Ombudsmen

NYT corrected Gary Hart story after source’s recollection changed

Good morning. Thanks, veterans. Here are 10 media stories.

  1. NYT corrects Gary Hart story

    Former Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler disputes the chronology he gave Matt Bai about when he saw Gary Hart's challenge to prove his infidelity. "Therefore, it is likely that the original version of this article, based in large part on Fiedler’s account, referred incorrectly to the point at which any of the Herald journalists first saw the Times article quoting Hart as saying, 'Follow me around,'" the correction reads. "The text has been adjusted accordingly." (NYT) | Bai: "I find it particularly disturbing that Fiedler, someone I'd very much admired, has now invented a new version of events after repeatedly and recently reconfirming his own longstanding account, which is something we as journalists often condemn in the people we cover." (HuffPost)

  2. Journalists and lawyers: A special legal mini-roundup

    ACLU sues St. Louis County police on behalf of Bilgin Şaşmaz, a Turkish journalist arrested in Ferguson in August. "The suit says that Şaşmaz repeatedly said “Press, Press” to identify himself. Caucasian reporters and photographers who were also documenting the incident were not arrested, it says." (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) | Read the suit: (ACLU of Missouri) | Related: AP CEO Gary Pruitt wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey demanding answers about the FBI's impersonation of an AP reporter and seeking "assurances that this won’t happen again." (AP) | Jack Shafer: "Any blurring of the line between government and press can only benefit the government at the expense of the press and the dilution of the best law the country has, the First Amendment." (Reuters) | Also in journalists and courts: Ben Seibert sues Nancy Grace, who incorrectly reported he "invaded a woman's home and snapped a photo of himself on her phone, which she described as a 'textbook serial killer's calling card.'" (AP)

  3. Russia annexes media

    The Kremlin's new Sputnik service "aims to offer an alternative for people who are 'tired of aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world and want a different perspective,' according to its press release." (Moscow Times) | For instance, did you know that Miami was on the brink of secession? (BuzzFeed) | "The editor-in-chief of business daily Kommersant has resigned, triggering speculation Monday that he was forced out over a recent article in the newspaper about oil giant Rosneft." (Moscow Times) | CNN will no longer be broadcast in Russia after the end of the year; it ended distribution deals "following the passage of new media laws in Russia." (Mashable)

  4. Washington Post says Zakaria stories are problematic

    Five of the Post articles ID'd as unoriginal by the mysterious media critics @blippoblappo and @crushingbort are "problematic," editorial page Editor Fred Hiatt said. (Poynter) | Slate corrected a 1998 article he wrote. "I have to distinguish my own view here from Slate’s editorial decision, which I respect but don’t agree with," Slate Group boss Jacob Weisberg tells Dylan Byers. (Politico) | The next thing? "Someone from NYC is editing Zakaria's Wikipedia page to remove notes about his plagiarism and fix his mom's name." (@blippoblappo)

  5. NPR's ombudsman search is taking a while

    Edward Schumacher-Matos' last day keeps getting postponed. (Media Moves)

  6. The New Yorker paywall returns

    "We are quite reliably told that" on Tuesday "the Web site of the New Yorker, the last magazine in the world, will no longer offer the entirety of its archives, going back to 2007, for free." (The Awl)

  7. Is it time to forgive Stephen Glass?

    Hanna Rosin visits her former New Republic colleague, who has reassembled his life as a paralegal in California. "When clients come in, Steve helps the firm get them ready for trial. The first thing he does is tell them who he is. He says he worked at a magazine and he lied and made up stories and covered them up. He says he got caught, that Hollywood made a movie about it and that there are many people 'who dislike me and rightly so.'" (The New Republic)

  8. Meanwhile, in Australia

    Reporter drinks camel's milk for a month. (The Advertiser)

  9. Front page of the day, curated by Kristen Hare

    A chiseled salute to veterans on the Arizona Republic. (Courtesy the Newseum)

    arizonarepublic-11112014 

  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin

    Greg Jaffe will cover the White House for The Washington Post. Previously, he covered the Pentagon there. Steve Mufson will cover the White House for The Washington Post. He covers the energy industry there. (Washington Post) | Herman Wong has joined the Washington Post's social media team. Previously, he was on the social media team at Quartz. (Washington Post) | Peter Holley is now a reporter on the general assignment desk at The Washington Post. Previously, he was an associate editor at Houstonia magazine. (Washington Post) | Joyce MacDonald is now vice president of journalism at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was interim president and CEO at National Public Media. (Poynter) | Job of the day: The Center (Texas) Light and Champion is looking for a reporter. Get your résumés in! (Journalism Jobs) | Send Ben your job moves: bmullin@poynter.org.

