaints published on a website, but that’s where it ends. There's no independent adjudication process and no critical analysis of their complaint. In short, no transparency; no accountability.”

The reactions of George Claassen, Ombudsman of Media24 Community Newspapers of South Africa, are a clear indication of which way the wind is blowing: “An interesting development that came to the fore over the past two years in South Africa, is the reverse of what is happening now with The Washington Post and other international media houses, as far as I can read the trend. Because of severe criticism of the media by the ANC government, mostly unfair (the Mandela honeymoon is unfortunately over!), the South African Press Council went through a thorough process of tightening the ethical code of the South African Press Ombudsman. This has led to a wide consultation process and a strengthening of the media ombudsman’s role in society, also that of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission…. It will be a very sad day if and when The Post terminates its ombudsman. This will mean that the editor(s) will play prosecutor, defence, judge and jury — a shocking oversight and misconception on their part.”

The Post’s ombudsman is replaced by a reader representative, a staff member, who will answer questions and respond to complaints. The reader representative will report to Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor. This is a significant development where the autonomy of the ombudsman is removed and brought under the editorial control. The blurring of the roles has a global implication. Hope not many are going to replicate the present U.S. model.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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