Boston's Alternative Source! image!

[Don't Quote Me]
Fangs a lot (continued)

Thus, the Globe’s ombudsman is one of newspapering’s most venerable. Internally, it’s taken seriously, with the every-other-Monday column representing just the tip of the iceberg. Thomas couldn’t be reached for comment, but in an interview last year with Boston University journalism professor Mike Berlin (you can find it online at, he said the ombudsman’s office receives about 20,000 messages from readers every year. "I keep wondering," Thomas told Berlin, "if this office were not here, where would these 20,000 messages go? Would they be answered? Would they come in? If they were dispersed, there would be absolutely no way to pick up a pattern and give a response." According to Mark Jurkowitz, another duty is to prepare a memo every two or three weeks, to be distributed internally, that consists of "a gigantic file of reader comments ... just to let people here know what the public was saying."

Thomas, who started at the Globe as a copy boy and had previously worked in such jobs as city editor, metro columnist, and feature writer, had his ups and downs during his four years in the position. He courageously stood up to Globe management during Mike Barnicle’s final days in 1998; but when he whacked columnist Jeff Jacoby, who was suspended in 2000 for failing to credit his sources in a tribute to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, he engendered widespread criticism for making an issue out of Jacoby’s conservative ideology. Thomas hit bottom this year, writing that Eileen McNamara was "lucky she wasn’t fired" merely for speaking out after then-editor Matt Storin killed one of her columns. And he failed even to address the Globe’s front-page retraction/apology for reporting, inaccurately as it turned out, that the horrific Zantop murder case resulted from a love triangle gone bad — an act of contrition unusual enough to have garnered national headlines. In fairness, Thomas probably held the post one or two years too long. And it must have gotten increasingly difficult for him to criticize the Globe’s top editors when he knew that he would soon be returning to the newsroom. "In recent months, as a lame duck, I became less antagonistic and less effective," Thomas wrote in his farewell, a heartfelt column that offered more mea culpas in 1000 words than most journalists manage in a career.

To Emily Rooney, Thomas’s stint as ombudsman only emphasizes the importance of bringing in an independent, outside voice. Rooney, who hosts WGBH-TV’s Greater Boston (disclosure: I’m a semi-regular paid guest on the show’s Friday "Beat the Press" media roundtable), says the Globe needs "a freelancer with a desk inside," adding, "Jack Thomas is a fabulous writer, but he rarely took on the controversies inside the paper."

So who, in Rooney’s view, would be an ideal ombudsman? "I say this somewhat in jest, but it should be somebody like me," she says. "Somebody who has an interest and a sharp eye and a curiosity about that stuff."

TO BE sure, not everyone believes that the level of independence advocated by Ben Bagdikian, Geneva Overholser, and Emily Rooney is necessary or even desirable.

Mike Berlin says his interview with Thomas led him to conclude that an outsider would never have the necessary clout. "Half of the missionary work that the Globe ombudsman has to do is with the staff," says Berlin, adding that it would be difficult for staff members to overcome their suspicions about "some lunatic outsider."

Bob Kierstead, who was the Globe’s ombudsman for much of the 1980s, adds, "You couldn’t bring in somebody cold from the outside. If you bring in someone who people are familiar with, and who has an opportunity to build up some credibility with the people he’s going to have to deal with. If you don’t have credibility, they’ll dis you. You can’t make people talk to the ombudsman."

(Entertaining aside: Kierstead recalls that one of the last complaints he got was from Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who claimed Mike Barnicle had made up a sexually provocative quote about Asian women and planted it in Dershowitz’s mouth. Kierstead passed it on to his successor, the late Gordon McKibben. "I said, ‘I’ve got one for you, Gordon.’ " Some time later, the Globe reportedly paid Dershowitz a $70,000 settlement. "I had my ups and downs with Barnicle," Kierstead says. "You could never really get him to sit down and discuss anything. If he knew you were looking for him, he would disappear.")

Yet the Globe does have at least some experience with an outside ombudsman — Jurkowitz, my predecessor as the Phoenix’s media critic, who took the post in 1994 after a brief stint as executive editor of Boston magazine. In Jurkowitz’s case, it was made clear from the beginning that he would move to the Globe newsroom after his term as ombudsman was up, which meant that he was not as independent as the Bagdikian model would have it. Nevertheless, he was able to bring a fresh, outsider’s eye to the job — although even he says ruefully that the job is "kind of like being an internal-affairs officer in a police department."

The ombudsman hardly represents state-of-the-art interactivity. Media critic Jon Katz, of, goes so far as to say that it provides the "illusion of accountability," and thinks it would be better for newspapers to experiment with ideas such as webcasting their news meetings and opening their op-ed pages to writers other than regular columnists and "academic gasbags."

Even so, an ombudsman represents a commitment to having an ongoing conversation with the public — and it would be unconscionable to end that conversation. "I think it speaks well for the Globe that it chooses to have an ombudsman, and I hope it keeps up that tradition," says Jerry Lanson, who chairs the journalism department at Emerson College. Northeastern University journalism professor Bill Kirtz thinks it would be a "mistake" to get rid of the position. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, adds that the ombudsman’s column at the Globe and at other papers is "a weekly dose of cold water in the face of the journalistic power that these institutions represent, and I think it’s an important one."

Marty Baron has only been the editor for about a month, and the public is looking for a sign of what kind of editor he’s going to be. If he and Richard Gilman were to enhance one of the paper’s few formal avenues for self-criticism and feedback, that would be seen as a small but important move in the right direction.

Doing away with the ombudsman, on the other hand, would only feed the paranoid view — popular in some local circles, and one that may yet prove to be true — that the Globe has become little more than a profit center for its revenue-hungry masters in New York.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

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Issue Date: August 23-30, 2001

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