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NEOMG finally explains why it took down John Kasich video

Good morning. Here are 10 media stories.

  1. Why the Northeast Ohio Media Group took down that John Kasich video

    Candidates were expecting an audio interview, not video, and the governor's office complained after the news org, which publishes Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, posted it, NEOMG ombudsman Ted Diadiun writes. NEOMG VP of content Chris Quinn decided to pull the video and not explain his actions because "I thought that if I stated my reasons, the obvious next step would be people going to the candidates and asking them if they had any objection to putting the video back up. ...That would mean my error could put people into an uncomfortable situation." (Cleveland.com) | Previously: "I have not written about this or given out quotes because I felt I was in an untenable position and could do nothing to help the situation," Diadiun said. (Jim Romenesko) | "The mystery of the missing endorsement interview, and the stone wall around it, is solved... cleveland.com/readers/index.… ...after the election." (@jayrosen_nyu) | Jay Rosen's Nov. 1 post asking what happened and why Quinn wasn't talking. (PressThink)

  2. Midterms media stories

    Fox News broadcast results from New Hampshire exit polls early in the evening, "a move that is likely in violation of agreed-upon rules by the media companies that commission the exit polls." (Politico) | Sean Eldridge, husband of New Republic owner Chris Hughes, lost his congressional bid. (Poughkeepsie Journal) | Michael Grimm won, and told Staten Island Advance reporter Tom Wrobleski, "You were wrong, we were right.” (Capital) | "How lefty commentators handled pre-election midterm bad news" (WP) | File under ouch: Time's new cover.

    TIME 11.17 cover 

  3. 21st Century Fox had a good first quarter

    Revenue was up 12 percent over the same period the year before. (CNN) | Cable network revenue was up 5 percent. The Fox Broadcast Network had lower ratings and lower ad revenue but retransmission fees set off that decline, the release says. Filmed entertainment revenue was up 40 percent.

  4. A tech reporter confesses

    "You can do your job as a tech blogger without a single outbound request," an anonymous reporter tells Lucia Moses. "Just open your inbox every morning and pick which pitches to cover." But if reporters don't "kiss the ring a little," they "won’t get the big interviews." (Digiday)

  5. Amanda Knox is freelancing for a Seattle newspaper

    Knox, convicted of murder in Italy and later freed on appeal, "has taken on freelance assignments for the small circulation West Seattle Herald, initially under a pseudonym but lately in her own name." (The Telegraph) | Knox's review of a high school production of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." (West Seattle Herald)

  6. Newseum CEO quits

    James Duff "is resigning from the museum of journalism and the First Amendment after three years at the helm of an institution struggling to cover its costs," Brett Zongker reports. The museum cut its deficit in half in 2013, and Duff will not receive all of the $1.4 million in deferred compensation he was due to receive when he took the gig. (AP) | Duff will run the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. (LegalTimes) | The Newseum laid off people last January. (Poynter) | From last November: "Can Ron Burgundy save the Newseum?" (WP)

  7. Why the Centre Daily Times didn't run Dottie Sandusky's critique of a documentary

    Her husband, Jerry Sandusky, was convicted of sexually assaulting boys in the Penn State scandal. "Incredibly, the media's version of that story is still being told today," his wife, Dottie, says in a piece hitting a documentary about the scandal, "Happy Valley." State College's Centre Daily Times said it didn't run the Sandusky piece because "her “critique” of the movie and defense of her husband are an insult to the victims, the prosecutors, the court system, the university, the community — really everyone with an emotional stake in what happened." Also: "Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2012. The movie debuted 10 months ago. If that’s news, maybe we’re the ones who are 'delusional.'" (Centre Daily Times)

