Looking back on 4 years of critiquing The Herald

Nearly four years ago, I wrote my first column as ombudsman. This is my last. I leave having learned a lot about you, the readers. I leave having failed you, too, in one promise. I learned foremost that you care — about your community and your newspaper. You write a daily avalanche of e-mails to me and others at The Miami Herald or post comments online, often with passion, over issues in South Florida and the state.

When you don’t like how your point of view was treated in an article, you often threaten to cancel your subscription. Few of you actually do, at least for reasons of coverage. If anything, your reaction shows that you are reading the newspaper. And while most of my columns have been critical of something The Herald has done, you and I share this secret: For every article we disagree with, there are many, many more that we like.  No other local news outlet keeps us as well informed.

I also learned your hottest buttons: Cuba, Israel, immigration, taxes, gay rights. And, of course, party politics. Your antennas are acute for any indication that The Herald might be tilting pro-Republican or Democrat.

But whatever your political inclination, the stories you like the most are investigations that ferret out local corruption. As The Herald has redefined itself through smaller staffs, shrinking paper size, and online expansion, you have overwhelmingly implored that it continue investing in the investigations that it does so well. After that, you most like local stories, though the Caribbean Basin and Middle East are local for you, too. You are sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

Few places in the country are so interesting. I am leaving to take up a new post as ombudsman of National Public Radio. I look forward to the political sensitivity of that role as NPR and the media nationally wrestle with how to finance responsible journalism and serve communities. But I will be sad to leave you.

So, how did I let you down? I announced in the beginning that in passing judgment on The Herald’s coverage — on whether it was one-sided, for example, or unfair or incomplete — I would tell you my position on the issue being covered in the original article. It was a revolutionary idea. Here is what I wrote in my first column:

“I’ll tell you upfront, and I’ll tell you my biases, for in the end what I write will necessarily be my own reasoned judgment. But I promise you it will be as fair as I can make it, never cynical, but sometimes irreverent. I strongly believe in good professional journalism, but I don’t think it’s Holy. You are welcome to agree, disagree or demand to kill the ump.”

That first column had to do with the coverage of the Gomez brothers, two young Colombians who were popular students but unauthorized immigrants detained for deportation. Their saga and the proposed Dream Act that might legalize them remains ongoing. Once a Colombian illegal immigrant myself, I wrote that I was sympathetic toward legalizing the unauthorized immigrants in the country.

Still, I criticized The Herald’s coverage for being slanted in favor of the boys. It largely overlooked legitimate questions held by many readers about the fairness of the Dream Act and legalizing the brothers.

But if I lived up to my promise in that first column, I found as the months went by that to state my position on the issues distracted from my critique of the coverage. I became the issue, instead of the reporting and editing by The Herald. As a mechanical matter, it also made the columns too long, especially if I wanted to explain the nuances of my views.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop the practice, but my promise somehow just slipped away.

I still wonder if there is a way to revive the idea, not just for ombudsmen, but for reporters.

We know that journalists are human and have opinions and political preferences. There also is no such thing as pure objectivity. We all see through the lens of our upbringing.

Most reporters stretch mightily to set aside their biases and follow basic journalistic rules. Editors further scrub stories for objectivity and fairness.

But we as a society are now in a cynical “post modern” age in which we have been taught to “deconstruct” articles in search of the writer’s supposed underlying intent. Trust in the news media is low. Would transparency about a reporter’s personal views help recover trust then? Is there a practical way to make it work? Or would it be a distraction from the news itself?

I don’t have the answers but would appreciate knowing your parting thoughts. As the news media fragments into many slivers of opinion, we risk fragmenting as a society and a nation. We need to have at least a common base of facts.

Thank you for the privilege of having been allowed into your homes and your considerations these past four years.

This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on May 1, 2011.
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