An Ombudsman Finds A Balance

(AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
In the roughly two years that I've written and edited Public Eye, I've gained some insight into the thought process of an ombudsman. Sure, sure, we're "nonbudsman," more or less, here at PE. But this job involves the same kinds of concerns that a traditional ombudsman faces. You've got to be critical enough to maintain your legitimacy in the eyes of readers, but not so critical that you alienate your colleagues. It's a balancing act, and, unfortunately, it can lead one to think twice before writing anything that might be considered either (1) too complimentary or (2) too critical, even when the situation calls for it.

Which leads me to yesterday's column from new New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt. It was Hoyt's first column, and, as such, an announcement of what type of Public Editor to expect. Hoyt looked at the way that the Times covered the JFK terror plot, which, as I noted last Monday, was over-hyped by many in the media. (More on that here.)

Hoyt notes that the Times didn't put the plot on its front page – a decision that left him "puzzled." The Times made the decision based on the fact that "law enforcement officials said that J.F.K. was never in immediate danger," he notes, with editors saying they were wary of "buy[ing] into the hype on an issue where stories have frequently been overstated."

Hoyt concludes with a classic bit of ombudsman jujitsu – he compliments the Times story for being "very well reported and written" while gently taking issue with its placement in the paper. Here's his conclusion:

Domestic terrorism is a frightening — and now very political — issue. Newspapers cannot take sometimes overheated rhetoric from public officials at face value. But they have to be careful not to appear indifferent to plots that, allowed to mature, could pose real threats of death and destruction.
I'm not suggesting that Hoyt does not believe what he wrote here – I'm sure he does. But it's important to note that, particularly for a new ombudsman, this is just about the only place one can come down on the issue. If you say the Times handled the story the right way, you're dismissed as a big softie; if you come down too hard, you risk alienating your colleagues right from the starting gate.

Hoyt opens his column by noting that he wasn't supposed to start until next week, but opted to get things going early to address this issue. It's easy to see why: The JFK plot gave him the opportunity to write a column that struck just the right balance between criticism and conciliation. The most important thing to take from it isn't so much what he had to say as the fact that he clearly has some sense of how to play the game.