  8. Benedict Cumberbatch announces engagement with newspaper ad

    The announcement ran in The Times of London's "Forthcoming Marriages" section. (BuzzFeed) | "The actor’s engagement to Sophie Hunter, a theatre director, is announced in The Times today." (The Times)

  9. Front page of the day, curated by Kristen Hare

    RedEye asks readers to write on the front cover, then tweet or Instagram a photo with the hashtag #DearGovernor. (Courtesy the Newseum)

    redeye-11052014 

  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin

    Michael Slackman is now international managing editor for The New York Times. Previously, he was deputy international editor there. Charles Homans is now a digital deputy at The New York Times Magazine. Previously, he was executive editor of The Atavist. (The New York Times) | Kevin Reilly will be president of TNT and TBS. Previously, he was entertainment division chief at Fox network. (The New York Times) | Ryan Mote is now vice president for advertising at The Sacramento Bee. Previously, he was director of local advertising sales at Republic Media. (Email) | Mario Ruiz has joined Dan Klores Communications. He has been head of communications for The Huffington Post. (Capital) | Job of the day: BuzzFeed is looking for a puzzles editor. Get your résumés in! (BuzzFeed) | Send Ben your job moves: bmullin@poynter.org.

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How Jim Brady plans to make money in local

mediawiremorningGood morning. Here are 10 media stories.

  1. Was SI’s LeBron James scoop legit? Sam Kirkland rounds up some thinkination from thinkinators and notes that SND’s Rob Schneider said the NYT’s celebrated sports section front on Saturday was inaccurate — James hadn’t signed at the time. (Poynter) | The “item did move on the sports AP wire, exactly as presented,” Margaret Sullivan writes. “I guess I can see his point, but it’s too literal,” Benjamin Hoffman, who designed the page, told her. (NYT) | James decided to go to SI rather than ESPN because 2010′s “The Decision” “upset America’s collective stomach and spoiled his reputation as a basketball god,” Robert Weintraub writes. “The average fan could read his moving, sincere announcement on SI.com and subconsciously think, Maybe it was ESPN’s fault, not LeBron’s, all along.” (CJR) | The “trade rumor — shorthand here for any offseason transaction news — has become the dominant form of NBA journalism.” (Grantland)
  2. How Jim Brady plans to make money in local: His Philly news startup Brother.ly will use a “mix of advertising, events and memberships,” Joe Pompeo reports. Advertisers will have options beyond display ads: “A security company might sponsor a public-safety discussion group, for instance.” (Capital)
  3. NPR “downgrades” ombudsman job: The next occupant of that seat will focus “on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment,” Jay Rosen reports. “In my view, NPR is far stronger than this short-sighted and half-assed decision suggests. It has nothing to fear from an empowered ombudsman.” (PressThink)
  4. BuzzFeed articles disappear: After a “review of our most updated policies and standards,” BuzzFeed “edited some posts, removed certain posts and left other posts as is.” (Gawker) | BuzzFeed gave some early, senior employees the ability to go back and memory-hole articles. (Poynter)
  5. News orgs’ investments in race beats pays off: AP race and ethnicity reporter Jesse Holland broke the story of black Democrats supporting Sen. Thad Cochran after several reporters “had noticed advertisements in two of the state’s black newspapers, but no one knew who was behind them,” Tracie Powell reports. “I picked up the phone and called the black newspaper and asked who placed the ad,” Holland told Powell. “I’m not sure why no one else thought to do that.” (CJR)
  6. Twitter is 8 years old. Here’s Biz Stone‘s announcement of “Twittr”‘s website from July 15, 2006: ” It’s fun to use because it strips social blogging down to it’s essence and makes it immediate.”

