NPR Ombudsman Slams WashPost for Dumping Their Ombudsman, Then Trashes Media Watchdog Groups as Silly Partisan Nitpickers

The Washington Post decided to dump its ombudsman or reader’s advocate position after Patrick Pexton’s two-year contract ended. The position is “independent,” but all too often, the hiring media outlet gets every benefit of the doubt. Pexton has defended some incredibly shameless hit pieces, including the Rick Perry “Niggerhead”-on-a-rock story and the Mitt Romney “haircut bully” episode of 1965. 

Nevertheless, on March 1, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos decried the Post decision as leading to a greater decline in media credibility. In the midst of this however, he attacked media watchdogs as a class as silly, uninformed nitpickers:

There are indeed many individuals and organizations that call themselves "media analysts" — and we certainly don't lack for anti-media gadflies — but their critiques usually are uninformed, silly nitpicking or advocacy opinion thinly disguised as analysis.

These critiques disappear in the political noise. A dirty little truth is that many, if not most, editors and reporters in mainstream media hold the advocates and online gadflies in such low regard that they seldom read them, much less respond to what they write.

Is this the kind of copy an "independent" ombudsman should write if they're trying to seek public goodwilll? No, but Schumacher-Matos has been an insular voice from the day he arrfived at NPR in 2011. Unlike the last NPR ombudsman, he has made zero attempt to reach out and talk to us at MRC. (I'm the "NPR guy." The call would come to me.) His copy has proven he's about as "independent" as the average NPR reporter, and maybe less so. 

Has he ever considered that the "objective" media's reporting often sounds to the audience like "silly nitpicking or advocacy opinion thinly disguised as analysis"? He's written about some silly, nitpicking subjects, like whether it's okay to call the president "Obama" instead of "Mr. Obama" after the first reference.

Then he separates groups like MRC from the “serious, nonpartisan” efforts inside the bubble of the liberal media industry:

This is separate from the serious, non-partisan veteran watchdogs such as Howard Kurtz of CNN, think tanks such as Pew, training centers such as Poynter, and any of a number of academics. But none of these focus on any one outlet, and only seldom do they really investigate any one story.

This is no substitute for an ombudsman inside the building, he wrote:

The ombudsman is usually a veteran journalist who understands the competing pressures in putting out the news. In weighing many criticisms, she or he can offer independent but realistic perspective on judgment calls and deadline decisions, sometimes actually winning sympathy for the newsroom from the audience...

As often as not, I disagree with complaints. But by taking them seriously, even those made by advocates, I find that it disarms the critics, or at the very least wins their appreciation. Listeners, readers and viewers want above all to know that someone with independent power in the organization is actually listening to them and acting on their complaints.

Ahem. Schumacher-Matos only underlines what too many ombudsmen are – they’re not independent at all. They’re knee-jerk defenders of the organizations that hire them, and look down their noses at critiques from the public, since after all, the public aren't “veteran journalists” who understand the news business.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis