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Bonfire of the Ombudsmen

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January has not been a good month for media ombudsmen, as the in-house press analysts at our two leading newspapers have both come under attack for writing lazy, ill-considered commentaries that seemed to confirm the views of their most strident critics.

First up was Patrick Pexton of the Washington Post, who wrote on January 6 that as much as he likes the intertubes and the goodies that flow through them, the Post is innovating too much, dadgummit. "The Post is making my head hurt," he approvingly quoted a reader as telling him.

Pexton was followed on January 12 by New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane, who used his blog to do a little crowdsourcing. Brisbane asked his readers what the Times should do when people in the news lie. Is it all right for journalists to say they're lying liars? Or, as Brisbane put it, "Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?"

The reaction on Twitter, on blogs and elsewhere was explosive and overwhelmingly negative, as Mark Coddington documented in his weekly news round-up for the Nieman Journalism Lab. And here I am, many days later, trying to make sense of it.

You may have heard that the job of the critic is to shoot the wounded. In this case, I'm so late that I'm turning over the corpses to make sure they're still dead. But there's an advantage to that. Passions have cooled. My passions have cooled. And with a bit of perspective, I've come to the conclusion that Pexton's and Brisbane's inartfully worded pieces provoked the response they did, not because of their specifics, but because they appeared to confirm precisely what technologically savvy, politically liberal observers most loath about the traditional media.

I'll work backwards and start with Brisbane. Among liberals, there may be no belief more deeply ingrained than the notion that large, established media organizations such as the Times don't dare call out the falsehoods promoted by the right with nearly the same gusto they show when they flog their supposed allies on the left. Eric Alterman described the phenomenon years ago. Conservatives excel at "working the refs," he wrote in his book What Liberal Media?, and thus journalists have become hypersensitive to charges of liberal media bias.

There's a lot of truth to that complaint, which is why left-leaning organizations such as Media Matters for America, news sites such as Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post, and commentators such as Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Glenn Greenwald have all built a considerable following.

Yet in reading Brisbane's subsequent email to Jim Romenesko and his follow-up post, it becomes clear that he wasn't referring the outmoded strictures of objectivity so much as he was to the perils of fact-checking -- something I wrote about here a few weeks ago after PolitiFact came under fire from both the left and the right for hanging a scarlet "L" (for "lie") on statements that were often a matter of interpretation and opinion.

Pexton's seeming Neo-Luddism, meanwhile, played into the digerati's notion that traditional news folks, deep in their heart of hearts, still think the Internet is a fad, or at least wish it were. Yet while everyone else was poking fun at Pexton's get-off-my-lawn commentary, Jay Rosen -- as prominent a digital-journalism thinker as we've got -- reached out and asked him what he meant. The result was an intelligent conversation between two people who care deeply about journalism's future, one an outsider, one an insider. Here's Pexton, putting forth a proposition with which it's hard to disagree:

I had a conversation with an editor this week, who attended a story planning meeting, and the editor said that three-fourths of the discussion was on what kind of videos, photo galleries, and online polls to do and almost no discussion of the story's written focus and direction. It's all distracting. Some of it is absolutely necessary, but I think a bit more focus on the reporting first, then come in with the add ons later.

The ombudsman's job itself can sometimes seem like an artifact of an earlier age, and some news organizations (the Boston Globe, to name one) have gotten rid of them as staffs have shrunk and budgets have tightened. If the position is to remain vital, it needs to be rethought, writes Dan Gillmor, as an outlet for aggregation and curation rather than pontification.

The mistake Pexton and Brisbane both made was to raise legitimate concerns incoherently, oblivious to how they would be perceived by their smartest, most skeptical critics. But the reason they were subjected to such withering criticism was because they appeared to be confirming our prejudices about the technologically averse, politically timid agenda that we imagine dominates the newsrooms and executive suites of legacy news organizations.

It wasn't fair to them. And though piling on may have felt good, it did nothing to advance the conversation about where journalism is headed.

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