News - Watch the watchdog

Time for the AJC to replace the public (relations) editor

Remember Richard Jewell? The Olympic bombing hero sued The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the AJC broke the story that law enforcement briefly considered Jewell a suspect in the crime. Among other shortcomings, the AJC incorrectly reported that Jewell sought publicity for having found the bomb. Then, the paper equated him with a serial murderer.

Excellent journalism? Hardly. But you wouldn't see any flaws acknowledged in the paper. The AJC's lawyers and executives have a longstanding position on the matter. They repeat it whenever asked about Jewell's seven-year-old lawsuit: They're proud of their coverage, and it contained no errors.

The last couple of years have shown that newspapers can do worse things. In one recent high-profile scandal, USA Today hotshot Joe Kelley resigned in the face of evidence that he manufactured stories. Meanwhile, The New York Times expressed very public angst for trumpeting misleading administration spin about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. And closer to home, the Macon Telegraph weathered revelations that two of its reporters separately were caught plagiarizing.

Our local daily has an opportunity this fall to help turn around the public's growing skepticism of daily papers. Editors confirmed last week that they plan to transfer Public Editor Mike King to the newspaper's editorial board and to replace him in November with Angela Tuck, who had been the newsroom's personnel recruiter.

AJC Editor Julia Wallace instead should follow the lead of the nation's best dailies. She should restructure the public editor's position, which the AJC promotes as a reader's advocate within the newsroom but which has fallen short in truly scrutinizing the paper.

Rather than transferring staff members into the awkward job of critiquing their colleagues, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and others hire an outsider for a set term as an ombudsman. Usually the ombudsman is a respected journalist, perhaps the former editor of a major daily. To ensure independence, he or she reports to someone outside the newsroom. Just as reporters keep government and industry in check, the ombudsman watches the watchdog.

Many journalists are confused about the benefits of such an arrangement. An ombudsman doesn't immunize a paper from scandals or bad journalism. But the independent setup emulates the kind of conflict-free relationship that journalists should have with the subjects they cover. It's difficult to label the leaders of a daily that hires an ombudsman as a bunch of thin-skinned hypocrites who are unwilling to cast the harsh light on themselves that they readily cast on others.

But the AJC doesn't bother to emulate conflict-free relationships. In 1999, then-Editor Ron Martin named as Public Editor George Edmonson, an assistant managing editor.

According to depositions, Edmonson was involved in part of the Jewell coverage, so don't expect to find in the paper's archives much coverage by Edmonson on the paper's biggest controversy.

My favorite Edmonson moment came when he spent a column marveling at what a great deal the paper was. "Jam-packed newspaper is a 50-cent bargain," blared the headline. "As I sat reading at the kitchen table," he wrote, "I also couldn't help but think: What a newspaper." As I sat reading his column at the kitchen table, I couldn't help but think: What a suck-up.

After nearly two years of sycophantic praise and faint criticism, Edmonson got a nice job in the Washington bureau. Editorialists often call that "the appearance of a conflict of interest": Don't step on management's toes, and you'll get a nice gig when this is all over.

As a former metro editor, King brought a bit more depth to the column. But a guy who led the AJC's local news coverage for eight years can't turn overnight into a credible critic of the newsroom he helped put together.

For instance, King, as metro editor, oversaw the AJC's de-emphasis of state Capitol coverage, a move that was skewered in American Journalism Review. Under the new leadership of Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff, the paper restocked the Capitol beat with veteran reporters. King's response? A column obliquely mocking the importance of legislative coverage. Hmmm. I wonder if King's defensiveness about his own earlier decisions as metro editor could have colored his opinion as public editor.

At least that article touched on a consequential subject. Most of King's columns read like he was the public relations editor: What a nice crop of summer interns! Ain't it tough to be a copy editor! And that old standby: Those lingerie ads sure are getting racy, aren't they? It's hard to imagine that Tuck, a longtime AJC staffer, will do things much differently. No reflection on her; the job's just not structured that way.

Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker confirmed that the change would be made after the November election but referred questions about the public editor to Wallace. Wallace could not be reached for comment.

In defense of King and Edmonson, both have described how unpopular they've felt in the newsroom, particularly because their jobs entail bringing readers' complaints to the attention of writers and editors. That's a sign that they took seriously the portion of the public editor's job that entails working behind-the-scenes as a readers' advocate.

But as we all know, the power of columnists is in what they actually expose to the public. Journalists who demand transparency and a willingness to submit to public scrutiny from other institutions shouldn't be exempt from it themselves.

CL Editor Ken Edelstein — who says, "I'll ask my boss to hire an ombudsman when we become the city's biggest daily" — can be reached at ken.edelstein@creativeloafing.com.

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