  7. Following in Chrystia Freeland’s footsteps? Former Toronto Star reporter Allan Thompson is running for parliament. (Toronto Star)
  8. Lumberjacks’ revenge: Newspaper reporter makes “endangered jobs” list (Poynter) | Employment at TV stations slips a little. And “Total radio news employment is up this year versus last year, but not in the way radio news people would like.” (RTDNA)
  9. “This is a publicity stunt for sure, but one with heart”: Fans react to Archie Andrews‘ impending death, saving a gay friend. (AP) | “Archie is actually still alive in the Archie series set in the present day” and there’s a series where he’s a zombie, too. (Vulture)
  10. Job moves, edited by Benjamin Mullin: David Plotz is “dropping the mic” as editor of Slate, leaving his former deputy editor, Julia Turner, in charge. Said Plotz of his decision: “What am I gonna do, die here?” (Poynter) | Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, he of the leaked New York Times Innovation Report, has been named senior editor for strategy at the Times. (Poynter) | Maria Russo will be children’s books editor of The New York Times Book Review in August. (@PamelaPaulNYT) | Amanda Kost, an investigative journalist at KMGH in Denver, will be a national investigative reporter at the Scripps Washington Bureau. (Scripps News) | Alisyn Camerota is now an anchor at CNN. She was previously a co-host of America’s News Headquarters at Fox News. (CNN) | John Homans is leaving his job as New York Magazine executive editor to join Bloomberg Politics, a vertical led by “Game Change” authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. (Capital) | David Sirota joins International Business Times as a senior writer. (Digiday) | Marta Tellado, vice president for global communications at the Ford Foundation, has been named chief executive of Consumer Reports. She will replace Jim Guest, who became CEO and president in 2001. (New York Times) Want to meet LeBron James? The Northeast Ohio Media Group (which includes the Plain Dealer) is hiring a sports reporter. Get your résumés in! | Send Ben your job moves: bmullin@poynter.org.

Suggestions? Criticisms? Would like me to send you this roundup each morning? Please email me: abeaujon@poynter.org. Read more

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Washington Post names new reader representative

The Washington Post

Alison Coglianese will succeed Doug Feaver as The Washington Post’s “reader representative,” the Post announced Thursday. She will “help make sure that reader questions and complaints are directed to the right place and responded to appropriately,” the announcement says. “She will also answer questions from time to time on the Ask the Post blog.”

Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Joe Strupp in January that Coglianese may assume the role.

The Post did away with a traditional ombudsman role last March, saying “media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write.” Feaver explained to Poynter’s Craig Silverman why he wouldn’t be an ombudsman: I’m not [charged with] holding the newsroom accountable,” he said. Read more

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Guardian ombudsman explains decision to remove Keller post

The Guardian | The New York Times | NPR

There were problems with the style and tone of Emma Keller’s Jan. 8 piece about Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has stage IV breast cancer and writes about her experiences on Twitter. There were editing problems and some difficulties that, for now, likely won’t be resolved, Chris Elliott, the Guardian readers’ editor, wrote Thursday.

The Guardian removed Keller’s piece from its site Jan. 13, after a wave of reader complaints and a Twitter backlash.

Adams and her family were shocked by the blog post, which she has said completely misrepresented the nature of her illness and her reasons for tweeting, was riddled with inaccuracies, and quoted from a private direct message to Keller through Twitter published without permission.

It was a shock compounded by the publication on 13 January in the New York Times of a column by Keller’s husband, Bill Keller, a former NYT executive editor, which also focused on Adams’s use of social media.

Keller told Elliott that she regretted not giving Adams notice that she planned to quote from direct messages on Twitter. Keller also regretted not giving Adams a head’s up that the piece was coming, Elliott wrote. Read more

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Washington Post’s reader representative leaves

Media Matters for America

Doug Feaver has left his position as The Washington Post’s “reader representative,” Joe Strupp reports. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt tells Strupp “the Post is still considering whether or how Feaver will be replaced, saying that Feaver’s deputy, Alison Coglianese ‘may assume the role.’ ”

Last March, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth said the paper would eliminate its ombudsman position: “We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write,” she said. Read more

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NPR Headquarters

NPR ombud’s latest report raises important questions, but it’s not without flaws

The modern ombudsman has been a prominent fixture in several of the largest American newsrooms since The New York Times instituted its public editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle a decade ago.

While the position itself has been controversial among journalism leaders, newsrooms that contract with an ombudsman signal to their audience that they take their work seriously enough to open themselves up to independent critique.

