May 1 2005

Self-Described Ombudsmen

Editor's Note

The ombuds at both the Washington Post and Boston Globe have written lately to complain about organized letter campaigns of the sort FAIR organizes. The Globe‘s Christine Chinlund’s farewell column (4/25/05) contrasted “ideologues’ web-orchestrated campaigns” with the “legitimate criticism” of people who arrive at their opinions “with honest independence.”

The Post‘s Michael Getler (4/24/05), responding to a FAIR alert, complained of how “annoying” it was to be “inundated” by messages generated by a “self-described media watchdog operation,” saying he would prefer “one letter directly from FAIR laying out its critique.”

It’s curious for newspaper representatives to suggest that it’s illegitimate for people to have an opinion, as Getler put it, “because somebody alerted them to something”–given that newspapers are ostensibly in the alerting business. Both the Post and the Globe offer editorials every day, attempting to persuade readers to alter their opinions. Sometimes they urge readers to take a particular action, like voting for a particular candidate. If someone’s opinion has been influenced by a newspaper, is it somehow illegitimate because it wasn’t arrived at through “honest independence”?

We have, in fact, written individual letters to Getler and others at the Post, and gotten no response. The message we got was that the Post does not care a great deal about what FAIR thinks, which is of course the paper’s prerogative. It appears to care a great deal more about what hundreds and sometimes thousands of members of the public think, which seems to make good business sense.

Aside from the fact that letter-writing campaigns clearly get more results than a private letter, it’s FAIR’s belief that an active and engaged public is essential in redressing some of the serious, dangerous problems that exist in the news media. Allowing readers to be passive spectators to a dialogue that goes on between FAIR and news outlets does not bring us closer to that goal. A mass letter-writing campaign that encourages activists to express themselves in their own words, on the other hand, just might.