This is my last column as Ombudsman at NPR.
For the past six and a half years, it has been my overwhelming pleasure, and once in a while my regret, to receive e-mails and phone calls from you and then proceed to nag and pester NPR journalists for answers about whether, as you have suggested, NPR had missed the story, got it wrong, used poor English, or in general committed the gaffes and glitches that are the unintended consequences of that imperfect craft known as daily journalism.
Committee of Concerned Journalists
In July, I'll be the executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, based in Washington, D.C.
Although located in the nation's capital, CCJ is affiliated with the University of Missouri School of Journalism. CCJ teaches journalism students, holds conference and conducts print and broadcast newsroom training throughout the United States and overseas. This is a good and serious project staffed with some wonderfully talented people. This change is timely, too, from my personal and professional perspectives.
Dear listeners: I have learned much from you. I am grateful for your observations about journalism and your insistence that public radio must live up to its own high standards. You have rightly demanded that NPR be both accountable and transparent about how its journalism is carried out. Kudos to you for that.
Some of you have wanted me to push NPR in specific directions. If I disagreed with some of you, it was because the role of an ombudsman is not to advocate for any or all positions. It is, rather, to try to mediate between the listeners and the journalists in the interests of good journalism.
The gap between your expectations and NPR's perspective was sometimes huge. You often wanted NPR to be more explicit and clearer in drawing conclusions. You want NPR to be bolder, and I agree with that as long as this boldness is based on solid reporting and not just on a reporter's opinion.
Sometimes I thought you were right. Sometimes, I thought you weren't. For the most part, I tried to act as your agent inside NPR for your best ideas and suggestions.
I think this worked best whenever you asked me to push NPR to pursue the stories that connect good journalism to the democracy NPR purports to serve. I was delighted each time NPR took your good suggestions and made them into reports. I am pleased to note that this happened hundreds of times over the past six and a half years.
I am respectful of how knowledgeable you, the public radio listeners, are. When NPR listens to its audience, it becomes a better news service.
Grateful to NPR
And I am grateful as well to NPR — first for allowing me to do what I consider to have been the best job in journalism. The idea for this position came from NPR President Kevin Klose, and I have him to thank for this. I may have wavered in that thought that this is the best job in journalism on the days when I and NPR have been whacked like piñatas by angry listeners.
NPR journalists — reporters, correspondents, editors and producers, have been unstintingly generous with their time and their patience, when I have pestered them for a response to listeners' queries. Their high standards of journalism made the job of being an ombudsman/critic that much more challenging.
I also want to state as well, that NPR journalists were unfailingly professional when I have, in this column, reported their explanations and still found them lacking. There are a couple of NPR journalists who still won't talk to me and I want them to know that it was never personal. To those listeners, journalists and managers who have endured my questions, kudos and criticisms — thank you all.
Survival Tips For The Next NPR Ombuds
Whoever next assumes the role of NPR Ombudsman (and I am told by management that this will continue), he or she should know that there are some prerequisite skills for this job.
So here, for future NPR Ombudsmen and women, are some handy hints for surviving this odd role, one a critic described as "journalism's chiropractor: lots of adjustments but no cures!" Ouch!
• Be a good listener. I'm not sure I was always as patient or as silent as I should have been — especially when I started. But I soon learned that silence is probably the most effective way both to elicit information and to calm aggrieved listeners — especially those who call or write in with steam coming out of their ears.
• You'll also find that your inbox is busier in the morning than in the afternoon. That's not because NPR's Morning Edition upsets listeners more than Day to Day or All Things Considered. I think it's because listeners on their way to work, arrive at the office and fire off an e-mail to let me know their displeasure. Going home, listeners may be similarly miffed, but rather than sending an e-mail they might also have access to a sustaining cocktail. I know I do.
• You will note there are always a few listeners who will start the conversation with an anatomy lesson — suggesting your or NPR's resemblance to a specific body part. Those e-mails and phone calls should quickly find their way to the appropriate cyber trash can. Fortunately, those complaints are extremely rare. I think I may have hung up on two or three callers a year. I'm never happy to do this, but taking abuse is not in the job description. A fellow ombudsman at a newspaper once proudly told me that he never hung up on a reader in all his years at the paper. I thought he deserved an award for patience, and another for masochism.
• I found that listening respectfully, first in silence, then by asking for specifics, invariably allows a dialogue to emerge that almost always produces a useful discussion about journalism and its obligations. That was how it has worked out for me and, I hope, for most listeners as well. Listeners will call and write with general impressions of bias. Without examples, there is not much an ombudsman can do or say to people who, of course, have a right to their opinions.
• Know that public radio listeners are overwhelmingly smart, passionate and insistent. You will find that it is important to take their comments seriously, but never personally. You'll live longer if you do.
• The blogs are now a journalistic fact of life. They are here to stay, and while they can be annoying for flooding your e-mail with thousands of repetitious messages, mostly their input is a good — if occasionally overwhelming — thing. I have come to understand that the blogosphere is now an essential aspect of our democracy and while it has some pretty sharp elbows, the bloggers and the people who love them do NPR a great service by reminding us of the longstanding American tradition of pamphleteering. When you are on the receiving end of a blog-inspired campaign, it can be nasty. Howell Raines, the former executive editor of the New York Times calls it "blog-flogging" and that's about what it feels like. Be ready to feel that lash from time to time. When it gets too much, walk away from the computer. Better yet, take a walk around the newsroom, or get out of the building and go get a cup of coffee.
• Stay in touch with the newsroom. Some ombudsmen have told me that they never walk through the newsroom, believing that they must keep their distance from the journalists. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. Talking to journalists will keep you grounded and in touch with the culture of the news organization.
• Never turn down a chance to meet with the listeners. I have heard from a lot of listeners, either by phone, letter and e-mail. I estimate that I have made contact with around 750,000 of them. What an extraordinary way to get to know the audience!
• NPR member stations will want you to come to visit, talk to their journalists and meet with their listeners. Do it. The stations will also ask you to go on local call-in programs. This is very important and extremely valuable because you will hear directly from the listeners. This is what's known as an "out of building experience." This will reassure you that those who listen to public radio are a terrific part of a unique American cultural expression. On one of these programs I heard from a listener who was introduced by the host thusly: "Now let's take a call from Mountain Mike!" Is public radio a great institution, or what?
• Finally, remember that you have a wonderfully supportive group of fellow ombudsmen and women who make up the Organization of News Ombudsmen, to which NPR belongs. There are about 100 of them, mostly in the United States and increasingly around the world. They are a brave and remarkable group of deeply committed journalists and it has been my privilege to learn from them.
I also want to acknowledge that over the past six and a half years, I have been ably helped by three terrific assistants — Stacy Bond, Ariana Pekary and Chantal de la Rionda. Over that same period, this column has been brilliantly edited first by Hope Keller and then by Andy Trudeau who have saved me from myself many times. Thank you all.
We are all — listeners, journalists, managers and ombudsmen, in this together. The stakes seem impossibly high right now but with a little patience and a lot of civility, we can make this journalism work as it should on behalf of the people who deserve to hear, read and view the highest quality news that can be provided in an open democracy.
That's what I plan to keep on doing, just in another place.