Philip M. Foisie’s memos to the management of The Washington Post

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(The following information was provided to The Organization of News Ombudsmen for transfer to this web site by Geoffrey Foisie in December 1995. It relates to the early history of ombudsmanship and the significant role played by his late father, Philip M. Foisie, the first ombudsman at Stars and Stripes, former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and former foreign editor of The Washington Post.)

November 10, 1969

TO: Ben Bradlee, Gene Patterson
FROM: Phil Foisie
RE: A proposal for an ombudsman for the Post

I suggest that the Post select, or cause to be selected, by some method credible to our readers, a panel representing a cross-section of our circulation area, whose primary task would be to select a non-employe of the Post to serve our readers as an ombudsman.

The Post would set aside a sum of money as a fund which would be formally administered by the panel. Members of the panel would not be reimbursed for their services, which would be minimal. The pay and expenses of the ombudsman would be met from this fund.

The ombudsman would be under contract to serve for a set period of time — perhaps a year or a little longer — and his pay would be guaranteed for the entire period. His contract would be non-renewable. At the end of that time, the panel, or a panel similarly selected, would employ another ombudsman under the same conditions.

The Post could have a veto on the ombudsman named but no person could be selected for that role without the agreement of every member of the panel.

The ombudsman would:

  • Report to the readers of the Post about the performance of the Post itself. That is, he or she would give Post readers news and analysis of the only major institution in the Washington area not now covered by the Post. 
  • Report to our readers about the performance of the newspaper industry — and perhaps news magazines as well — thus closing a big gap in our critical coverage. 
  • Receive and weigh all major substantive grievances from our reading public that come to him directly, or are passed onto him by the Post editors. He would decide, after checking, whether the complaint should be answered by a letter to the complainer or by a correction or explanation (in defense or condemnation of the Post) that would appear in print in the Post.

The Post would reserve the right to refuse to publish any communication from the ombudsman. But it would undertake to agree to publish a statement from the ombudsman saying that something he had submitted (generally described) would not be published in the Post, and where it would be published. Together with this statement would be the Post’s explanation for its decision, if it chose to offer one.

The ombudsman would be given a certain amount of space in the Post each week. We would reserve the right to publish any response to the ombudsman in that space or in adjacent space.

I realize the risk in this. There could be embarrassment. We would not be stuck with an impossible ombudsman, because we would retain the right to veto the panel’s selection. We should explain to the panel that we must have an ombudsman who was mature, tolerant, understood the limitations and the problems of the newspaper industry. but there would be a risk, even with such a man.

There should also be an enormous gain. I believe that credibility is one of our most serious problems. When it is translated into the loss of circulation in the inner city, it is a serious short-term problem. When it is translated into the difficult-to-measure erosion of confidence among many levels of our readership in this age of dissent — an age when the blandest of impartiality is equated with opposition — then the problem is longer range but probably much more serious.

We could go the Louisville route, of course, and whatever we do, we should at least do this. Phone calls should be answered attentively and politely. But the Louisville “ombudsman” — and I know the man and his method — is really little more than a promotional effort. It does not have the cutting edge to penetrate to the core of our credibility problem (or theirs, I presume).

The entire name of the game is credibility. That is why I believe:

  • The ombudsman, in the larger sense, must be a credible outsider. He should not even have an office in the Post (although he would probably spend part of each day in our newsroom) and his calls should not pass through our switchboard. 
  • The panel members, each of whom should be credible to the segment of our circulation area that they represent, must not be reimbursed, and the ombudsman must have a short and predetermined tenure. There must be no reasonable doubt that anyone involved in this effort could benefit by ingratiating himself with the Post management. 
  • The panel must represent extreme positions. There would have to be a black militant, no Panther but a touch cookie; some former official in government like Rusk (not Rusk, of course, for obvious reasons) who has a history of regarding the press, or the Post, as an enemy; and so forth. 
  • All of this should be reported in the Post, as a news story, or by the ombudsman in his introductory column, to our readers, and the whole effort should be widely “advertised.” I would be surprised and disappointed if this were not dwelled on in the media columns of the news magazines, let alone E&P, and did not become something of the talk of the industry.

I feel we should be careful not to treat this concept as a way to slough off harassing complaints or to dump irrational gripes; not to think of it as a substitute for the letters-to-the-editor column. The people who complain to us now, as the Polish press attach‚ complains to Harry Rosenfeld, would continue to do so. This would be an independent operation. But I would suspect that any good ombudsman, looking for clues, would begin each day reading our Letters to the Editor column, and would then devour the rest of the paper.

I suspect that we would learn a lot about our failings, and our readers, from the ombudsman, and — more important — that the readers would learn a lot about the Post. My hope is that, given a fair-minded and realistic ombudsman (and we do have the power of veto), the Post would come out of this well, and more credible.

I also expect that, if done right, this would be done of the best read and most interesting features of the paper.

We can, and should, start slowly, and do it step by step. We could at least select a candidate-panel and discuss the idea. We could call a halt at any time until it came to publishing that first news story about the idea itself.

We could adopt part of the idea and drop the rest. You might wish to decree that the ombudsman would not write about the Post itself; or would write about the Post but not our competitors; or would write about the Post but undertake not to get into personalities on the Post. Any number of variations.

It is not enough to say that our paper, as it appears each morning, is its own credo, that ultimately we are our own ombudsman. It has not proven to be, possibly cannot be. Even if it were, it would not be viewed as such. It is too much to ask the reader to believe that we are capable of being honest and objective about ourselves.