Every ombudsman worth his (or her, but most of them have been men) tenure produces a few particularly noteworthy reports or analyses during his tenure.

In 2004, Daniel Okrent took a look at The New York Times’ failure on weapons of mass destruction and did a very smart examination of whether The New York Times was liberal. Then Arthur S. Brisbane riled up readers as well as Times brass last year when he asked whether the Times should be a “truth vigilante.”

ESPN’s Don Ohlmeyer’s received a particular gift from the network in the form of “The Decision”  — LeBron James’ notorious announcement that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. In that report, Ohlmeyer examined many of the central conflicts present at ESPN.

And now NPR’s current ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has published a 35,000-word report excoriating a celebrated investigative series from 2011 in which the radio network examined the high rate at which the state of South Dakota places Native American kids into white foster homes.

Schumacher-Matos concludes that NPR should not have aired the series, citing two factual errors and a significant amount of missing context.

NPR has pushed back, but it’s also acknowledged a lack of attention to nuance, inadequate citation of sources in some cases, and that its reporters didn’t try hard enough to represent the view of the state once officials refused to answer questions.

This report likely will be what Schumacher-Matos is remembered for.

I’ve been following the work of ombudsmen since Okrent was appointed. I’ve been consulted for various columns with all of the previous New York Times public editors. I interviewed for the job at the New York Times and at NPR. And I served as the lead writer on ESPN’s Poynter Review Project, an 18-month stint in which we at Poynter offered public critiques of the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Among the significant challenges to doing the job well:

  • selecting the right topics from a constantly growing pile of complaints, questions and concerns
  • producing a timely, yet thoughtful response
  • doing original reporting (something New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has done a good job of)
  • establishing collegial rapport, yet maintaining a professional distance from the employees of the organization
  • finding an outside editor to provide the necessary editing and to ensure the pieces serve the audience

The most interesting columns from ombudsmen are those that examine the complicated process of journalism — who does it, how stories are selected and how that process impacts the marketplace of ideas. That process has become increasingly complicated to explain in the wake of the digital revolution.

There is no doubt after reading Schumacher-Matos’ report that NPR made mistakes in the series. And it’s even reasonable to argue that because of those mistakes, NPR overreached in assigning blame and motives to state officials responsible for taking children from Native American families.

But Schumacher-Matos’ report also gets bogged down in arguments about which statistics to use, how to add up certain numbers and how to frame the story. Those philosophical arguments are great for a master’s thesis in journalism or a case study for a classroom, which is ultimately what he produces. But they significantly distract the audience (and perhaps even NPR officials) from the flaws in the stories. In doing so, Schumacher-Matos undermines his legitimate criticisms with an exercise in changing the subject.

This is one of the perils of being an ombudsman. Every issue is a quagmire. Your job is to wade through the messy backstory and identify how and where journalism’s core values were violated. Doing that as an independent person with limited support is tough. It’s why most ombudsmen have a contact list full of fellow thinkers to sort through ideas. It’s why most rely upon a trusted outside editor, who often doesn’t get paid. Every writer needs a good editor.

I don’t know whom Schumacher-Matos was relying on for help. I emailed him and he politely declined to do an interview or answer additional questions. He did post a follow-up, where he described his sourcing and his consultation with other journalists.

So I can’t describe what process he used to write his report, beyond what he has provided. What I can say is that the very length of his report, which tackles factual inaccuracies, missing context and broader philosophical questions about poverty and Native Americans, undermines its effectiveness.

Schumacher-Matos nails NPR on serious flaws and oversights. Namely, he identifies two numbers that were carelessly and erroneously thrown about and he identifies contextual issues that should have been addressed.

He also points out other valid concerns. The families who provided anecdotal material weren’t asked to sign waivers so that reporters could look at their case files, which meant any documented evidence of neglect that authorities were relying upon — weak or strong — didn’t make it into the story. Also, the problems of foster care cross cultural boundaries, affecting all poor communities.

