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Bombing the Ombudsman

Deborah Howell, The Washington Post's ombudsman for the past three years, suggested in her weekly column Sunday several ways for the Post (and washingtonpost.com) to enhance its "accessibility, credibility and appeal to readers in this time of economic stress."

She made many suggestions and our Readers Who Comment came down -- often impolitely -- squarely on both sides. That is what makes her job so difficult. She can't please anybody -- and neither could her predecessors. I am amazed every day when reviewing reader comments at how two people looking at the same paragraph, especially in political or hot-button-issue stories, see totally opposite biases in the reporting and writing.

There's a reason Post ombudsmen work on a contract basis for a specific a period of time: you can take this much abuse for only so long. Howell is at the end of her tenure and a new ombudsman is soon to arrive.

Howell recommends more transparency in how the Post does things. She says policies used by the newsroom should be available to the public on washingtonpost.com; that it should be easy to find phone numbers and e-mail addresses for various news desks; that unnamed sources are unnamed for inadequately explained reasons; that monitoring of comments on washingtonpost.com should be much better -- racist and obscene remarks stay up too long.

She says that conservatives and conservative issues don't get equal coverage in the paper. (Although one of her tour de force acts was to count up photos and front-page stories on the presidential race and find that Obama did much better than McCain in the Post.) She urges more diversity in the coverage of a region with an enormously diverse population. She says too few women appear on an op-ed page dominated by old white guys; religion gets short shrift in Post pages; corrections are often too little and too late, etc. Despite all this, she says, "The Post is one of the best newspapers in the country."

Some of our readers who commented attack the Post for being too liberal; some complain that it is too conservative. Several attack Howell for not fixing their particular issue.

We'll start with RobertLeeHotchkisss, who wrote, "Please liberal readers keep pressure on Ms. Howell. Don't let her continue to ignore us. Keep showing her that we are out there."

Makewonder said, "Nowhere here does Ms. Howell address the elephant in the room: The Post's abject editorial support of the incompetent and criminal Bush Administration. That, I would submit, has left the any authority the Post once had as a source of news as nothing more than a sick joke. As for Ms. Howell... her epithet is simple: Heck of a job, Debbie!"

jhough1 wrote, "The Post should stop patting itself on the back for Deep Throat and 35 years ago. It would be a great paper if it did any investigative reporting today... It is true that the Post does not cover social conservatives fully, but it also does not cover Democrats not in the Rubin wing on economic matters... The Post is worse than Fox in reporting the economy in a fair and balanced way."

MrCleaveland wrote, "...the newspaper business is the only business I know that deliberately and intentionally insults and alienates a large portion of its customer base. Just about every morning, the left-wing hack editorial cartoonist in my one-paper town starts my day off by figuratively giving me the finger. And one of these days I will cancel by sub."

Tupac_Goldstein said, "WaPo should terminate the cheerleading for illegal aliens. Confine your bias to the editorial and op-ed pages, where it properly belongs."

NRPax wrote, "And where was this determination for a better paper years ago? Where was this desire to "reach out" to conservatives when the Post's bias was so obvious? Did the Post only realize the problem when subscriptions started to drop?
When the reporters of the Post remember that they are supposed to report the news and leave their personal opinions in the editorial section, that would be a good start..."

exbrown asked "So the Post needs some kind of affirmative action program for the under represented conservative minority who have been unable to compete in the market place of idea in journalism because of years of Jim Crow liberal bias against people who eat pork rinds, own guns, listen to Rush Limbaugh, say Merry Christmas and think that Nascar should be an Olympic sport. Have I got that right?"

gafCO wrote, "...Too seldom does the paper get into who is telling the truth. That is the real weakness of unnamed sources, and you and the Post seem oblivious to it. If the source is self-serving, it should almost never be allowed to go unnamed."

cdierd1944 said, "...If only you had applied some of these resolutions in 2004 we could have saved the country the agony of the last 4 years. Also, there are two papers in town. The Washington Times is an unabashed conservative right wing publication...I would hope the Pose would also try to appeal to normal middle class people who care about effective government and practical solutions rather some hypothetical ideological solutions."

We'll close with comments on comments. MKadyman asked, "Why don't you hire people to monitor the comments section? If other newspaper sites can keep their comments sections clean why can't the Post?"

And henry6 said, "The people who post obscene or racist comments are voters too. It is important that we know that such people exist, although I don't want to read their stuff... remember that it was not so long ago that racism was widely accepted in this country."

All comments on the ombudsman's column are here.

By Doug Feaver  |  December 23, 2008; 6:49 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  | Tags: Deborah Howell, Journalism, Washington Post  
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Comments

I sincerely hope that the Post's next choice of ombudsman will understand that his or her job is to represent the READERS of the Washington Post. From the very beginning of her tenure, Ms. Howell came across as an apologist/defender of the Post, or as a triangulator who tried to split the difference between opposing positions and measured bias by column inches. The WP still has a lot of credibility to regain in the post-Bush era, and I hope you make a better selection next time.

On another subject, the single best aspect of the Post online is its open approach to commenting. I admire your willingness to allow true debate on your site. Yes, this can get very ugly at times, but it is a true exchange of ideas, and EVERY reader is free to challenge ANY comment they disagree with. I have no problem with removal of abusive comments -- but please don't bow to the censors who want to stifle this free and open community of discussion.

Posted by: jerkhoff | December 23, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

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