Newspapers Pummeled At Ombudsmen’s Gathering p.10

By: M.L. Stein

‘Blatant liberal bias’ is just the first of a laundry list of editors and publishers’ alleged sins.
They also lack backbone, publish ‘lifeless pages’ and exhibit an ‘abhorrence of flair.’

Newspapers’ “blatantly liberal, politically correct orientation . . . on social issues” has caused “many consumers to conclude that journalists have a private agenda,” according to media heavy Van Gordon Sauter.
In scathing remarks to the May 10-13 annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen in San Diego, Sauter lambasted print newspapers for that and a laundry list of other failures and shortcomings.
Sauter, former president of CBS News, who reported for Knight Ridder newspapers and the Chicago Daily News before switching to broadcasting, charged papers with failing to fully realize the impact of the Internet, warning that “the newspaper that puts all its chips on the printing press and distribution trucks is in grave jeopardy.”
He accused the news media of producing “products that are exhaustingly safe” and “rarely, if ever, risk offense, take a risk or call a scalawag a scalawag.” He said, “One senses today that journalists, particularly print journalists, represent the special pleaders, if they represent anyone at all. In too many cases, pages are lifeless, writing is banal and columnists don’t kick butt. There is an apparent abhorrence of flair.”

in praise of Yellow Journalism
In Sauter’s mind, the so-called yellow journalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries with its wild circulation wars among the industry giants ? William Randolph Hearst, James Gordon Bennett and Joseph Pulitzer ? was actually a healthy period in American journalism, producing passionate editorial crusades and editors not afraid to take on the establishment.
“We need a reincarnation of those men today,” he went on. “Why can’t we have editors who manifest unrelenting outrage at our inexcusable (politicians) and educators of schools that obviously fail our children?” Sauter also called for “term limits” for beat reporters and for editors to be ready to “fire all those toady employees who attended gridiron or correspondents’ dinners. Does any reputable journalist want ever to attend another correspondents’ dinner, where every table now must have a floral arrangement and a Hollywood starlet with a low-cut gown?”
What can ombudsmen do about all these lapses? Sauter believes they should take on a broader role, going well beyond taking and investigating readers’ complaints. He urged them to become “blunt and forceful” advocates for better, more relevant newspapers. As “agents of change,” he asserted, the readers’ representatives should publicly evaluate their paper’s performance, commitments and “passion.”

ombudsmen as ‘Agents of Change’
“If the newspaper is not moving to make schools better, for instance, your column should inquire why not,” the speaker advised. “And if the paper is indeed working to enhance the schools, you should be capable of celebrating that performance.”
Not only should ombudsmen critically examine their own papers, but they ought to evaluate other news sources as well, becoming media critics. This, he contended, will require editors bold enough to empower them for the role, adding: “We need editors who make ombudsmen sweat for a living, to push them out on limbs to give him or her full employment.”

Chuck Stone Criticizes Papers
Also ripping into newspapers was speaker Chuck Stone, a former White House correspondent, erstwhile columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and interim ombudsman for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
He suggested that even though there are only 38 ombudsmen nationwide at more than 1,500 daily newspapers, they should assume greater responsibility for improving newspapers’ credibility by making them more accountable to the public. He said that in his 40 years as a journalist he could not recall “any period when readers held newspapers in such low esteem.”
Stone, who is the Walter Spearman Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, cited the Post-Dispatch as an example. He lamented the fact that the paper has not replaced him as ombudsman, adding: “When a newspaper is able to sell only 15% of its daily papers to the people in a one-newspaper city that bears its name, that paper is not only crippled by a credibility gap, it could benefit from an ombudsman.” One reason for the gap, he posited, is the Post-Dispatch’s “historical problem of an institutionalized, patronizing white mind-set that is arrogantly convinced of the righteousness of its news judgment.”

Pulitzer Ombudsmen Prize?
Before ombudsmen can effect change, they should become more recognizable to readers and newspapers by enhancing their own image. This, Stone maintained, could be achieved by pushing for an ombudsmen category in the Pulitzer and other journalistic awards; publishing a “kind of catechism” for editors and prospective ombudsmen
with tips and suggestions on dealing with readers, staffers and with each other; and establishing an award for the most outstanding ombudsman who made the biggest impact on his or her community. He further proposed a textbook containing the best ombudsmen’s columns in terms of craftsmanship and results.
Stone further recommended that ombudsmen speak out at national forums and keep up a “relentless drumbeat to your reader that it is their newspaper. We may own it, but if they don’t buy it, it is an empty shell. . . . When readers and viewers complain, tell them to complain more and keep on complaining until change is effected.”

Attendees Activist Role
ONO attendees generally agreed they should become more visible and reflective of readers’ interests.
“I see the need to identify more with readers and to become more proactive,” commented John V.R. Bull, of the Philadelphia Inquirer and ONO’s incoming president. “Traditionally, we have been reactive. And we should get editors to look at the broader picture by telling them what people care about.”
Sanders LaMont of the Sacramento Bee observed that ombudsmen operate in different ways on different papers but allowed they should have a common ground in making the newspaper more accountable to its readers. He noted, however, that when he discusses the Bee in his column, “I speak for myself.”
“We are the public conscience of the newspaper and should be fostering a relationship between the paper and its audience,” responded Kenneth Starck of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette and a University of Iowa journalism professor.
Elissa Papirno, who took 9,000 calls the first year on the job for the Hartford Courant in 1995, said she learned one fact that bore out the need for newspapers to listen to their readers: “They don’t want more features,” she stated. “They want more hard news and TV doesn’t do it for them. They want a validation of what television reports and they want it more in-depth. People don’t believe local news until they read it in the newspaper.”

?(With esteem for newspapers at a 40-year low, ombudsmen need to play an active role in rekindling credibility, says Chuck Stone, academic and ombudsmen.) [Caption]
?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 30,1998) [Caption]

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