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The CBC and The New York Times: A tale of two media ombudsmen Add to ...

In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. It’s the same in Ottawa.

For proof, we need look no further than the Annual Report of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Office of the Ombudsman – English Services. Released last month, the purpose of the martini-dry document is to catalogue the public complaints about the CBC’s journalism received over the year by the broadcaster’s so-called audience representative: the one who watches the watchers.

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But if it is written in the carefully modulated, inoffensive tones beloved in the National Capital Region, this year’s edition also contains some unusual moments of quiet dissonance that point to a broadcaster straining to adjust to a world in which everyone is a media critic, ready to scream at a moment’s notice, 140 characters at a time.

For even as other news organizations such as The New York Times are giving their in-house critics larger soapboxes and encouraging them to leap into the sometimes choppy waters of social media, the report implies that CBC is hiding in a bunker and hoping the world simply stops evolving.

It is one of the final missives from Kirk LaPointe, the CBC’s current English-language ombudsman, who will step down in January after only two years in office. (Terms traditionally last five years.) The CBC, he charges, has eliminated “a provision that had permitted ombudsmen to communicate to the ‘wider public’ on matters of ‘concern and consequence.’ This left CBC/Radio-Canada as one of the few organizations with no such latitude for its ombudsmen.” In other words, if a media issue suddenly explodes into the public sphere – say, last week’s New York Post subway-death cover, or a controversy over Middle East coverage at another news organization – neither he nor his French-language counterpart may add their voices to the debate.

This is a rough-and-tumble era for news organizations, and not just for their flailing business models. Complaints about bias or shoddy work flood across the transom and e-mail – and certainly Tweetdeck – in record volumes. Editors are learning that they need to address them all, fully and as quickly as possible, or risk a public flogging. They need to be in the moment, speaking authentically, without spin.

(The Globe and Mail knows this first-hand. In September, an Ottawa-area blogger by the name of Carol Wainio raised the question of whether Globe columnist Margaret Wente had committed plagiarism. The paper’s public editor Sylvia Stead handled the matter in a manner she later acknowledged was insufficient, in part because of pressure to respond in social-media time.)

Not all news organizations think public editors or ombudspeople are necessary: Last month, Rupert Murdoch (the supreme overlord of The New York Post, the U.K. Sun and other papers) tweeted wryly that “We see all two million daily subscribers as our very public editors.”

But the brave newsrooms are experimenting with the role of the readers’ rep, sometimes with messy results. In September, The New York Times appointed a new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who quickly grabbed headlines for a Mohammed Morsi-style expansion of the office’s power. In her short tenure, she has offered freewheeling advice on the comportment of Times editors and reporters, slapped down the paper’s CEO, and given cheer to some of the paper’s harshest critics.

In October, the Times got dragged sideways into the BBC’s Jimmy Savile child sexual abuse scandal when reports surfaced that its incoming CEO Mark Thompson may have had more knowledge of the situation than he’d let on. Sullivan took to her blog, insisting that the paper “must aggressively cover” the story. “The Times might start by publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew, and when, about what happened at the BBC.”

As it happens, a Times reporter was at that very moment conducting an interview with Thompson, which resulted in a story published the following day. The optics were jarring: To the casual reader, it may have seemed as if Sullivan’s blog post had spurred the paper to step up its coverage of the story.

Shortly afterward, Sullivan also smacked down Nate Silver, the freelance stats whiz whose politics blog FiveThirtyEight.com is housed on the Times’s website, for trying to make a bet about his election predictions with the MSNBC blowhard Joe Scarborough. “[T]he wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome,” Sullivan wrote in a blog post that went viral.

Sullivan has also held “office hours” on Twitter, inviting fans and critics to engage in chats. And last week, she criticized the Times for not sending its own reporter to cover the pre-trial hearing of Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks.

Meanwhile, CBC announced a new ombudsman last month who appears to have a dully traditional view of the job. Esther Enkin has been at the CBC for more than 25 years, most recently as the executive editor of CBC News – a job that put her in direct opposition to LaPointe, as the defender of the newsroom’s operations.

In an interview on the day of her appointment, she disagreed with LaPointe’s contention that the ombud’s mandate had been narrowed. She also made it clear she was not interested in aping Margaret Sullivan. “It’s not about me,” she said.

She will be on Twitter, but cautiously so. “I’m mindful that I’m in a position where I’m going to be making lots and lots of judgments,” she explained. “I think it’s self-important to draw an analogy to a judge on a bench, but I think ombudsmen should be holding their own council to a certain extent, and not declaiming.”

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