The New York Times is searching for a new public editor, what used to be called an ombudsman.

Dan Gilmour of The Guardian had been asked to be considered and he has published what his ideas were for the job. He is no longer on the short list. He termed his suggestions a “manifesto in the social media era.”

As he noted, the paper’s first public editor, itself a title that sought to distance the paper from the concept of criticism and errors, was to “work outside of the reporting and editing structure of the Times and receive and answer questions or comments from readers and the public.” He was also expected to publish “periodic commentaries in the paper about the Times’s journalistic practices and current journalistic issues in general.”

That was how things were viewed in 2003.

In an piece he wrote earlier this year, Gilmour presented a new approach, predicated on the idea that news organizations should not be afraid of their own shadows and should demonstrate that criticism is welcomed rather than dreading it.

This approach is based on the simple but undeniable fact that today, in the Internet world, with bloggers and online commentators ever present and ever publishing, “the best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls.”

Gilmour’s nigh-revolutionary program includes having the public editor aggregate what he calls “every responsible critique” of the news outlet to be found; thank those who are right and show when critics are wrong; cross-post the best criticism and encourage newsroom staff to participate in debates.

THIS WHOLE discussion was generated by the Arthur Brisbane imbroglio this past January. Brisbane, the Times’ public editor at the time, had asked in a column “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Jill Abramson, the paper’s executive editor, was forced to admit that “some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness.”

To be fair, the Times, on page two of every day’s edition, carries a correction column, and its online edition constantly appends all corrections to the relevant stories. Nevertheless, as Gilmour observes, the paper buries Brisbane’s work on its website and the reality is that “the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.”

His goal, though, is to “be a host and moderator of a civil conversation,” for after all, the media consumers are and actually should be the most important critics.

In Israel, we are light years away from such thinking.

Let us recall that the first ombudsman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority was the late Victor Grayevsky. He was appointed in 1995 but at the time his job had not yet been fully defined nor was his authority clarified. The new ombudsman regulations of the IBA specified that the exact operating procedures were to be formulated by the executive board of the IBA and submitted for ratification to the Knesset Education Committee, which at the time was the overseer of the IBA.

And it is now time to reveal a secret.

In 1996, after the elections, the two of us were invited to a meeting with Grayevsky which he termed completely “off the record.” He handed over to us the draft of the principles formulated by the IBA executive, which were catastrophic.

Essentially, they limited the public’s access to the ombudsman only to those cases in which the complainant felt that the IBA personally acted against her or him. This formulation stood in stark contrast to the principles guiding the work of the ombudsman of the Second Authority for Television and Radio (SATR) where any person could put in a complaint to the ombudsman on any issue.

At SATR, which oversees the commercial radio stations, the public was given the authority to provide some checks and balances to the vast powers of the media. It was unthinkable that at the public broadcasting authority, the public would be so restricted.

When the issue came up for deliberation in the Education Committee, we demanded that the suggested principles be thoroughly changed, making them roughly equal to those of the SATR. Remarkably, and to our pleasant surprise, Prof. Rina Shapira, who at the time was the chairman of the IBA, agreed to these demands and the necessary changes were introduced and adopted.

INDEED, SINCE then, the law, which is still valid today, provides the IBA ombudsman with the power to deal with any complaint, as she or he sees fit. As a result, the IBA truly became a media consumer-oriented organ and the beginnings of a dialogue with the public developed.

With this power, the second ombudsman, Amos Goren, was able, on the basis of the complaints he received, to issue annual reports in which he provided examples of complaints.

He also publicized decisions he took to either dismiss or, in a growing number of cases, to justify complaints.

Due to his criticism, two “stars” of the IBA, Amnon Abramovitch and Gabi Gazit, were, for all intents and purposes, forced to leave the IBA.

Elisha Shpiegelman followed, but no major advances or improvements were recorded. That all three were former employees of the IBA, with friends in the system as well as a pension fund, certainly inhibits the full independence an ombudsman should possess.

The IBA Public Executive Committee has also been lax in refusing to create a scale of punishment, from reprimand to suspension, for example, and has not provided for even a weekly program that would increase the public’s knowledge of the ombudsman’s work. The IBA did not take the necessary steps to invest the ombudsman with a standing with which he could “take on” the high and mighty.

Since last month, the IBA now has a new, fourth ombudsman – Deddi Markowitz, 39. He has a MA in Communications Studies, was a reporter at Ma’ariv for 14 years and moved up to an editor’s position at their local edition’s network.

But he has already been criticized, in leaks to media correspondents, as not having enough television experience – the unfortunate traditional attempts to stifle him by subversive forces from within the IBA.

Will Markowitz have the inner strength and moral fortitude needed to deal with some of the pressing ethical issues facing the IBA? Will he do something about Moshe Negbi’s exclusive role as the IBA’s legal commentator? Will he assure that Geula Even’s personal opinion columns at her new HaMussaf program will be balanced by other, dissenting opinion? Will he attempt to control the unprofessional interviewing habits of Even as well as Oded Shachar, who barely permit their interviewees to finish a sentence? Most important, too, is how will he fare in comparison with the advances being achieved in other countries?

The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).

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