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.
ABC's Jonathan Karl is drawing criticism from journalism veterans and media ethicists who say his recent reporting on talking points related to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya has been "sloppy" and "highly problematic ethically."
The conservative media and Republican politicians have claimed for months that the Obama administration had for political purposes edited references to terrorism out of a set of talking points used shortly after the attacks.
On May 10, Karl gave those claims new life with an "exclusive" online report that found, based on what appeared to be direct quotes from the emails of White House and State Department aides, that "the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department."
Karl's muddled account reported both that "White House emails reviewed by ABC News" and that "summaries of White House and State Department emails" led to that conclusion. He also repeatedly produced quotes from what he described as "emails," suggesting that he had personally reviewed the original documents. In on-air reports, Karl and his colleagues subsequently claimed he had "obtained" the emails.
But after CNN produced the full text of one of the emails Karl had cited and reported that the version in Karl's article had made it "appear that the White House was more interested in the State Department's desire to remove mentions of specific terrorist groups and warnings about these groups so as to not bring criticism to the State Department" than was actually the case, Karl acknowledged that he had actually been "quoting verbatim" an unnamed source "who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes," and had not seen the emails himself. Observers have suggested that Karl had been burned by his source, given the discrepancies between what Karl reported about the email and what it actually said in full.
The slippery language Karl and ABC News adopted in describing the emails has drawn fire from media ethicists and veteran journalists.
"At best, it's extremely sloppy. At worst, it's a deliberate attempt to conceal the secondhand -- and possibly distorted -- nature of the information ABC was relying on so as to put its shoulder to the wheel of a highly prejudicial reading of the affair," said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Miami Herald columnist. "Whether best or worst is true, it's highly problematic ethically, and the failure to acknowledge and correct is even worse."
Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State University and former president of the American Society of News Editors, criticized Karl for failing to adhere to basic standards of ethics.
Glenn Beck's The Blaze continues to push the debunked claim that a Saudi Arabian national who was briefly placed on the federal No-Fly List following the Boston Marathon bombing was wrongly removed from that list and, at one time, was a suspect.
And now it wants Congress to help.
For weeks, Beck and The Blaze have fixated on the 20-year-old Saudi man, Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, claiming that he was once considered a suspect in the bombing and had been up for deportation. Other news outlets have debunked these claims.
But just this week, a producer at the conservative outlet sent an email (since obtained by Media Matters) to staff members at congressional offices of both houses and parties asking whether members of Congress would "be willing to raise" the Blaze's claims with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano or FBI Director Robert Mueller.
The email (below) from Blaze producer Virginia Grace states:
From: Grace, Virginia
Sent: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 4:40 PM
To: Grace, Virginia
Subject: Revised: Request from TheBlaze
Over the past two weeks TheBlaze has been reporting on the Saudi National, AbdulRahman ali Al-Harbi, who was briefly detained as a potential suspect after the Boston bombing. Shortly after a search of his apartment in Revere, Massachusetts an event file was issued by the NTC designating him as a terrorist under the Immigration Nationality Act 212 (a)(3)(B)(ii)(II) and making reference to involvement in the bombing. Twenty four hours later the file was amended to remove the terrorist designation and a short time after that removed from the system altogether. To date Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has refused to comment on the terrorist designation, first even denying Mr. Al-Harbi had ever been a person of interest before finally admitting to Congress on Tuesday that he had, in fact, been placed on the Watch List for a short time. TheBlaze believes the public has a right to know why Al-Harbi went from terrorist to nobody in the span of 48 hours. What evidence led to the designation in the first place and what transpired to reverse it a short time later.
Would you be willing to raise those issues with Ms. Napolitano or Mr. Robert Muller at the FBI and report your findings to the American public?
Please let us know.
Sincerely, The Blaze
Several journalism veterans say this email is unusual for a media outlet, both as an effort to spark political action and as an attempt to get members of Congress to do their reporting.
"My general view is that legitimate, neutral news organizations should report and let members of Congress decide on their own whether they want to get involved," said Andy Alexander, former Washington Post ombudsman.
The Washington Post's new reader representative, Doug Feaver, made clear when he was offered the position that he did not want it to be full time.
