The Washington Post Gives Up On Independent Ombudsmen: 1) Too Bad, Because It Needs One Desperately and 2) No Wonder, Since Its Last One Was A Bozo

Agreed: He's an improvement over the last ombudsman. But the Washington Post readers deserve better.

Agreed: He’s an improvement over the last ombudsman. But the Washington Post readers deserve better.

The Washington Post, which in 1970 became the first newspaper to employ a full-time “independent ombudsman” to explore reader complaints and exercise ethical oversight, has given up on the concept, pronouncing it a device “created decades ago for a different era.” You know–that era when people trusted the news media, and occasionally were given good cause to do so. Now the Post will rely on a “reader representative” named from the newspaper’s staff.

So much for “independence.”

Giving up on ombudsmen after having Patrick B. Pexton filling the role for the last two years is a little like giving up eating after Thanksgiving at my late Aunt Anna’s house. Her green, slimy, Wonder Bread turkey stuffing had to be tasted (but, oh God, never swallowed!) to be believed. Similarly, Pexton was an utter disgrace as an ombudsman, making excuses for unethical Post excursions into partisan hackery, and apparently completely unaware that his own biases mirrored those of his paper, which supposedly placed him in his job to offer perspective, not cover. And just as I seriously considered never again taking the risk of putting food in my mouth after that memorable holiday dinner in 1966, I can understand the Post thinking, as Pexton’s two year contract mercifully expired last week, thinking, “If we can’t do better than this clown, why have the position at all?”

One of Pexton’s very last columns was a classic of incompetent and biased ombudsmanship (ombudsmaning?). He was responding to various readers’ complaints that the Post’s coverage of the gay marriage issue was one-sided and biased, and that its reporters did not fairly or respectfully address or report on the opposition’s point of view. Pexton consulted a Post reporter who covered the issue, and quoted this response:

“The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”

Elsewhere, that response has been called “a smoking gun” of media bias, and with good reason. If Pexton was capable of objectivity, a competent expert in the ethics of journalism rather than the biased dolt that he is, he would have written something like this:

“The reporter’s response proves the readers’ point, I’m afraid. This isn’t the statement of a journalist, but of an advocate, and also of a reporter who misunderstands his own profession. Journalism is NOT “about justice and fairness,” because reporters are not qualified by training, intellect or inclination to determine what justice and fairness are. Their job is to clearly and objectively report the facts, and let readers make up their own minds. If this reporter is accurate that this is “the ‘view of the world’  that journalists espouse, then American journalism, including the Washington Post, has lost its way.”

He did not write that, however. Worse yet, he chose to withhold the name of the reporter, which is inexcusable. Presumably, he also failed to report the reporter to the Post’s publisher and editors, so they at least had the opportunity to fire him or send him to remedial journalism school. Of course, they wouldn’t have done that: they would have slapped him on the back, given him a bonus and said, “Attaboy!” Is there any further doubt, with journalists at major publications seeing their roles as vigilantes for whatever their juvenile brains perceive as “justice,” why the mainstream media refuses to critically report on the Obama administration? Why it enabled the incoherent nonsense of Occupy Wall Street? Or why it thinks it is good journalism to openly shill for gun control, Obamacare, open borders, and same-sex marriage?

Then Pexton gave his own, sad, biased assessment of the same-sex marriage debate, writing, “most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do.” Oh, nice. “Religionists”—now there’s a disrespectful, pejorative, loaded word if ever there was one. Pexton, essentially, dismisses more than half the nation with one sneering term, and this is the man the Post chose to root out bias in its ranks!

He went on: “We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.” Yes, and those you sneer at want to own guns, protect their families, spend the money they earn, educate their children, buy Big Gulps, decide whether or not to have health insurance, get SUV’s,  pass on the money they save during their lives to their kids and release helium balloons into the air pretty much when, where and how they choose, you arrogant, hypocritical stuffed shirt.

Here’s the ombudsman’s “fair” and nuanced argument against same sex marriage opponents:

“Yet many Americans feel that allowing gay men and lesbians to marry diminishes the value of their heterosexual marriages. I don’t understand this. The lesbian couple down the street raising two kids or the two men across the hall in your condominium — how do those unions take anything away from the sanctity, fidelity or joy you take in your heterosexual marriage? Isn’t your marriage, at root, based on the love and commitment you have for your spouse, not what you think about the neighbors?”

This false (or dumb) characterization is not the argument of same-sex marriage opponents. They don’t argue that it undermines their own marriages, which would be absurd, but the institution of marriage as a whole, what they regard, correctly, as a crucial cornerstone in the structure of a stable society. They see same sex marriage as trivializing and generalizing marriage, flinging open the door to “marriage” becoming the equivalent of a legal endorsement of any human relationship. They are dead wrong about this, by the way, but their argument deserves engagement on its actual features, not a warped version created to knock down. Then there are the millions of good, sincere Americans who were raised, as I was, and as virtually all Americans were prior to 1990, to believe that homosexuality is a sin, because that is what the Holy Bible seems to say.  Pexton puts them in their places too:

“Many journalists… see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing.”

And, Pexton clearly believes, so they should. This is also a false comparison, however. Race discrimination arose from a lot more than religious can’t, and the ancient taboos against homosexuality once had sound practical justifications. Racism was bolstered by greed and power; anti-gay bias is fueled by ignorance and fear, and bolstered by well-established and widely respected moral codes that are, as moral codes are at risk of becoming, out of date. Ethical journalists help advance gay rights by telling the truth, allowing all sides to be heard, and believing that common sense will prevail, as indeed it is doing in this matter, at remarkable speed. A journalist who sees every opponent of same sex marriage as the equivalent of Simon Legree simply is not qualified to report on the topic, and perhaps isn’t qualified to report on anything.

The Post is unlikely to perceive or address the problems of unethical and biased journalism in its ranks with its new “reader representative” gimmick. But it wasn’t going to do so with the pathetic  assistance of an ombudsman like Pexton B. Paxton, The Worst Ombudsman Ever, either.

_____________________________
Source: Washington Post 1, Washington Post 2

Graphic: Mooseburger

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

4 thoughts on “The Washington Post Gives Up On Independent Ombudsmen: 1) Too Bad, Because It Needs One Desperately and 2) No Wonder, Since Its Last One Was A Bozo

  1. I have a few comments.

    . Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.

    Julius Streicher published his view of justice and fairness.

    Is there any further doubt, with journalists at major publications seeing their roles as vigilantes for whatever their juvenile brains perceive as “justice,” why the mainstream media refuses to critically report on the Obama administration? Why it enabled the incoherent nonsense of Occupy Wall Street? Or why it thinks it is good journalism to openly shill for gun control, Obamacare, open borders, and same-sex marriage?

    There is no doubt.

    Let us suppose further that the mainstream media had engaged in an anti-gay campaign, biasing their reporting against gays, portraying them as immoral perverts who are after our kids. I surmise that if the media did that, most Americans would want to burn people at the stake for merely having homosexual feelings.

    They are dead wrong about this, by the way, but their argument deserves engagement on its actual features, not a warped version created to knock down.

    I quote Jeff Jacoby.

    Plenty of men and women find the traditional boundaries of marriage constricting. Some men would prefer two or three wives. Others are attracted to their daughter, or to the wife next door. Bisexuals might like both a husband and a wife. There are women who crave an intimate relationship with their brothers. If marriage is to be redefined so that it includes same-sex unions, why shouldn’t it be redefined to include all unions?

    The hard reality — however much gay advocates evade it — is that there are only two options: Either marriage is restricted to one man plus one (unrelated) woman or it is not restricted at all. Change the law so that two men can be deemed “married,” and what grounds can there possibly be not to deem three men married? Or three men and a woman? Or a brother and sister?

    This is not the first time in American history that practitioners of “alternative” marriage have been denied legal approval.

    In 1849, the Mormon settlers of Utah — it was then called Deseret — applied to Congress for admission to the United States. Their petition was denied for 44 years, largely because the federal government refused to sanction the Mormons’ polygamous marriages. Not until the Mormons banned polygamy and wrote that ban into their constitution were they allowed to join the Union.

    Is there any argument made today for redefining marriage to encompass same-sex unions that would not have applied with equal force to the multiple-wife marriages of Deseret? Those were loving, stable, supportive relationships, entered into by sober people who wanted to spend their lives together. “How does the fact that I love four women and live with them in a committed relationship,” a 19th-century Mormon Barney Frank might have asked, “threaten your marriage?”

    But threats have nothing to do with it. Society is under no obligation to radically revise its most fundamental institution just because a small number of activists demands it. The burden of proof is on the revisionists, be they Mormons in the 1850s or homosexuals in the 1990s.

    Racism was bolstered by greed and power; anti-gay bias is fueled by ignorance and fear, and bolstered by well-established and widely respected moral codes that are, as moral codes are at risk of becoming, out of date

    How can moral codes go out of date?

    Of course, if they can, what is next?
    Would the idea that rape is evil become outdated? What about genocide?

    “Many journalists… see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing.”

    I see them as the successors of Justin Morrill and George F. Edmunds, who defended marriage.

    • How? Moral codes are created by authorities to control damaging behavior under specific circumstances, at specific times, by declaring it wrong as well as forbidden. Eating pork was dangerous; homosexuality threatened continuity of the tribe; birth control was dangerous at a time of high and early mortality; premarital sex undermined societal order, etc. When such conduct no longer legitimately threatens society and harms no one, then it is no longer unethical, and the moral code is anachronistic. That’s what ethics i superior to morality–it is based on ongoing inquiry and analysis, not cant, edict and tradition.

      I come from a religion in which it is regarded as immoral to marry anyone not born into the church. My parents had such a marriage, performed by the priest who became the head of the church. My sister and I were still regarded as the product of sin, and illegitimate according to an outdated and stupid moral code: once, in a service, the priest said so outright, and my Dad walked out the door, never to return (neither did I.) A pretty clear example, no?

      • Not at all. You fail to distinguish between a social more and a moral code. Social mores can and do change with the seasons – as societies change, behavior which is approved of by it willnaturally change as well. But those who choose to adhere to a moral code (and it is and should be a choice, not that it’s always such in practice) do so BECAUSE it is a set of rules which will be true regardless of the whims of society. If a person believes that a moral rule has come from a source they trust to be impartial, then they must either accept the rule as written, or find a new set of moral codes to adhere to. Or convince the source of the rule that it needs to be changed, at which time the amended rule must be put into practice. Such rules may come from a divine being, a logical treatise, a valued role model, a governing body, or even other cultures.

        Looking at pre-marital sex (as it’s a far less touchy subject) you are correct that society has an interest in preventing it – it leads to a breakdown of society as you suggest. But at the same time, if one adheres to the belief that the Bible (looking simply at the moral codes of biblical Christianity, which I am most familiar with) is a set of rules handed down by a loving God who wishes only the best for them, then there is an additional, moral stricture against it. This moral stricture is motivated by the belief that this loving God has warned that pre-marital sex will be a source of misery, not joy. Such an act can easily be declared legal or illegal, of course. Society can change its mind, laws can be rewritten or removed, ethics would state that if no one was harmed and no obviously unethical principals were followed then it would likely be an ethical act (more arguments and discussion soon to follow.) But the moral dictate – a source I trust unreservedly has warned me against this action – will remain in force until the source alters the nature of the warning, becomes untrustworthy, or I choose to reject the moral code in its entirety. (Of course, there is the far more popular option of ignoring those rules which I find I have no desire to keep, but this option, I think we can agree, demonstrates a lack of commitment, sincerity of belief, and integrity.)

        An old college professor of mine summed it up best, I think: Ethics are the rules that a given group holds you accountable to, whether that be a specific governing body, or humanity as a whole. Morality is those rules you hold yourself accountable to, because you believe those rules to be true.

        • You are required to discuss these issues according to the definitions used here, on Ethics Alarms, unfortunately, not the definition of your old professor. One of the many obstacles ethics faces as a topic is that those in the field can’t even agree on consistent terminology, making a decision regarding which of many options to choose imperative on a blog such as this. You will find the definitions of morals, morality, ethics, etc here. I’m not going to acknowledge others (they did not originate with me), equally valid though they may be, because they will just muddy the discussion.

          The position here, for the record, is that God does not dictate morality, human beings who presume to know what God wants dictate morality under real or imagined authority to do so. That means that all moral codes are fallible by definition.

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