Michael Getler has been the ombudsman for The Washington Post since 2000.
He spent 30 years working for the Post and the International Herald Tribune, where the Post was once a partial owner. He's covered military, national security, and diplomacy beats during his career. In 1993, he was named deputy managing editor for the Post, and in 1996 became executive editor for the Herald Tribune.
PRWeek: How and why did you get started in journalism?
Michael Getler: I got started a little more than 50 years ago as a CCNY student. I always wanted to be a writer. Originally, I wanted to write musical comedy, but I never got beyond school skits. I joined the Post in 1970 as a reporter covering military affairs.
PRWeek: What is your role as ombudsman?
Getler: The job is both ombudsman and internal critic. The job involves being a link with the readers who have concerns about the paper's journalism and also being an internal critic. In my column, I deal with the week's most journalistically interesting issue. I try to give insights into how journalists work, what they think they're doing, and how readers perceive it. Sometimes I raise issues myself. I [also] do an internal newsletter to make sure that all reader comments that go to the journalistic mission of the paper get in front of the staff. It's a way to make sure the staff is aware of all of the interesting and substantive comments that readers make.
PRWeek: Does anyone limit what you can write?
Getler: The job is one of complete independence from the paper. I'm not on staff. I work under a contract. Nobody sees my copy before it goes into the paper or gets circulated to the staff. There's no benefit for me in being nice to the newspaper.
PRWeek: What are some of the major issues you've addressed?
Getler: I've written a lot about 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Regarding comments that the Post was soft on the administration before the Iraq war, there's a great deal of ideological fervor out there on both sides, people who feel the paper was certainly not probing enough before the war and who think that now the paper is being too critical of the Bush administration. My feeling is that the coverage was certainly not as thorough and as probing as it should have been. The Post actually did a pretty good job in relation to other news organizations. It had a fair number of stories that challenged the weapons of mass destruction and other issues. But my criticism was that, in too many cases, those stories were buried inside the issue. The paper was less than alert in front paging a number of stories that took place in public, for example early hearings, testimony of retired officers
PRWeek: Can objective, fair reporting be done in today's ideologically divided country?
Getler: The serious news organizations still do quite a good job of reporting the news in fair coverage. You need to have context and some room for experienced journalistic interpretation in certain stories to help people understand the importance of things. You can do that in a way that will be accepted by fair-minded people. News organizations absolutely must make sure they are delivering solid reporting free of spin and ideology. They have to take great care so that the power of the news, the importance of it, can be accepted by people. News organizations need to work very hard to make sure their news is not vulnerable to easy criticism.
PRWeek: Is the Bush administration doing more spin than others you've seen? For example, trying to manipulate news with efforts such as paying a commentator to tout its education agenda?
Getler: This administration does seem a little prone to this, more prone than others. I think that is a really terrible road to go down, a real danger to the media. I think the serious press is under challenge by forces that try to undermine it. Big, serious news organizations have to do their jobs right to make sure their reporting is accurate and fair and informative and not ideological. There is an assault on hard-nosed news reporting that is dangerous and seems to be more aggressive than in the past.
Name: Michael Getler
Outlet: The Washington Post
Preferred contact method: firstname.lastname@example.org