‘Make the extra phone call, double check the fact,’ WaPo ombud says in farewell memo

Today is Patrick Pexton’s last day as Washington Post ombudsman. (He was appointed two years ago.) Here’s what Pexton sent the Post staff Thursday evening:

From: Patrick Pexton
Date: February 28, 2013, 6:10:43 PM EST
To: NEWS – All Newsroom
Subject: No, no caking for the ombudsman……….Just some thanks…

I want to thank everyone in the newsroom for treating me with respect and courtesy these past two years. This is a newsroom of consummate professionals, who I have had the high privilege to be among. The time, alas, was too short, but this has been an honor and a memory I’ll carry with me, and treasure, always.

Patrick Pexton

Patrick Pexton

You on the 4th and 5th floors have within your power to preserve, protect, and enhance The Washington Post, in all its forms and platforms. More broadly, you have the power to help sustain an American journalism of quality, of toughness, of fairness, a journalism that tells the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained, to echo the words etched in the lobby downstairs.

This is no small thing, no small power. The power of truth is the power to humble governments, to obtain justice, to foil hypocrisy, to help the downtrodden, to reveal the world as it is, not as we might like it to be.

Exercise it wisely and responsibly. /CONTINUES

Strive always for quality. Make the extra phone call, double check the fact, make the sentence clearer, more precise, more artful. Photographers, take the different angle, shoot the extra frame. Designers, try something new with the graphic and the layout. Quality is what will win out.

And take some risks too. Do something that scares you, do something that you’ve never done before, just to see if it works, or not.

And when you flag, as we all do sometimes, take a deep breath, go for a walk, talk to someone you love or respect, read something inspirational (see the bottom of this email for one of my favorites) and listen to your inner voice. That voice will inevitably lift your eyes to the longer view, move you to the deeper insight, and ignite the creative burst.

I won’t be here in the newsroom anymore, but I’ll always be available to chat, to mentor, to listen. And some of my best work is done over drinks. I’ll even buy the first round. I haven’t decided exactly what to do next, but when I do, I’ll let you know.

Best always
new Twitter account @PextonPB

…………..And here’s an excerpt from George’ Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Why I write.” It has always inspired me, and grounded me too. It’s long; save it for when you need it most.

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases, which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.

…The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

…Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.


Patrick B. Pexton
The Washington Post
cell 202 738-3672