Schumacher-Matos could have pointed out the errors and true contextual deficiencies in a single substantial column. By expending so much energy on the nebulous issues of how reporters could have framed the story and counted foster children differently, he turns a solid critique into something squishy that can be dismissed.

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of his critique is a lack of Native American voices. He  imports their voices from the original NPR report, as well as a follow-up talk-show conversation. But nowhere does he bounce his findings or theories off of the people who are at the heart of the story.

Janice Howe, the grandmother whose painful narrative of losing her four grandchildren to foster care was part of the NPR story, called Schumacher-Matos. In the introduction to his report, he describes her story as “unsubstantiated” and “based largely on hearsay.”

In response to her call he wrote, “I do not know the full truth about what is happening on the ground in South Dakota. My investigation focused on NPR’s adherence to its own journalism standards, not on the state, or the Indian Child Welfare Act, or government policy concerning Native Americans.”

Schumacher-Matos inadvertently seems to erase the connection between the current foster-care system endured by so many Native American children and a history of forced separation. While he is right to point out that you can’t simply assign racist motives to state officials running the social-service system in South Dakota, you likewise can’t insist that Native Americans’ past experience of suffering has no connection to their present experience.

It would have been reasonable for Schumacher-Matos to conclude this critique by suggesting that the staff on the series possibly shared a preconceived liberal bias that allowed them to oversimplify who the bad guys were (state officials) because it fit a convenient narrative.

Instead, he suggests that the journalists were asking the wrong question when they asked why most Native American children in South Dakota who enter foster care end up in white homes, in spite of a federal law that says that shouldn’t happen.

My fear is that this report will sour NPR leadership so much that Schumacher-Matos will be the last NPR ombudsman. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Having an ombudsman makes a newsroom better, even when that ombudsman seems unfair or off-base in making an assessment. Transparency has become a core value in modern journalism, and ombudsmen provide a significant mechanism for such transparency. And even when I disagree with their conclusions, I believe that ombudsmen provide a vital way for communities with connect to journalists and hold them accountable.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

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NPR Headquarters

Do errors in NPR piece merit an 80-page report?

NPR

NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ massive report on an investigative series NPR broadcast in 2011 “sets up an unfair challenge to NPR,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride tells NPR’s David Folkenflik.

“Because, if he wants to do a column about why they chose this story instead of that story, then he should do that column. But he essentially does both in this very long report.”

NPR’s top news management “recused themselves from the preparation of this article about the dispute between the network and the ombudsman over the investigative series,” Folkenflik writes. The reporters and editors behind the series “declined to respond on the record to most of the points” in Schumacher-Matos’ report, he wrote. “NPR stands by the stories,” Kinsey Wilson (who is on Poynter’s board of trustees) and Margaret Low Smith wrote in an editors’ note.

“It’s very possible, in an investigative story, to get certain facts wrong but still have the overall truth be quite accurate,” McBride tells Folkenflik. “And I’m not saying that’s an excuse because when that happens it’s incredibly unfortunate and even irresponsible on the part of journalists.” Read more

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NPR Headquarters

NPR stands by story its ombudsman criticized

NPR
There are six chapters of NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ epic examination of Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters’ October 2011 investigation about foster care in South Dakota.

The series won awards but was also criticized by the state’s governor and head of its Department of Social Services. “Many South Dakota residents also have written me in disapproval of it,” Schumacher-Matos writes. “My finding is that the series was deeply flawed and should not have been aired as it was,” Schumacher-Matos writes. He lists the story’s “five sins”:

1. No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;
2. Unfair tone in communicating these unproven allegations;
3. Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;
4. Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;
5. No response from the state on many key points.

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Robert Lipstye

New ESPN ombud Robert Lipsyte talks about his role

Ask if Robert Lipsyte is going to be particularly critical as ESPN’s new ombudsman, and he mentions a little piece he penned for Slate magazine back in June 2011. The piece dismantles the 763-page oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All the Fun.”

In that review, Lipsyte — who once worked on ESPN’s SportsCentury and Classic Sports Reporters shows, among many prestigious sports journalism jobs — criticized the authors for not being tough enough on the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Why didn’t they look at how ESPN’s cheerleading affected America’s perception of celebrity athlete, or its problems covering athletes it also pays? (“The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ seems flabby,” he wrote then.)

