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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ombudsman Position Available: Must Have Thick Skin and Sense of Humor

NPR has announced that it is looking for its next ombudsman. Alicia "Lisa" Shepard has been doing it for almost three years and her term will end in the spring. The link to the posting is here.

I'm not applying. I'm having too much fun teaching at Centennial College and the University of Toronto. But I would urge those of you who are tempted at the prospect of having a front row seat on the First Amendment to seriously consider this position. There isn't a better job anywhere in broadcast and online journalism.

I was NPR's first ombudsman from 2000 until 2006 and although there were times when the pressure was intense, I look back on it now as the best and most fascinating job of journalism in my career.

Setting up the office of the ombudsman was challenging, to say the least; the public was suspicious that I was just a manager in ombudsman's garb. NPR journalists were wary that I was the in-house scold. Some in management thought that my role was to be part of the NPR's p.r. efforts. I had to show that the role was none of these, but rather to get and keep the public inside public radio.

Some days were more rewarding than others. The pace was exhilarating and occasionally exhausting. I ombuds-ed (is that the right word?) through a disputed election, 9/11, the Intifada, the War in Iraq and the rise of Barack Obama.  After six and a half years, I felt it was time to let someone else have the joys.

A few memorable moments: I was invited to a town hall meeting with the local Jewish community in Potomac, Maryland. The rabbi warned me that it would be hot as tensions were high over the perceived anti-Israel bias of all media and of NPR specifically. I told him I was ready but I hoped he would be there as a moderating and calming voice for the evening.

At the first sign of shouting, the rabbi suddenly disappeared. I never saw him again over the course of a three hour shout-fest. Now that was a long evening.

On an phone-in program on the public radio station in Eugene, Oregon, I learned something about different news agendas. It was 2003 and I expected there would be a lot of concern about Iraq and the Bush administration. The first caller was announced: "Mountain Mike is on the line with the NPR Ombudsman. Go ahead Mountain Mike..."

Mountain Mike was furious with what he perceived as NPR's ignoring the lack of reforestation programs in Oregon. He was convinced the logging companies had got to us. It was a good reminder that what's important in DC isn't always the same in the rest of the country.

When I held the position, it was literally a seven-day-a-week job. Emails poured in at all hours. Taking a weekend away from the computer would guarantee that I would be cyber-shoveling out my in tray for all of Monday...

The key to the job (in my opinion) was to take the listeners seriously, but never personally, even when the invective did get a bit personal. Walking away from the computer and the phone for a quick stroll around the block was also therapeutic...But I learned a lot from NPR's devoted listeners whose passion was always inspiring. NPR was (and still is) the civic lifeline for millions of devoted fans around the country and the world.

Lisa has had her share of outraged listeners and I think she's done a great job with what has been described as "the loneliest job in journalism." I know her shoes will be hard to fill.

1 comment:

  1. "she's done a great job"

    This NPR listerner begs to differ, having had numerous emails ignored by Ms. Shepard, I have witness little cocern for NPR's listeners.

    She is nothing but a PR shill for NPR's "unhealthy deference to the Bush White House" (your words not mine) that continues to this day.

    I just pray they hire someone who at least is smart enough and brave enough to call "torture" torture, not "aggressive interrogation" or other Orwellian nonsense. From On The Media:

    "BOB GARFIELD: I should point out that as Ombudsman, your job is to be the link between the audience and the NPR News Department. You aren't a mouthpiece for management. But, in this case, you do seem to be sympathetic and supportive of the NPR policy, no?'

    She rarely took the viewers side, was always deferential to complaints from the Right, and repeatedly ignored NPR Code of Ethics when it came to NPR's staff working (and making more money) at FOX News.

    Don't take my word for it here's the CPB Ombudsman describing Juan Willaim's FOX relationship as an "embarrassment".

    Shepard claimed she didn't know the meaning of the word "torture" and the balance was more important than the truth. She is a poster girl for the decay of American Journalism in to cowardly corporate controlled Center Right pablum.

    Most recently she appears to be flat out lying about why NPR banned adds for Harry Shearer's critically claimed documentary (critical of Bush and the US government).

    Sadly she is a good example of what passes for journalism at NPR.