September 21, 2018

Michael Getler, Ombudsman at PBS and Washington Post, Dies at 82

Serving in that watchdog role from 2005 to 2017 at PBS, Mr. Getler understood firsthand the pressures journalists face. When he was a reporter for The Post, his coverage of the Vietnam War and its impact — at a time when the Nixon administration was illegally spying on suspected dissidents in the United States — prompted the Central Intelligence Agency to tap his telephone in 1971, according to government documents.

Mr. Getler was also the Post editor who in 1995 received a 56-page single-spaced typed manifesto from the man, known as the Unabomber, who was responsible for a string of bombings. It arrived on the same day that The New York Times received a copy. The author of the document, titled “Industrial Society and Its Future,” vowed to refrain from further violence if the newspapers published it. They did, and nearly seven months later Ted Kaczynski was arrested and identified as the bomber.

As an ombudsman, Mr. Getler could be critical of his colleagues. He repeatedly complained that reporters and editors had failed to fully explore and challenge the government’s rationale for going to war against Iraq in 2003.

“Almost everything we were told before the war, other than that Saddam Hussein is bad, has turned out, so far, not to be the case,” he wrote in The Post in 2004.

The next year he wrote, “I cannot think of a story in the past 40 years that offers more warning signs for journalism and for the role of the press in our democracy.”

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While he was scrupulous and judicious, Mr. Getler was not immune to criticism himself. The online news site Slate called his insistence on objectivity “perverse” when he criticized a Post national reporter for committing what Slate described as “the unpardonable journalistic crime of writing his own mind” in a review of a campaign book about Hillary Clinton.

One observer likened the grenades lobbed by Mr. Getler to the booming pronouncements of a biblical prophet whose credibility was rarely questioned.

“Because people know Mike so well and respect him so much,” Leonard Downie Jr., the Post’s executive editor at the time, told The Times in 2001, “any criticism from Mike feels different than criticism from anyone else.”

Mr. Getler was born on Nov. 13, 1935, in the Bronx to Alfred Getler, an advertising salesman, and the former Rose Holzweig, who sold silverware.

After growing up on the Grand Concourse and graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he earned a bachelor of business administration degree from City College of New York in 1956 and began his journalism career as a student at The Riverdale Press, a neighborhood newspaper.

Beginning in 1961, Mr. Getler was a reporter and editor for magazines published by American Aviation Publications. He also served in the Naval Reserve from 1956 to 1960, rising to lieutenant. He joined The Post in 1970 and became military affairs correspondent, covered Europe and was named the paper’s national security correspondent.

He went on to rise in the editing ranks, becoming foreign editor, assistant managing editor for foreign news and, during a period when the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes, deputy managing editor.

Besides his wife, the former Sandra Curhan, Mr. Getler is survived by their children, Belinda and Warren Getler; four grandchildren, and his sister, Mae Maidman.

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Mr. Getler was executive editor of The International Herald Tribune from 1996 to 2000, a period when the paper was jointly run by The Post and The Times and published in Paris. (It is now the international edition of The Times.)

Appointed The Post’s internal critic and liaison with readers in 2000, he immediately challenged the newsroom, saying it was putting too much emphasis on feature articles over hard news and long series over daily beat coverage. He also complained about an increasingly snarky tone.

As Mr. Getler was leaving the job in 2005, overwhelmed by the flood of email — much of which he said was “nasty and crude” — he agreed with the assessment that the press was under siege.

He attributed that beleaguered state to “the polarization of the country, the intensity of political feelings on the left and the right, combined with the technology to express it easily and quickly, combined with a sort of rash of journalistic missteps and in some cases scandals and misjudgments that become immediately known and widespread and have conveyed the sense that journalism is less trustworthy than it used to be.”

Earlier, he had written in The Columbia Journalism Review: “What is most crucial for news organizations, and what is most useful to the public, is news that is delivered in a manner that is beyond reproach journalistically.

“Readers understand, and can factor in, government or special-interest spin,” he added. “But they can smell reportorial opinion and bias a mile away, and that is guaranteed to distract from the power of the news.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/obituaries/michael-getler-ombudsman-at-pbs-and-washington-post-dies-at-82.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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