After revealing this week that its reader representative had departed, The Washington Post confirmed Friday that there will be a replacement. But the paper made clear that it will not revive the popular ombudsman position that the reader representative supplanted last year.
"We will not bring the ombudsman back," Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said in an email. "We will continue to have someone in a reader rep role." He did not indicate when that person would be named.
Hiatt said that while ombudsmen have made valuable contributions to the paper in the past, "we are in an era when we have to make difficult choices."
The decision comes as former Post ombudsmen and others who hold similar jobs elsewhere urge the paper to bring back the ombudsman job, citing the need for independent reviews.
"I think that's a mistake," Patrick Pexton, the last Post ombudsman, said this week about the prospect of not reviving the ombudsman job. "I said so when I left in March. I understand the arguments against having an ombudsman, but I don't agree with them."
The newspaper allowed Pexton's contract to expire at the end of February 2013, ending the paper's decades-long tradition of employing an independent contracted ombudsman to critique the paper's reporting. Hiatt subsequently announced that the position would be replaced by a reader representative, a part-time position with less independence and more focus on reader views than internal investigation.
He named Doug Feaver, a former Post editor who had retired in 2006, to the position. But this week Hiatt confirmed to Media Matters that Feaver had left the paper earlier than he was scheduled.
As reader representative, Feaver reported to Hiatt and wrote columns that consisted mostly of reader comments about news issues, not the sort of commentaries on Post reporting that readers had come to expect from the paper's ombudsman.
At the time of Feaver's appointment, Hiatt promised that Feaver would be able to fill the ombudsman's shoes.
"While it's true Doug doesn't have the two-year contract that we traditionally gave ombudsman, to me that's not the main difference," Hiatt told Media Matters at the time. "Nobody who knows him will doubt that he will be totally independent in his judgment and that he will hold us all properly accountable."
This accountability was absent from Feaver's published works. Of his 28 blog posts since April 5, 2013, 26 consisted of Feaver aggregating reader comments from Post articles and columns without additional commentary. The other two consisted of a piece declaring the paper free of any conflict of interest regarding the Post's Jerusalem correspondent and Feaver's first post chronicling the initial inquiries he had received in his position ("the biggest issue to come to my attention was the disappearing print button on the article pages of washingtonpost.com").
"I looked at almost all of his blog posts," Pexton said. "Reading between the lines it seems his instructions probably included, or he chose himself, not to make any judgments and I think the key thing an ombudsman does is make judgments."
Asked about Feaver's work at the paper earlier in the week, Hiatt said that in addition to his public platform, Feaver's job consisted of privately channeling reader questions and concerns to others at the paper ensuring they are responded to properly.
Pexton said bringing back the ombudsman position would have given the Post "a little bit more credibility, they'd have a go-to source for readers if they are upset or concerned. I think that in this era of engagement, having a full time person engage with readers and the staff is crucial, it makes you more responsive, it makes you more credible."
Andy Alexander, another former Post ombudsman, agreed that Feaver's job description did not go far enough.
"What Doug did, even if he did it very well, was far different than what a truly independent ombudsman would do," Alexander said. "Anyone who served in the role of Post ombudsman would tell you that its value was that you were truly independent and you were empowered to really cover the Post as a beat. You functioned as a reporter who independently investigated the Post. A truly independent ombudsman is empowered to go into the newsroom and investigate, it goes beyond saying what is on readers' minds.
Alexander pointed to new Post owner Jeff Bezos as someone who could make a difference, stating, "you have a new owner who has deep pockets. I would encourage them to re-instate the position of an independent ombudsman, I think that is the best way to represent the interests of readers."
Asked Friday what he thought of the push for the ombudsman to return, Hiatt portrayed the position as a valuable asset, but nonetheless a luxury at a difficult time for the newspaper business.
"I understand why Andy, Pat and others feel the way they do. I think our readers gained a lot from their contributions," Hiatt told Media Matters in an email. "But we are in an era when we have to make difficult choices. With two reporters inside the Post covering the media, including the Post, full time and many more critics writing about us from the outside, this seemed to us like one of the difficult decisions that make sense."
