Accuracy in Media

Washington_Post_buildingThe Washington Post, which was one of the first newspapers in the country to appoint an ombudsman, may eliminate the position when current ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s contract expires on March 1st.

Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, told Politico that he isn’t exactly a fan of the ombudsman role.

We are committed to maintaining accountability and a good avenue for reader questions and complaints. But I’m not convinced our current model, focusing on a weekly column, is still the best way to achieve the goals. So we’re weighing options.

Since the Post first created the position in 1970, there have been a string of journalists filling the role as the paper’s internal critic, with mixed results. The ombudsmen were liberal journalists who were tasked with critiquing a liberal newspaper while collecting a paycheck from that paper. The result was often a defense of the Post rather than honest criticism.

That began to change slightly a few years ago when in 2008 then-ombudsman Deborah Howell said, “some of the conservatives’ complaints about a liberal tilt [at The Post] are valid.”

In 2009, ombudsman Andy Alexander called the Post’s idea of charging lobbyists to attend salons and mix with journalists “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

Last year Pexton said he wouldn’t quibble with Howell’s “liberal tilt” comments, adding that the Post had “way too little coverage” of Obama’s record in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate.

Pexton also criticized the Post for its poor copy-editing, and expressed his concern over the direction of the newspaper after numerous layoffs and buyouts shrank the newsroom staff.

While the Post may have been willing to deal with occasional criticism, Pexton has been far more vocal and pointed in his two years as the ombudsman. That may have been the deciding factor for Hiatt.

Hiatt may claim that the Post is committed to accountability, but if they axe the ombudsman, they will eliminate the one real chance that readers will get any.

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