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It's tough being an ombudshusband

By Roderick Nordell / January 6, 2006



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Journalism is looking in the mirror more than ever and letting us read all about it. I feel for the in-house makeover writers as they microjudge whether star reporters erred and editors slept while sources in high places got accused of lying and spying.

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Now I've found a retired person's alternative to being a reader representative, public editor, or some other euphemism for ombudsman. All I have to do is judge myself lest I be judged by an anonymous wife.

I nod a corporate nod as an obviously appalled newspaper evaluator tries to convey some hope by offering ways to improve the future. But let's not pretend systemic measures will mean better media unless individuals measure themselves. This is where my free shareware concept comes in: everyone as his or her own ombudsperson. Not only journalism could use a guideline like one asserted by Jim Lehrer of PBS's NewsHour: "Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me."

It was wrong of me to have waited 15 seconds before answering my spouse's question about lunch, thus bringing the reprimand, "Honey!" A grand jury might excuse me for having my mouth full of apple cider. But when you're an ombudshusband it's not enough to be legal. You have to be perfect.

I'm all right with that. I'm happy to leak the anonymous spouse's opinion that the garden looked good after I tore down the monster frostbitten tomato vines in her absence. But it was a judgment call. She shouldn't be blamed for the compliment.

No contest that I should have told her what I had heard from her friend on the phone long before I did tell her. Fortunately I don't face a second grand jury, as the Washington leakers do.

This ombudshusband remembered to tell his spouse before the day was out. I acted even faster when the ballet tickets I ordered online came through for the wrong performance. Anonymous spouse wanted the ticket service to make a correction right away.

I didn't say that my source got it wrong. I took responsibility for clicking on the right date but not the right time for the only performance Ms. Anonymous wanted to see.

Does it seem surreal to spell out something like this? That's what ombudshusbands do. The ticket service was very understanding and fixed my mistake, but I will not use this to advise the next ombudsgeneration to relax and let someone else be perfect.

So far my editor - er, wife - has not fiddled with the organization chart to ensure better performance from the staff. And I want to keep it that way.

Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.

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