Hiatt's suggestion that the decision was made at least in part for business reasons appears to contradict his statements in March 2013 that the termination of the ombudsman was "not a financial issue" but rather a deliberate move to reinvent the position for the benefit of readers.
Less than a year after taking the newly created post of reader representative at The Washington Post, Doug Feaver has left the paper, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt confirmed Wednesday.
Feaver, who had served in other positions at the Post but retired in 2006, took the part-time job in March 2013. That announcement came one month after the paper had eliminated its ombudsman position, a mainstay at the paper for more than 40 years.
The Post's elimination of the ombudsman drew criticism at the time from former holders of the position and other media observers, who said that the ombudsman served a vital purpose as the only independent communication between readers and the newsroom.
Unlike the ombudsmen, who worked on two year contracts, the reader representative was a paid staff member who served at the pleasure of the editorial page editor.
In an email to Media Matters, Hiatt confirmed the departure of Feaver, saying that the reader representative had agreed to work for one year but had "moved the departure date up a bit for personal reasons."
Hiatt added that the Post is still considering whether or how Feaver will be replaced, saying that Feaver's deputy, Alison Coglianese "may assume the role."
Feaver, who had served in other positions at the Post prior to his appointment, took the job in March 2013, one month after the paper had eliminated the popular ombudsman position. Feaver's last column ran December 5.
Feaver's appointment drew criticism at the time because it followed the elimination of the ombudsman, a contracted position that was given more independence to critique the paper.
A 60 Minutes segment claiming that federal government efforts to encourage clean tech -- the production and use of alternative energy sources and more efficient technology -- have failed drew some harsh disagreement among reporters covering the energy beat who say the negative report ignored many successes and focused too narrowly on a few unsuccessful companies.
Correspondent Lesley Stahl concluded in the January 5 piece that while stimulus spending including the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program was invested in the industry, "instead of breakthroughs, the [clean tech] sector suffered a string of expensive tax-funded flops."
Stahl's segment has drawn criticism from observers who have noted that 60 Minutes focused on Solyndra and a handful of other failed companies whose loans made up a tiny fraction of federal loans and ignored the clean tech breakthroughs and the explosive growth in the sector that have occurred.
The report was only the latest in a series of 60 Minutes reports that have been subject to stinging critiques in recent months. The program has been excoriated by media observers and accused of "check[ing] its journalistic skepticism at the door" by The New York Times.
Journalists who cover the same energy industries took issue with the clean tech report in interviews with Media Matters, noting that it did not take into account the long-term development needs of clean energy and the many ongoing successes.
"I thought it was a pretty poor piece of journalism, frankly," said David Baker, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter covering clean tech and energy. "There are areas of this field that are hurting, but there are others that are doing very, very well."
Baker added that 60 Minutes' error begins with its conception of the story: "The problem really begins when you just talk about clean tech as one thing - it is a bunch of things and a lot of it is energy generation and energy use. In a report like this where you look at clean tech in general, you have difficulty because it is not the same for each sector."
"The other biggest problem with the CBS story is it looked at some of the flops and really seemed to turn a blind eye to the success," he continued. "That is one of the most fundamental mistakes Lesley Stahl and her producers make."
Baker pointed to several west coast examples of successes, including the recently created California Solar Ranch, the largest solar plant in the nation that went online late last year.
"We are going to have a huge amount of power going on the grid from solar," Baker explained. "Some of those projects were funded in part through the Department of Energy loan program, the same one that funded Solyndra."
Following reports that firearms industry trade magazine Guns & Ammo yielded to advertiser pressure when it fired a columnist for arguing that Second Amendment rights are subject to regulation, editors at trade magazines that cover other industries are speaking out against such a response, stressing the need for such publications to be independent.
Guns & Ammo fired gun journalist Dick Metcalf after he wrote a piece for the December 2013 edition of the magazine arguing that, "[W]ay too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement. The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be."
According to The New York Times, Metcalf's column caused two "major gun manufacturers" to threaten to pull advertising support from Guns & Ammo publisher Intermedia Outdoors (IMO) if Metcalf wasn't fired. (IMO is the publisher of 15 sportsman themed magazines and owns The Sportsman Channel, which is known for its Ted Nugent hunting specials and airs the National Rifle Association's daily news show.)