Robert Lipstye

Turns out, when top ESPN executive John A. Walsh called to ask if he would be interested in the job, Lipsyte eventually sent him that column — which also indirectly called Walsh “controlling,” “Machiavellian” and “a genius.”

It was an example of the type of work he’d be doing as the outlet’s fifth ombudsman; an independent columnist who reviews ESPN’s journalism on ESPN’s website. It’s also a job that involves, first and foremost, being the audience’s advocate.

“It’s very clear that I’m representing an audience, an audience that needs to understand how ESPN works,” said Lipsyte, 75, who found out on Monday that he finally had the gig. “I really do believe the definitions and values of sports have value in society. The way that the media, including ESPN, covers sports, adds to or detracts from our understanding of the world. And that’s my job. Explaining that to people who want to know how it works.”

ESPN spent about five months without an ombudsman; a break that brought some buzz in sports media circles. But Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s vice president and editor-in-chief, said Walsh led a team that considered two dozen names for the job, winnowed down to a few candidates they interviewed in person.

“We struck gold with Mr. Lipsyte. … he’s a legend in the field,” Stiegman said. “He was provocative, was mindful of what ESPN’s business goals were, mindful of ESPN’s goals as a journalistic entity and he challenged us. … He offered a tremendous analogy: He sees the role as being a window washer for ESPN. … It’s about transparency; his job is to keep those windows clean.”

Connected to journalism since his job as a copy boy for The New York Times in 1957, Lipsyte has worked for the Times, CBS and NBC as an columnist and reporter, along with PBS, National Public Radio and the New York Post. He has also penned 10 books.

Lipsyte will succeed the Poynter Project, a revolving roster of writers from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which last served as ombudsman (Full disclosure: Poynter owns the newspaper where I work, the Tampa Bay Times). Previous ESPN ombudsmen/women include former NBC and ABC sports and entertainment executive Don Ohlmeyer, ex-Washington Post sports editor George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber, a onetime sports editor at the New York Times.

There are no concrete plans worked out, but Lipsyte also hopes to create a blog and Twitter page for the ombudsman’s work, using Margaret Sullivan, the cyber-savvy ombudsman for the New York Times, as an inspiration.

“I like the way she’s structuring it; finding a topic, reporting on it and gently giving her take,” he said of Sullivan, noting he’d mostly use Twitter to promote work published elsewhere — at least at first. “I think, now, Twitter is just a little too reactive. An ombudsman is supposed to be a little reflective, maybe wait a beat.”

After a moment, he drops the punchline. “Two months from now, come back and tell me how full of s— I was,” he adds, laughing.

Besides confirming Lipsyte’s old school talent for salty newsroom language, the moment also demonstrates there’s little set in stone for this job at the outset. With no firm date in mind, he’s set to start sometime in June, producing at least two pieces each month under an 18-month contract.

His output will focus on columns for ESPN.com — where every other ombudsman has appeared — though he could also helm audio or video podcasts and surface on other multimedia platforms, Stiegman said.

The most interesting tidbit: Lipsyte could be the first ombudsman for ESPN who might actually appear on its most-watched platform, the television channels.

“The ombudsman should be everywhere ESPN is, (and) it would be better to respond on the platform the story is about,” Lipsyte said, suggesting that he might pop up in an interview or debate segment to speak on a major issue. “I don’t see Outside the Lines giving me my own airtime. … but as somebody who loves to get made up, I’m more than happy to go on TV.”

Asked if he’ll work from ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. Headquarters, Lipsyte answers almost by reflex (“God, no!”), noting he’ll stay in his New York area homebase and travel north when needed.

He acknowledges slipping into an old fashioned job with new media potential.

“There does seem something comfortably old fashioned about an ombudsman; someone who is holding an institution accountable or holding the door open to let others hold them accountable,” Lipsyte said.

“I think ESPN seems like this monolith (to outsiders). … They forget it’s all these different platforms populated by all these different people with these conflicting goals and ambitions. When you break it down, it’s really just people; which is far more human and interesting than people would think from the outside.” Read more

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