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The WaPo Controversy: What Really Matters

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The blog world is buzzing about the Washington Post controversy, but much of what's being said focuses too much on peripheral issues - which is probably just fine with Jim Brady, who edits the paper's Internet content. Let's concentrate on the real story, and not get hung up on minor questions about websites and commenters.

Here's my short take:

When reporters get a story like the Abramoff scandal wrong, it hurts the country. When an ombudsman betrays her trust, it hurts the craft of journalism. When commenters say nasty things on a website, it may hurt the feelings or sensibilities of a few individuals - all of whom work for the Post.

I'm not defending rudeness, and some comments are vile. But ... For God's sake, people, what's really important here?

You may remember the cliche: "Dog Bites Man" isn't news, but "Man Bites Dog" - now that's a story. The Post's ombudsman attacked readers who raised an objection, rather than investigate their complaint. That's "Man Bites Dog." That's the story.

I'm a great admirer of Jay Rosen, but in my opinion he got played in this interview with Brady. (Background to the story is below.*) Jay asked some important questions which weren't answered, while too many others focused on the side issue of the Post's comments board. And some of the questions I think should have been asked, weren't.

For context, Brady works for a newspaper that many perceive as increasingly biased to the right - both in its editorial pages and in its reporting. Examples? They recently misstated facts in an editorial on Iraq, used selective reporting while covering attacks on John Murtha, and repeated misleading statements in defense of Wal-Mart. Editor John Harris presided over an internal attack on WaPo blog writer Dan Froomkin, and described a GOP operative as a "conservative blogger" while portraying his talking points as legitimate criticism.

We now have the case of an ombudsman who attacks her constituency - readers with complaints - and repeats statements that are the subject of complaint, rather than investigate them. But the Post doesn't have to defend its actions. Instead, the questioners are forced to defend themselves. Why? Because of the actions of a few. What a relief for the Post.

Brady isn't just a Internet guy, in my opinion. He's a Post editor, too, so I wish these questions had also been asked: As an editor, do you stand by your newspaper's presentation of the Abramoff scandal? Do you think the Post's reporting accurately characterized the role of Democrats or of Abramoff? Do you believe that Deborah Howell has fulfilled her duties as ombudsman in this matter? Do you feel that Howell's phrasing was accurate, or misleading?

As the person responsible for the website, I would have also liked to hear Brady's response to these questions: What is the mission of "" in a controversy like this? Was it carried out successfully? Would you do anything differently in retrospect?

To be fair to Jay, the press world is his beat and the Brady's main role is to manage the site (a fact that's not explained in Rosen's piece), so issues like the comments board are legitimate areas of inquiry. He leads with a sympathetically phrased question about hostile comments (in my opinion overly so), but then goes on to ask a more pointed one: did Howell engage in "escalation" by not clarifying or retracting her initial comments?

Unfortunately, the question was multi-pointed, which allowed Brady to evade it more easily. Which he does: "...she did eventually post on our blog ... Maybe we should have done that sooner ... The basic issue here is that she didn't deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to ... Deborah just started in this position a few months ago, and like all ombudsmen, she's swamped with letters ..."

In other words, people can bicker about timing, but that's irrelevant to her position, which "would have been the same." (But, but... Jay asked whether she "escalated." Question evaded, and with an implicit endorsement of Howell's statement.) People were mean to Deborah because she didn't say what they wanted her to say. (Another head fake: it's not that Deborah didn't say what people wanted - it's that she repeated the reporters' statements rather than investigate them.) And besides, she's new and very busy. (Meaning what? This is just another letter in the mailbox to her and her editors? And it's OK to repeat misleading statements?)

Jay then asks more questions about the newspaper's blog, before raising another important point: Do critical questions about reporting get dismissed if people believe they come from partisan sources? Brady's reply: The issue in not partisanship, but "civility."

Game, set, and match. Brady has successfully evaded Jay's tougher questions, and has held him to the more minor issue of unfriendly comments for at least half of the interview. It's a diversionary tactic, successfully executed. The key issue - whether Howell (and therefore the paper) are misleading readers - is left unaddressed.

Reminder: the core issue is the Abramoff scandal, and how the Democrats' involvement in it has been accurately described. That boils down to three simple questions:

1. Did Jack Abramoff directly give money to Democrats?
2. Did Abramoff direct clients to give money to Democrats?
3. Were Democrats aware of any wrongdoing or implied
quid-pro-quo in those donations?

We know the answer to #1 is "no." I still don't know the answer to #2 - I know that Abramoff clients gave money to Democrats, but haven't seen documentation that it was done at his direction. I certainly haven't seen evidence to support #3. If the answer to #3 is no, than the Post has misled its readers, at the very least by implication - and the paper's ombudsman repeated the mis-statements instead of investigating them.

Could it be that I've got the facts wrong? Did Abramoff direct money to Dems as part of a quid-pro-quo? Did I miss something? I don't think so, but I don't know for sure. Why not? Deborah Howell didn't tell me. She didn't answer the question either way. And that's her job. As a Post editor, Brady's job is to make sure the facts are presented - whether Howell or anyone else likes it. I care about that a lot more than I care about the "comments" section on the Post website.

So - a guy gets mugged on the street. When he complains to a passing cop, the cop beats him with a nightstick and leaves him lying on the ground. He goes to court and says "that sonofabitch cop hit me." At which point he's thrown in jail for being "uncivil" while both the mugger and the cop walk away free.

Justice, Washington Post style.

[NOTE: Some edits were made to this piece after it was published, as a results of further thoughts I had while reading additional pieces on the subject.]

*BRIEF BACKGROUND: Many feel that WaPo reporters misled readers by stating that Abramoff directed his clients to give money to Democrats, making the scandal bipartisan rather than Republican. When objections were raised, WaPo ombudsman Deborah Howell not only refused to push for a correction but repeated the statements in question. Frustrated individuals vented about Howell on the Post's website. Editor Jim Brady then shut down the "comments" function, allleging that there had been overly harsh content.

A Night Light

REMINDER: However ironic it may seem on this post, I'm forced to repeat my commenting policy: Comments that use excessively vulgar or offensive language, or are personally insulting to anyone - right, left, or center - will be deleted. Anyone who wants to clean it up and try again is welcome to do so.