Jim Bequette, the editor who approved Metcalf's column, also apologized to readers and resigned.
Metcalf's firing highlights one of the key challenges that niche trade publications face. While all news outlets have to make sure their ad dollars keep coming in, those who cover specific industries and narrow areas of interest often feel even greater pressure.
That pressure requires trade journalists to manage a balancing act that is paramount to keeping journalistic ethics and reader trust solid. Even if you are reporting for a smaller audience about a specific industry or area of interest, your credibility needs to be as unyielding as any other news outlet.
Perhaps more so because trade magazines in many areas are often the only outlet for relevant news about a specific business or niche interest.
"Writing for a trade magazine can occasionally be tricky, because you're in a unique position: You run the risk of potentially upsetting an advertiser by writing something that they could find objectionable," said Shawn Moynihan, executive managing editor at National Underwriter, Property & Casualty, which covers property and casualty insurance issues. "The truth is the truth, though, for better or worse, and that's your job -- to report it. To do less would violate the trust your readers place in you."
Fox News' assertion that a New York Times reporter who was at the scene of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, Libya, should have alerted authorities is drawing harsh criticism from veterans of war coverage who say the critique demonstrates a lack of understanding about the role of journalists.
The comments came in reaction to a lengthy series published December 28 by the Times. The series, authored by Mideast Correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick with additional reporting from journalists in Benghazi and Cairo, refutes many of the claims about the attack that conservatives have used to portray it as a scandal for the Obama administration.
Notably, the piece reveals that a Libyan journalist working for the Times was present during the event, when dozens of heavily-armed Libyans attacked the U.S. compound and set it on fire. Some of the attackers told the reporter and other onlookers that they were acting in response to an anti-Islam video that had been posted on YouTube.
Fox and Friends co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy responded to this revelation -- which undermined months of Fox News claims that the video had played no role in the attack -- by attacking the Times reporter who had been present.
"[T]he question comes to mind," said Kilmeade, "is, okay, if you have a reporter at the scene and you know Americans are in danger and you are working for The New York Times. Did you, I don't know, have a sat[ellite] phone? Number one. Number two, did you use that sat phone to call in help or announce what was happening?"
"He probably had a phone, probably had a sat phone" Doocy agreed during a later segment. "That would have been the perfect time to call in for help. Did they?"
Kirkpatrick did not respond to Media Matters' requests for comment on the Fox hosts' views, but Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said in an email, "This is just Fox being Fox" and called such claims "ridiculous."
War reporters and groups that represent them say that the Fox critique shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of journalism, particularly during dangerous conflicts.
"When you're in the middle of a riot or an attack like that, first of all, it is not a reporter's job to call the authorities and he would have to assume the authorities know about it. It seems so bizarre," said Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and a former Los Angeles Times national security reporter who has reported from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
As the consequences for 60 Minutes' botched story on Benghazi continue to unfold, it's unclear whether the apparent charlatan at the center of that report will face punishment from the publisher of his book.
After the October 27 segment aired, it was revealed that Dylan Davies, the supposed eyewitness featured in the story, had given conflicting accounts of his actions the night of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi. CBS News eventually pulled the segment and announced after an internal review that correspondent Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan would be taking a leave of absence from 60 Minutes.
But the 60 Minutes segment wasn't the only publicity boost CBS Corporation gave to Davies' story. Two days after the 60 Minutes report aired, Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions released The Embassy House, a book featuring Davies' dubious account.
While Threshold pulled the book from shelves shortly after CBS retracted its segment, the publisher has not revealed any action it plans to take against Davies to recoup costs or damages from his apparent lies. Requests for comment have been ignored.
But book publishing veterans, including several attorneys who handle such cases, said Threshold's options are clear according to traditional author agreements. They admit, however, that the publisher may have trouble actually collecting any damages.
"One of the important elements in a book publishing contract is a clause called representations and warranties, a list of promises and guarantees that an author makes to the publisher. These are very standard -- the customary assurances that the author gives is that the work is original and does not infringe on copyright," said Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing attorney based in Los Angeles. "Some publishers are smart enough or have lawyers who are smart enough to include additional assurances that the book is true, accurate, and based on sound research."