And it appears he is getting his wish, according to Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, who said Feaver, a former Post editor who has been retired since 2006, will likely spend just two or three days a week on the job and have no set weekly column.
Feaver replaces Patrick Pexton, who as Post ombudsman was hired on a two-year contract that allowed complete independence. The Post has had such an ombudsman for more than 40 years.
"Doug will be part time and we've agreed that he'll kind of feel his way and figure out after some time how part time," Hiatt said Thursday, just hours after announcing Feaver had taken the job. "Right now, I'm sort of assuming it's two or three days a week. I've said to him 'If you find out it needs to be more, we're open to that, or if you find eventually we only need one person, I'm open to that,' I have huge confidence in Doug so I am kind of leaving it to him to figure out what's the best way to make the job work."
Hiatt announced on Thursday that Feaver would be hired as a part-time employee and work with Alison Coglianese, a full-time staffer who had served as assistant to the Post ombudsman for years.
Hiatt says that concerns that a reader representative employed by the Post will have less independence than the paper's traditional ombudsman are misplaced.
"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 said. "Nobody who knows him will doubt that he will be totally independent in his judgment and that he will hold us all properly accountable."
Feaver said he happened to get the job somewhat by accident, explaining that he was visiting Hiatt on another subject a week ago and Hiatt asked him about the position.
"I was in to see Fred on an entirely unrelated matter and he said 'what would you think about this?' and I said 'that could be very interesting.' So that's how the conversation started," Feaver, 73, said. "We were just talking, within the past week. I told him when we started talking I wasn't the least bit interested in a full-time job."
Asked why, Feaver added: "I've been retired, officially retired for the last several years and it was very nice to be asked to come back and do something. But it wasn't going to get into another one of these 60-hour week situations that I did for a long time."
Feaver worked at the Post from 1969 to 2006, serving in jobs that included reporting and editing for the Metro, Business and National staffs, as well as executive editor of washingtonpost.com.
Former Washington Post ombudsmen are speaking out against the paper's contemplation of eliminating that position, stating that it serves a vital purpose as the only independent communication between readers and the newsroom.
The ombudsman, which is a contracted job with a defined term, has been a Post staple since 1970, making it among the longest-existing reader representative positions at a major daily newspaper.
But Post officials say that the paper may cut the job when the current term of Ombudsman Patrick Pexton ends on March 1, 2013.
"We haven't decided what we are going to do after Pat leaves," Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, told Media Matters in an email. "I think it's important that the Post continue to be accountable and to offer readers a way to ask questions or lodge complaints and be confident they will be heard. I'm not sure that having an ombudsman whose primary focus is on writing a weekly column is the best way to achieve that goal."
The proposed shift did not sit well with several former Post ombudsmen, who stressed the paper's tradition of using the position to interact with readers and feared that the paper would try to save money by dropping the position.
Andy Alexander, who held the job before Pexton, said eliminating the ombudsman would be a "terrible loss for Post readers."
"And I'm afraid it would be widely interpreted, fairly or unfairly, as The Post using financial pressures or other reasons as a pretense to get rid of an internal critic," Alexander, currently a visiting professional at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, said in an email. "From the outset, the role has been to provide readers with access to an independent agent empowered to investigate charges that The Post has not lived up to its high journalistic standards."
"Certainly, the role of the ombudsman can and should evolve in the Digital Age," Alexander added. "It makes sense to continue to use new platforms to converse with readers. But there is a huge difference between an ombudsman who merely reflects what readers are saying, as opposed to an ombudsman who has the independence and authority to ask uncomfortable questions of reporters and editors and then publicly hold the newsroom to account."
Asked about criticism of the Post from former ombudsmen concerned that the paper might eliminate the position, Hiatt said, "I value their opinion, of course, but I hope they'll wait to see what we do before forming final judgments. I also think the media world is quite different from what it was when the Post began hiring ombudsmen."
As numerous progressive and science bloggers have noted, Washington Post columnist George Will misused data and distorted statements made by climate experts in order to suggest that human-caused global warming is not occurring. Moreover, in his reported response to criticism of Will's column, Post ombudsman Andy Alexander falsely suggested that a statement by the Arctic Climate Research Center supports Will's claims about sea ice levels when, in fact, the ACRC statement rebuts the very argument Will was making.