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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Lonely Journalists Part 2 and why Ombudsman is a really bad word

Maybe before reading this post you might want to read this Salon story on on the two new PBS ombudsman
We've talked, of late, a great deal about ombudsman here at SFR. And we've come to two major conclusions. The first: ombudsman is a terrible word. It doesn't roll off the tongue at all. Second, we are never going to have an ombudsman at SFR, particularly given that we don't even have the money to pay someone to take my phone calls ('cuz that's where the money is going first, my friends).
Beyond that, this budding ombudsman/public editor stuff is worthy of serious examination. Taken in conjunction with the report I mentioned yesterday (Oh dear God, I just hyperlinked to my own previous post. We're META now baby), what's emerging is a total picture of journalism as a completely dysfunctional environment in which the only constant factor is constant distrust. Readers don't trust papers to be unbiased, reporters don't trust readers to understand their stories, management doesn't trust reporters enough to use anonymous sources and the sources, well, they don't trust anybody, which is probably wise. As Janet Malcolm writes in the Journalist and the Murderer: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."
Malcolm's book (Yes, I'm obsessed with this book; it's the best, if not the only, post-modern psychoanalytic discussion of journalism out there) talks about the fact that journalists employ a bevy of techniques in reporting, but it's all with the cause of getting the information. Sources, interviewees, can be tricked and cajoled into trusting the reporter, but they shouldn't. A journalist is never friends with a source, even though it can feel like that for the source. The journalist is there to get the story.
I think this is at the root of why most people don't trust reporters to be unbiased. It's a kind of weird, way abject skill (one that would likely not be considered a skill in any other profession) to get people to open up to you, to want to hear their story, but to not really care about the. It's semi-pathological, really, and most people would have a hard time doing it. If they were reporting on a topic they cared about, if they were interviewing politicians whose views they disagreed with, if they were doing any of these things, they'd have a stake in it. They wouldn't be unbiased. They don't believe that reporters can be unbiased because they imagine reporters are the same as they are. But they are wrong. But it's also why newspapers have fucked up royally (and TV to a much greater extent, but I don't consider TV news journalism in any sense of the word) with all these blurring of the lines. You can't just make some former political consultant into a journalist. Yes, you can convert and transform some people into reporters, but not just anybody. Now, I probably sound like Malcolm's "full of himself" reporter and maybe I am sometime. I also appreciate that having an insatiable need to just find things out isn't really a wonderful character attribute.
Now to ombudsman. I often think these public editor types are more interesting to journalists than they are to citizens. I, personally, love reading and hearing about how stories come about. Where the tips come from, how the reporter reported it, all that meta stuff. I don't know if the average citizen likes that or not, or even appreciates it as work or what. With all these booming bloggers, it seems that the line between reporting and just reading stuff and forming opinions, is growing a bit shaky, and thus perhaps the need for ombudsman to listen to readers' concerns about stories and explain how a story came to be. I would be curious, if not shocked, to learn that any ombudsman actually convinced a person that bias did or did not exist. The ombudsman is really just there to hear the complaints, with the idea that by hearing them the readers will feel heard. The best ombudsman I've come across ever was in The Stranger which included near-weekly rants about how much the ombudsman thought the editor sucked. It was entertaining.
Oh what is going to happen to journalism at this rate? Corporate journalism seems to think it can win back lost readers by hiring people to insist that the journalism they are doing is unbiased, but now even that plan has a hole in it as two ombudsman have been hired for PBS representing both liberal and conservative points of view. This whole "liberal" and "conservative" viewpoint seems to have been delivered straight from the political consultants to the journalists hook, line and sinker as the accepted way of construing the news, as the schism, the line that newspapers must straddle. I don't believe it. I don't even believe that it exists, let alone that this is what newspapers need to spend all their time worrying about. Go dig up some embezzlement, check out the conditions of the prisons, of the schools, of the streets, of the people who live in the communities being covered. Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Journalism isn't all politics and where is Joan Didion et. al when we need them?