Kirsch added, "If you had a contract where the representation and warranties clause didn't include these assurances, the publisher would be in a more exposed position. If they do include that assurance then the publisher can sue for breach of contract. At the very beginning of the book contract it says that the book is a work of fiction or non-fiction. If the contract characterizes it as a work of non-fiction or an autobiography or an historical account, there is an implication that it is true and the publisher can sue on that account."
Historians are throwing cold water on conservatives' "fundamentally ludicrous" attempts to co-opt John F. Kennedy's legacy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
In recent days, several conservative media figures -- including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Chris Wallace -- have suggested that if Kennedy were alive today, his views would align with conservatives and the Tea Party. But in interviews with Media Matters historians dismissed these claims as "silly" and "bunk."
"It shows me that John F. Kennedy's legacy is so powerful that even those who stand for everything he stood against want to claim his legacy," said Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University. As for the right-wing pundits' view of a right-wing JFK? "It's bunk," says Wilentz. "John F. Kennedy embraced liberalism. He called himself a liberal, he was grateful to get the nomination of the Liberal Party of New York State. He ran on the liberal line."
Wilentz explained that the idea of him as conservative likely comes from his tax cuts, but he adds, "tax cuts are not necessarily conservative or liberal. The economy was sluggish at that moment, and it was to improve unemployment. Conservatives wanted to radically and dramatically change the income tax, basically collapse it."
Wilentz and other historians pointed to Kennedy's efforts at drafting the first versions of the 1964 civil rights bill, seeking nuclear disarmament, and supporting health and education funding.
"Was he a liberal? Yeah, he certainly thought he was a liberal and he went out of his way to be a liberal," said Edward D. Berkowitz, professor of history and public policy and public administration at The George Washington University. "A pro-government kind of liberalism, you can see that clearly in his domestic program. He was a big advocate of Medicare and federal aid to education."
Jeffrey A. Engle, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the author of eight books, said describing JFK as conservtive is "a fundamentally ludicrous claim, which fundamentally misreads Kennedy's actual life and imprints upon Kennedy [the] political views that they themselves like. Kennedy fundamentally believed that the government could and should play a vital role in bettering people's lives, be it in education, civil rights, social welfare or the economy and he simply would not have been a conservative, there is just no way around it."
60 Minutes' discredited Benghazi report, which relied largely on claims former security contractor Dylan Davies made in his since-retracted book, is a reminder that authors used as sources and news subjects need to be vetted, according to experienced broadcast news producers.
Several television and radio veterans who book authors for their shows or base news reports around them stressed the need to ensure subjects are credible and to conduct fact-checking and reviews of their work that goes beyond reading the publisher's press releases.
"Every time that there's some sort of scandal, the rules change and there's much more vigilance," Lynn Keller, a segment producer for NBC's Dateline, said about the 60 Minutes fallout. "I think we learn from others mistakes. I'm a big believer in a lot of oversight because one lack of oversight is too many."
Lauren Bright Pacheco, a freelance producer who has worked on several syndicated and cable shows, agreed.
"You have a series of steps where you are taking publicists' word for something, who is taking the publishers' word for something and there is not a lot of time to go back and thoroughly vet everything," she warned about relying on authors. "So much of journalism really does depend upon ethics, which are not too overly in play anymore. People will do whatever they can to tell their version of truth, including lie."
The concerns follow the recent controversy over an October 60 Minutes report that featured Davies' claims about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Davies was also promoting his book, The Embassy House, which was published by a CBS division and promoted during the segment without acknowledgement of that financial tie.
After the story ran, CBS received harsh criticism following the revelation that Davies had previously told his employer and the FBI that he had not witnessed the attack. The multimedia company subsequently retracted both the segment and Davies' book, and CBS News is currently conducting an internal "journalistic review" of the segment.
"When we do book interviews, we often find out what others are saying about that author and that book; that is standard practice," stressed Steve Scully, C-SPAN political editor and senior executive producer. "Anytime you do an interview with anyone, you've got to do your homework."
Danny Miller, co-executive producer of Fresh Air with Terry Gross on National Public Radio, said he probably would not have booked Davies on his show because he avoids books that have "self-serving motives."
