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Sunday Late Night: Ombudsman Ends as Pravda Wins

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Pravda means “truth.” But we learned that in Soviet Russia, falseness is true. Now, in America, our news is truthiness.

Ombudsman is defined as “a designated neutral or impartial dispute resolution practitioner whose major function is to provide independent, impartial, confidential and informal assistance to managers and employees, clients and/or other stakeholders of a corporation, university, non-governmental organization, governmental agency or other entity. As an independent and neutral employee, the organizational ombudsman ideally should have no other role or duties. This is in order to maintain independence and neutrality, and to prevent real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

At the Washington Post, the Ombudsman was originally called the readers’ representative.

But it’s been a long time since that was true. Today’s ombudsman, Patrick Paxton, is the Complaint Gatekeeper. Freeing reporters, photographers, editors, or managers from having to respond to reader complaints, questions, concerns, or corrections, Mr Paxton instead sees his role this way:

80 percent of my columns and blog posts have indeed been prompted by reader ideas. Another 10 percent derive from reporters who come to me with a concern they can’t get surfaced through their editors. The rest come from me trying to make sense of a media world gone bonkers, where everything is free and no one can make a profit. I think that’s an appropriate mix.

The Sunday column takes 25 to 30?percent of my time every week. The rest of the time, I and my assistant, Alison Coglianese, are “engaged” — to use new-media speak — with readers. Nights, weekends and “days off,” we are still responding to and researching the incredible volume of reader complaints or concerns that arrive via e-mail, letter and the phone — an average of 5,000 e-mails alone per month.

We prevent multiple home-subscription cancellations every day by just having a sympathetic ear. At $383 per year for a home delivery subscription, we’re earning our salaries in saved subscriptions alone.

See? Ombudsmaning pays its own way!

And, of course, every Washington Post Ombudsman has had a conflict the moment he or she was hired: the add-on contractual years built-in to the hiring arrangement. The late Deborah Howell, Paxton’s predecessor’s famous predecessor, served in the job for more than three years, citing a “contract” she held during her Abramoff dust-up, at which point she was only in her first months — but she claimed then to know she’d be around for two more. She stayed almost three.

Not exactly a thorn in management’s side, our Deb.

Her predecessor, Michael Getler, served in the role for more than five years, much too long to enable any independence. Although Getler was replaced in February, he didn’t clean out his desk for Deb Howell until December of 2005. And now the new Executive Editor thinks the function can be eliminated. Must be nice to have the power to delete your only in-house critic with the stroke of a pen: “Oops, too expensive, all that ombdudsmaning! Strike that budget line.”

Patrick Paxton seems to think he’s done a good job, somehow insulating the newsroom from its readers, or protecting readers from the pressed-for-time journalists. He even mocks the idea that he and his assistant have had days off:

But in truth, reporters and editors have more demands on them than ever before to be faster, to write more, to tweet, blog, take photos, videos and all the rest. They’re exhausted all the time. And who gets neglected, besides their spouses and kids?

Readers, with their questions and complaints, who tell me they can rarely get a reporter or editor to return their phone call or e-mail.

An ombudsman, then, is often the newsroom’s backstop. I can get to the bottom of most problems and give a straight answer without fear or favor.

No one expects that any more, Patrick. Because no one expects anything from the Washington Post, any longer. It’s Pravda on the Potomac, servicing the Deficit Howlers and their Austerity Princes. Without any concern for truth, as almost any casual observer can tell you. It’s all truthiness, all the time. So why have an Ombudsman any longer?

Readers don’t expect the truth, they don’t get corrections, they know better than to want their paper to be Katharine Graham’s Washington Post. Not having another Ombudsman, as Patrick Paxton assures us is the path the paper will take, is a fitting coda, a final fin, to the paper that brought down a president: now, the paper props up an empire.

And who needs anyone telling the Washington Post’s Executive Editor that he isn’t wearing any clothes?

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