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The Washington Post’s last ombudsman and what that might mean for us

by | Feb 19, 2013

By Dave Andrusko

Richard Harwood, former Ombudsman for the Washington Post

Richard Harwood, former Ombudsman for the Washington Post

I can’t say I read the Washington Post’s Ombudsman regularly enough to know whether Patrick B. Pexton is doing a good job as a go-between between readers and the Washington Post. That is my fault, if for no other reason than I so often clobber the Post for assorted and sundry sins of omission and commission.

So perhaps it was partly out of guilt that I read his column—“The Post’s last ombudsman?”—with such great interest. As the headline suggests, the “tea leaves” (Pexton’s word) all point to the elimination of his position once his two-year stint is up February 28.

This column, dated February 15, is a pro-and-con on why one of the nation’s premier newspapers ought to (or ought not)  maintain what is, in theory, “a reader representative and The Post’s internal critic.”

The con is represented by Marty Baron, The Post’s new executive editor, the pro is (surprise) Pexton, although Baron did offer some reasons why the position was important.

Baron cites cost consciousness—every position counts in an era of ever more rigorous belt-tightening. And besides the Post has a gazillion critics whose salaries, Baron says (with gallows humor) are not paid by the Post. In a word, why parcel out resources from a diminishing pool of dollars when there are countless critics who will hammer the Post for free?

Pexton answers well, I believe. For example, he notes about how so much of what he writes does not make its way into his Sunday column. Half tongue in cheek, he suggests that the sympathetic ear he and his assistant extend to irate readers means “we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone.”

The other reason I read Pexton so carefully was because I’ve been around newspapers since the 1970s. I know what a committed Ombudsman can do when he or she is able to put their ideological and/or institutional blinders aside to see whether (in this case) the Washington Post is holding up its end of the bargain.

Pexton’s own column on what is a staple—pro-lifers are angry that the size of the annual March for Life is always drastically understated and it is annoying beyond words to have the second most prominent photo be of a tiny contingent of 20-30 pro-abortionists standing in front of the Supreme Court as 100,000 to (who know?) 400,000 pro-lifers march by—was a pedestrian effort.

By contrast veteran pro-lifers remember best of all was the absurd [non-] coverage of the NRLC-sponsored “Rally for Life” in 1990. The numbers assembled were staggering. David Shaw, who wrote a legendary multi-part series on how the media [mis]reported the abortion issue for the Los Angeles Times, used as a classic example how the Post covered that gigantic rally.

Shaw started with the work of Post Ombudsman Richard Harwood, who wrote about the Post being “institutionally ‘pro-choice’ “ in March 1990 column. The then managing editor fumed that this was not so. Shaw then wrote (in part three of four)

“But a month after Harwood’s column was published, the Post provided its many anti- abortion critics with a classic case study of just what Harwood was talking about — a case so striking that no ‘close textual analysis’ was needed, a case that made [Managing Editor Leonard] Downie himself angrily question his staff and wonder aloud ‘if we have our antennae raised as high’ for the anti- abortion side of the argument as for the abortion -rights side.

“The event that triggered Downie’s anger was the Post’s coverage of a massive ‘Rally for Life’ April 28 at the Washington Monument. The rally, sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee, was intended as both a demonstration of the strength of the anti- abortion movement and as a response to the enormously successful pro- abortion -rights rally in Washington in April, 1989. Abortion protesters insisted that the Post (and other media) greatly understated the turnout for the rally, but such charges are common when the media cover virtually any political demonstration. Far more important, critics complained — and the Post conceded — the paper vastly underplayed the rally, ‘trivialized’ it, as Harwood later wrote.”

If you want to know more about either Shaw’s historic series or what Harwood wrote, drop me a line at daveandrusko@gmail.com.

I mention them to reiterate the point. While some Ombudsmen can be the worst kind of defender of pro-abortion orthodoxy, others can be honest enough to see—and write—when their publications give pro-lifers short-shrift.

Reason enough, although there are many others as well, for the Post to keep its Ombudsman.

Please join those who are following me on Twitter at twitter.com/daveha. Please send your comments to daveandrusko@gmail.com.

Categories: Media Bias