"It would have been something we would have been wary of or very careful about given that it falls into the category of something we could not independently check and hadn't gone through the vetting of other media sources," Miller said, later adding, "We're very wary of anything that comes out that could be biased or self-serving, anybody who may be talking about an issue where they have self-serving motives. We tend to go to journalists to discuss issues, unless we go to something that is looking for a multiple perspective."
"When it comes to the non-fiction books we do," Miller explained, "we tend to stay away from books that are based on shocking revelations or something we cannot independently fact-check, the central contention of the book and we tend to go to journalists who are really established and have a reputation for independent reporting. The credentials are very important to us, especially when you get to controversial issues."
CBS News' apparent decision to have one of its own producers conduct an internal "journalistic review" of the network's discredited 60 Minutes Benghazi report -- and effectively investigate the decisions of his boss -- is drawing harsh criticism from newsroom veterans and media experts.
The critiques follow a damaging week for the network as it received constant hits for its airing of a report that featured a former British security consultant who apparently lied about witnessing the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, a lackluster apology aimed at ending the scandal, and an unwillingness to explain how or whether it plans to investigate itself and reveal how it blundered so badly.
The latest word came today via Politico's Dylan Byers, who reported that he had learned, in spite of the efforts of the network, that Al Ortiz, a CBS News executive producer for special events, would be conducting what CBS has termed an ongoing "journalistic review" of the segment. Ortiz reports to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes. Ortiz's conflict of interest, Byers noted, is especially relevant as Fager's dual role has been cited as a factor that may have contributed to the flawed report.
"In a world where perception matters, to have someone investigate their supervisor is a built-in conflict of interest," said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN correspondent. "I know Al and I am sure he will do a fine job. But as a practical matter, if you want to do a no-holds-bar complete investigation, this is not it."
Sesno, who spoke as he boarded a plane back to Washington Friday to guest host Reliable Sources on CNN this Sunday, said this would be a hot topic on the show.
"They shouldn't call it an investigation," he added. "If this is what they do, then Al is writing a memo. I'm not sure it is the word investigation in the way the outside world would define that. When you do these things, you have to do them all the way."
And Sesno was not alone. Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman was among others who said the investigation lacks credibility before it begins.
"There's no way that Al Ortiz can do an investigation that anyone outside CBS News, and maybe inside, will find credible at this point," said Shepard. "The network needs to hire a panel of outside independent journalists and let them loose inside 60 Minutes to find out step by step what happened. And be totally transparent. It's the only way for 60 Minutes to regain its once-stellar reputation. This is so why news organizations still need ombudsmen."
Former NBC News president Lawrence Grossman is the latest veteran news chief to call on 60 Minutes to better explain why it allowed a story on the 2012 Benghazi attack that was based on the lies of a now discredited source to air.
Grossman, who headed NBC News from 1984 to 1988 and also served as PBS CEO for many years, said once CBS News discovered former British security contractor Dylan Davies had lied about being at the attack site they should have "jumped in with both feet, and hands and everything else."
The October 27 segment featured Davies' heroic eyewitness account of the attacks, the same story he told in a book published by a CBS division. The network aired the story despite knowing that Davies had previously told his employer that he had never made it to the U.S. diplomatic compound on the night it was attacked. CBS finally retracted the story and apologized after learning that Davies had told the FBI the same story he had told his boss, but has not fully detailed how such a flawed story was broadcast.
Although 60 Minutes just this week revealed it was conducting an "journalistic review" of the story, Grossman stressed that the network should have been forthcoming sooner and should be providing more details about what the review will entail.
"I think CBS has an obligation now that the whole thing has been aired to let people know what they are doing to investigate exactly what happened," Grossman said in a November 14 phone interview. "How it came about and to be as specific and clear in what's going on with their examination of the matter."
Grossman added, "I think it's a big mistake for news divisions to be reluctant to apologize because the integrity of what they do is so important."
Grossman joins former ABC News President David Westin who told Huffington Post this week that "CBS made some big mistakes" and that the network should have acknowledged in their report that Davies had given a contradictory account to his employer.
A third former top network news executive, who requested anonymity, also weighed in, telling Media Matters, "The entire episode is worthy of more scrutiny and their apology was too thin. We expect better from a place like 60 Minutes."