by STEVE BLEWETT & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Spokesman-Review recently hired a new ombudsman and is touting its new ethics code. Both are admirable steps, but how effective either will be in restoring confidence in the paper's credibility after the River Park Square coverage debacle is highly problematic, especially considering the paper's treatment of me during my short term as ombudsman.
Editor Steve Smith lauded my integrity and reputation when he asked me to take the position last summer, commented that the previous ombudsman had not "been tough enough" on the Review, and then violated his own professional standards and ethical guidelines when he criticized my reporting and writing in my second official column as ombudsman without first contacting me to discuss the issue. In that column, I criticized the Review for providing space regularly to a PR person to write about matters of concern to his clients, and also suggested that the Review and its readers could benefit from greater diversity in its selection of regular columnists in the "Faith and Values" section. (The "PR person" Blewett identified in the column was Richard Davis, vice president-communication for the Association of Washington Business, whom Blewett accused of using "half truths" in the "exclusive promotion of a pro-business agenda.")
Smith claimed in his blog, without checking with me, that I had not discussed the issues with representatives of the paper, which in fact I had. When I informed him I had discussed it with members of the paper's staff, he called me a liar and demanded that I reveal the names of the sources, an egregious violation of journalistic ethics. I refused in order to protect their anonymity, and Smith later admitted it wrong to have asked for their names. When I continued to attempt to set the record straight, Smith continued to attack my veracity and finally abruptly terminated our contract.
Smith and Ken Paulman, also of the Review, continue to assert that I was fired because I violated a "standard" that I didn't talk to those about whom I was writing. Neither editor mentioned that before I was hired I wrote and the Review published two "test" columns for which I used exactly the same reporting strategies as I did for the column in question. Regardless, no such arbitrary reporting standard exists for commentary. An ombudsman, like any journalist, is obligated to research his subject in order to get the facts straight. I did that. I stand by my criticism and my methods. I did discuss the issue with staff at the paper. I used my almost 40 years of professional communicator and journalistic experience and knowledge to research and analyze the issue and compared the Review's handling of it to accepted journalistic standards and practices and the newspaper's own ethical codes.
Providing dedicated space to a PR person to write about subjects germane to his clients' interests is a blatant violation of one of the 10 basic journalistic criteria --Freedom from Faction -- articulated in The Elements of Journalism, a ground-breaking work recently developed out of a decade of study by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a blue-ribbon panel of the most influential journalists in the nation. The selection of columnists for the "Faith and Values" section of the paper was and continues to be white, male and predominately Christian. I merely suggested that the paper and the community would benefit from a broader range of contributors, which hardly needs an investigative reporting approach. Neither subject required interviewing the editors involved in the decisions; it's not the role of an ombudsman to negotiate or discuss an issue with the staff of the paper. The job is to research the issue and learn the facts --which I did -- and provide commentary, not only to the staff of the paper but to the community as well.
I based my approach to the column in question on standards articulated by the Association of Newspaper Ombudsmen, including the charge that ombudsmen "monitor news and feature columns, photography and other graphic materials for fairness, accuracy and balance. They bring substandard items to the attention of the appropriate members of the news staff." That is what I attempted to do, and I was fired for my efforts. The claim that I did not perform in accordance with basic journalistic expectations is specious and arbitrary and the editor of the paper violated his own professional and ethical standards rather than admit he was wrong or accept a different interpretation of the events.
Whether that is symptomatic of a general unwillingness to accept criticism or an anomalous reaction to one issue is an important question. The Review has a new ombudsman. I wish her well. I am encouraged by the way she presented herself in her initial column. I hope that the Review gives her the latitude to write seriously and substantively about issues of real concern to the newspaper, the staff and the community. If she can, I will be her biggest fan and we all will benefit. On the other hand, if the Review is no more committed now than it has been in the past to the ideals of "transparency" and "accountability" it professes in its "new" code of ethics, it will be business as usual, and that would be sad business indeed.
Steve Blewett is a journalism professor emeritus at Eastern Washington University.