Twice recently, the New York Times has had occasion to pay homage to a Washington Post ombudsman. In the first case, it recognized the valuable roughing-up the job's current holder, Michael Getler, gives the paper's reporters with his once-a-week "what's wrong with the paper" salvos. Shortly thereafter, the paper noted in its obituary of the Post's first ombudsman, Richard Harwood, that "there are now 38 ombudsmen, about half at newspapers with more than 110,000 circulation." Not one of the papers, however, is named the Times.
That the Times is the English-speaking world's greatest newspaper has today become unarguable. The Post is a regional newspaper with national politics as its local news beat. The Wall Street Journal is a business paper with a few good news pages and an extremely nutty editorial section. The Los Angeles Times, well, damned if I know…
But the great, no longer gray, lady has many weaknesses, and her greatest is undoubtedly arrogance. The Times countenances virtually no outside criticism. This is important, not only because the paper sets the agenda for the entire media but also because, on many stories, its reporting is the only source that millions of people will ever see. This is particularly hard on those who, for whatever reason, find themselves seriously wronged by the paper. In most cases, barring an expensive lawsuit, if the most powerful newspaper in the nation decides to screw you on a question that is not strictly one of easily demonstrable fact, you stay screwed.
Not long ago, the paper's publishing correspondent, David Kirkpatrick, became embroiled in an extremely public dispute with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers. All that Times readers ever learned about the fracas from the paper's corrections page was that the reporter made an insignificant error on the location of one of Eggers's readings. But readers of Eggers's McSweeney's website and Jim Romenesko's Media News were treated to a gluttonous feast of argument, including the two writers' lengthy e-mail correspondence. The postings raised significant issues for the newspaper. For instance, Kirkpatrick wrote, "Despite public disavowals of making money from his work, Mr. Eggers has also made it clear that he does not much like sharing the proceeds." His only example was a lawsuit Eggers settled with his former agent. This hardly proves the case against an author who, Kirkpatrick notes elsewhere in the article, gives away much of what he earns. (The fact that Kirkpatrick is a casual friend of the agent in question does not help matters.) In addition, Kirkpatrick admitted–and apologized for–using comments Eggers told him were off the record. The reporter says he did so only after receiving permission from Eggers's publisher's publicist. Eggers insists this is false and would be journalistically indefensible if true. The publicist calls it a mix-up. Mightn't an ombudsman be able to offer both sides a fair hearing?