I would appreciate an opportunity to explain this idea in person should it come up for discussion.

* * *
 November 21, 1969

TO: Mrs. Graham, Ben Bradlee, Philip Geyelin, Eugene Patterson, Howard Simons
FROM: Philip Foisie
RE: Further thoughts on the ombudsman in the wake of the luncheon discussion.

1. Let’s drop the panel idea for now, as an essential part of the plan. We should pick our own man, at least the first time around.

2. I still feel that the first ombudsman must be an outsider, not Chal, who will not be ready for that task in any event in time to inaugurate the role. Chal could be the second man chosen, if all goes well.

3. I thought of a man — Phillips Talbot. He has been a working newsman; writes with precision if not distinction; is quiet, thoughtful and fair-minded; would be especially credible to several areas of alienation as a former government man (assistant secretary of state and ambassador, with a track record of disputing Post coverage in at least one area — Greece); with academia; with business, I think. And I believe he is a bit loose now and might be able to take a year off.

4. I suggest that the following step-by-step approach to the following problems posed by the idea:

a. Staff reaction: Bradlee and Patterson could gather together in some informal and relaxed venue a group of reporters to discuss our session on tilt at Puerto Rico, and then speculate about the ombudsman idea and test the reaction. I feel, incidentally, that the idea would be less onerous to the staff if the ombudsman on the first go-around was not one of them, but an outsider. Perhaps we should wait until after the current negotiations.

b. Tentatively offer the job to your choice and get his agreement.

c. Go to the full staff and determine that the idea will fly without too much trouble.

d. Go back to the ombudsman-select, work out the details, and announce it.

5. I suggest this step-by-step approach on the details of the ombudsman’s role:

a. Restrict him first to reader- or source-initiated complaints. He would not have an independent investigatory role at first, but could be given this enlarged role after a few months if all goes well.

b. Restrict him to complaints about stories or the pattern of coverage on the news pages, excluding the editorials and columnists. Again, the role could be enlarged later.

c. Restrict him to complaints about stories or coverage that appeared after his role had been announced. No ex-post facto re-hashing.

d. Keep him just on the Post. Add comment on the entire industry later — though I think this is very necessary to us, because even when we err, we look good in terms of the industry as a whole.

e. Refuse him the right to write about personalities on the Post, except as it is necessary to identify the reporter involved in a story he is investigating.

f. Keep the rules outlined in the first memo, as follows: “The Post would reserve the right to refuse to publish any communication from the ombudsman. but it would undertake to agree to publish a statement from the ombudsman saying that something he had submitted (generally described) would not be published in the Post, and where it would be published. Together with this statement would be the Post’s explanation for its decision, if it chose to offer one.

“The ombudsman would be given a certain amount of space in the Post each week. We would reserve the right to publish any response to the ombudsman in that space or in adjacent space.”

But I would add this procedure: The ombudsman must inform Bradlee or Patterson or someone they designate in their absence, before approaching a member of the staff to discuss a story the staffer had written. He would otherwise have the run of the newsroom, and, to save money, I guess it is not necessary that he had an office outside the Post, but at least it should not be on the 5th floor. I still feel he should have an outside phone number.

6. I still think we ought to select and meet with a representative group of outsiders to discuss this idea (but without giving them a role in it at first). For one thing, we should test their reaction — see if this device would enhance our credibility in their areas.

We might do this after meeting with the staff, before announcing the ombudsmanship, or we might do it after the plan has been established.

If we got such a group, we might meet with them a second time, after the ombudsman had gone to work, to test the results. After a time, if and as things went well, we could:

a. arrange to meet the panel periodically.

b. invite them to submit their own thoughts to the ombudsman.

c. arrange for the ombudsman to meet regularly with them.

d. after a year or so, if it then seemed wise, we might bring them into the business of helping select future ombudsmen.

But if the panel idea proves unworkable, it can be stopped after the first meeting, or its role can remain restricted.

7. If and as the plan is enlarged, the reader would be informed. We would cover it as a continuing and “hard” news story — or he would.

8. A further thought on the step-by-step approach: We might wish to restrict the ombudsman at first to local coverage, or to national-foreign coverage; or we might wish to have two half-time ombudsmen — one on local grievances, one on national.

9. Finally, I feel three principles should guide us:

a. We should go it alone, whatever we do.

      A Washington area “press council,” or an industry-wide “grievance committee” would taint us with the more numerous sins of other publications, and thus muddy our image. And if there is to be any merit, we should be the sole beneficiary.

b. We must be first. The entire industry is now moving in the direction (and so is the law, medicine, business and other endeavors as well). It would be a shame if we had to follow instead of to lead.

c. We must not be defensive, either with the public or the staff. We should not publicly reflect a concern over outside pressure….Our primary motive is to impose upon ourselves a formal accountability that custom and the Constitution has denied us. And it should be made plain, in reporting this development to the reader, that our thoughts and plans preceded recent criticism.

With the staff, I would note that professionally, if it is a just world, much honor and prestige will go to those who have the courage to pioneer in this and to work under the added discipline that an ombudsmanship implies. But there must be no added inhibition — only the restraint that any newsman should feel as he seeks to be accurate and fair.

d. We should be optimistic. We will get hurt, and we will be embarrassed, but we should assume, publicly and privately, that this cannot help [but] to work to our advantage in the long-run, because we are good and the weight of our readers are fair-minded.

The Washington Post gave Geoffrey Foisie permission to release the preceding memos in a letter signed by Leonard Downie Jr. and dated Nov. 9, 1995.

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