The good news: The AJC says it is “re-thinking” its position of Public Editor, the editor responsible for corrections and sustained public gripes to the newspaper. The other good news: The previous Public Editor, Angela Tuck, has moved on to another editor position. Tuck handled the job during an ugly period for the AJC, when the newspaper sharply curbed its reach and eliminated scores of editorial jobs. Unfortunately, Tuck spent much of that time as a public apologist for the AJC’s draconian measures. If she wanted to preserve the publisher’s good will, she probably had no choice.
The not-so-good news is that the AJC has replaced her with another longtime staffer, Matt Kempner. Nothing against Kempner— he has done lots of good work for the newspaper’s business section. This appears to be his first job as an editor, and he appears to be on an upwardly-mobile career track (as were Tuck and her predecessor, current columnist Mike King). Unfortunately, it probably means that Kempner, too, will be the public mouthpiece for the ever-shrinking newspaper.
The AJC could re-think the position, and in so doing, give the newspaper some badly-needed life. Instead of a limp public editor, it could appoint an ombudsman. The Washington Post pioneered the position in 1970 (according to Wikipedia). The New York Times appointed one in 2003, following the Jayson Blair scandal. This article ably describes the Times ombudsman position.
Their ombudsmen have some teeth for this reason: It’s a temporary job, typically filled by an outsider. They have fixed terms of office, and once the term ends, so does their employment with the newspapers. The arrangement prevents exactly what has happened with Tuck— an extended hand upstairs to the editors’ suite, and a pat-on-the-back for a job well done.
At the Times and the Post, the ombudsmen know their next career move will be an exit. So they have no reason to kowtow to those who run the newspaper.
The Post’s public editor, Deborah Howell, has had some very public spats with the newspaper’s editorial folks. Recently, she counted the number of front-page mentions and photos of Barack Obama and compared it to John McCain. Howell wrote: “The disparity is so wide, it doesn’t look good.” She also took on Bob Woodward and David Broder for violating the Post’s policies on accepting speaking fees.
One doesn’t picture that happening at the AJC if the Public Editor ultimately wants to help run the newspaper. We wish Kempner well, but we’ll keep our expectations down to a dull roar, consistent with our expectations for the ever-shrinking AJC.