The Times' Reader Advocate Does Very Little Advocacy

COLLEEN Patrick, ``reader advocate'' at The Times, has a strange kind of job.

In the name of protecting a trust, The Times pays her to make trouble for the paper. Of course, it's also in The Times' best interest to have a lightning rod like Patrick for readers' complaints; a seemingly impartial mediator can often soothe a community's savage beasts.

With more than one-third of her two-year term completed, it's fair for readers to ask how well Patrick has been their advocate.

If her weekly columns are a measure, she's preferred apology and academia to advocacy.

Let's look at her record, specifically six months of her column, from May through November.

Seven of the 29 topics she covered were devoted to comments or feature stories about issues that had nothing to do specifically with The Times. That's 24 percent, and topics included the role of reader advocates around the world, a book report, and several surveys of how readers would handle hypothetical news stories.

Patrick's most frequent topic - in 14 columns (48 percent) - was explanations of Times policies and practices. Voicing no opinions about whether the policies and practices were justified, Patrick contented herself with feature stories about them. Often she stepped past neutral, sometimes condescending, explanations and gushed forth with praise.

For example, on Aug. 26, the reader ``advocate'' devoted her column to analyzing why The Times' graphic artists are so wonderful. ``When it comes to being fair and accurate, news artists strive for an unbiased representation of a story,'' she concluded.

She was back a week later praising the newsfeatures editor for ``fighting to continue to publish'' all wedding announcements. Much of the column was devoted to a painstaking explanation of how to submit the announcements.

No one can fault a newspaper for praising itself, or even for letting readers know its wedding-announcement policy works. But should the reader ``advocate'' devote her precious space to such puffery?

And what about advocacy by the reader ``advocate''?

Patrick devoted all or part of eight columns (28 percent) disagreeing with a Times policy or practice. Two of those columns were on the same topic - a ban on tobacco ads. Patrick supports a ban.

What else has she advocated?

In one courageous column, she half-disagreed with The Times twice. First, she said an article was ``unintentionally racially biased.'' Then she confessed that an ``exploitative'' series about Jane Fonda ``made me feel a little queasy.''

Her best advocacy was when she rewrote a story about a murder victim, to make it more sympathetic to the victim.

In a paragraph buried within an academic treatise on Middle East coverage, she allowed that she was ``concerned'' that The Times doesn't have a military-affairs reporter.

Four paragraphs evaluated a misleading headline about AIDS.

She sort of chided The Times for running conflicting reports about medical-research results.

Patrick decried unnamed ``local media'' for California-bashing. Then she said Times columnist Emmett Watson started it but he's not doing it anymore.

Why can't The Times hire a reader advocate with fire in the belly? Is it the position? Does the guaranteed contract make the person complacent?

The late A.J. Liebling - America's most respected media critic (his description of The New York Times could apply to The Seattle Times: ``colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless'') - would never have been hired as reader advocate at The Times: He was prone to depression, whoring and gluttony.

He often looked like a slob, his paunch spilling out of his unbuttoned shirt. The Times doesn't hire people like that; it doesn't tolerate extremes.

That's why its reader advocates have been collegial, corporate, safe, predictable, reasoned, genteel people whose dusting of academia is considered a sign of competence.

By now, Colleen Patrick is probably suggesting - nicely, of course - that those who criticize should also make constructive suggestions. I agree. Here goes:

-- While mediation and advocacy are not mutually exclusive, there will be times when representing readers is more important than maintaining collegial relationships. Bend a few noses out of shape. If reporters, editors and publishers can't accept your role with grace, be prepared to have some support systems outside the newsroom.

-- Share with readers what questions they're asking. Report the answers - along with your opinions. Opinions are OK. Really.

-- Do a section-by-section critique of The Times.

- Why, for example, does USA Today manage to report things about Seattle sports teams that The Times doesn't?

- Why does The Times rely on a canned column for seniors?

- Why doesn't the paper run a comprehensive community calendar?

- Why does the political reporting focus on fund-raising instead of issues?

- Why doesn't the paper offer personal ads?

- Why don't the house ads for The Times Info Line show the number for American League baseball?

- Why doesn't the business section use a certified financial planner for its personal-finances column?

- Why is the paper's consumer reporting limited to the Troubleshooter?

- If issues matter, why does The Times endorse people of opposing political philosophies?

- Why are the ``lowest fares'' listed in the travel section usually contradicted by ads printed on the same page?

-- Tell us about the insides of The Times. Not just how the staff decides what ad gets printed or how a story is played, but how the publisher exercises his power; what influence Knight-Ridder Inc. has on business decisions; the impact of The Times on the Cascade neighborhood, which it dominates; an update on the joint operating agreement and how it has affected profits at Hearst and The Times; an analysis of the paper's unions; the impact of psychological testing on job applicants.

Times readers deserve so much more than what we're getting. We deserve an advocate.

Don Glickstein of Seattle was an unsuccessful candidate for The Times' reader-advocate position. He is a former editor at The Post-Intelligencer and now works in public relations.