After criticism, NPR gives freer rein to upcoming ombudsman

By Ben Mook

NPR has stepped back from plans to curtail its ombudsman’s duties after receiving criticism from journalists and leaders of its member stations.

The blowback began with a blog post by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who pointed out Monday that a job posting for NPR’s next ombudsman specified that the in-house watchdog should refrain from “commentary” and “judgment.” Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s current ombudsman, will end his three-year term in September.

Rosen saw the change in language as an effort to defang the ombudsman, which he argued would remove a valuable check on NPR’s reporting.

Some station leaders noted Rosen’s post and shared his concerns. NPR’s ombudsman “holds feet to the fire,” said Jonathan Ahl, g.m. of Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Ill. “And that’s very important to have — someone holding us responsible to the people we report to. Having an independent person who can speak to what’s right or wrong is vital and what separates us from a lot of other news organizations.”

The job description became a topic on social media with station g.m.’s, former employees and staffers questioning NPR’s move. These included St. Louis Public Radio GM Tim Eby, who was among the first to publicly call for NPR to explain the change.

By late Tuesday, NPR had revised the job posting, removing the wording that stated the ombudsman would not pass judgment or deliver commentary. Jarl Mohn, NPR’s new c.e.o., said the changes to the wording were a mistake, and he underscored the importance of the position.

“The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed,” Mohn said in a statement. “The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.”

Ahl said he was glad that Mohn handled the situation with a straightforward apology and quick action to remedy the situation.

“I am concerned that it happened,” Ahl said. “But my concern has been diminished greatly by the fact that it was rectified quickly to the way it should be. I think he handled it well.”

UPDATE: Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins reported on his blog NewsCut that NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and Senior VP for News Margaret Low Smith, in a call with pubradio station employees, criticized Rosen’s coverage of the changes to the ombudsman’s job description.

According to Collins, Wilson said Rosen “did a lousy job of reporting and instead chose to opine based on singling out some words in a job description and a couple of words from ex-ombudsmen.” Wilson also defended the original version of the ad, saying it did not diminish the ombudsman’s role, according to Collins. NPR is seeking an ombudsman who can “lift the veil on the process” and hold the network accountable to ethical guidelines, Wilson said.

“We believed the more traditional role of an ombudsman, someone pronouncing the sermon on the mount, being the voice of god, seen as the final arbiter of what happens around our journalism, is probably an antiquated one,” Collins quoted Wilson as saying.

Wilson declined to comment to Current on the NewsCut post.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed statements from St. Louis Public Radio GM Tim Eby and George Lombardi, g.m. of WSHU-FM in Fairfield, Conn.

  • http://harryshearer.com/ Harry Shearer

    Jay Rosen’s blog may have been what many pubradio station execs read, but that’s not where the “blowback began”. I tweeted questions about the change in ombud functions to my 100,000+ followers the previous Friday, and did a some-lengthy segment about the curious language on my Sunday radio program, Le Show, broadcast on many….public radio stations.

  • quotidian

    NPR is horrible about correcting itself or airing criticisms of its journalistic practices. An on-air correction of an error doesn’t cut it; that might be heard by just a fraction of the overall audience, including many who heard the original error. I have written in numerous times pointing out outright errors and have never gotten a personal response from an ombud or an editor.

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