The Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, took to her column this week to respond to the firestorm of criticism that erupted over Perry Bacon, Jr's recent article, "Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him." Howell, while defending the piece against charges that it was a "smear job," nevertheless notes the appropriate flaws: "My problems...were that Obama's connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn't included in the story."
Howell goes on to address the larger problem of the piece - its timeliness:
To make the story worth Page 1, there needed to be new, credible information. No one from Iowa or New Hampshire, where Obama has been campaigning heavily, was quoted. More reporting or waiting for a news peg for the story would have helped. A perfect peg would have been the Hillary Clinton campaign's dismissal of a volunteer last week in Iowa for forwarding an e-mail saying Obama is a Muslim.
Well, whether or not misrule within the volunteer hierarchies of the Clinton campaign should necessitate a re-examination of already-debunked Obama rumors is debatable. The lack of new, credible information in Bacon's story is not. What could have prompted Bacon to write the article in the first place? Howell helpfully provides the rationale:
Bacon got the idea for the story last month after hearing an Iowa voter, wrongly and insistently, say that Obama was a Muslim, learning that Obama had a letter from Christian leaders attesting to his faith and hearing Obama cite living in the "largest Muslim country on Earth" as a foreign policy credential.
See any "perfect pegs" there? Say, the ridiculousness need for a presidential candidate to have the vouch of ecclesiastical professionals? Or whether Obama's professed foreign policy record has any substance beyond childhood travels? Both would make for substantive, informative articles. But if Howell is telling the truth, here, the main driver of the story was some crank in Iowa, speaking "wrongly and insistently" about Obama. If that's the case, it seems to me that the headline there is something along the lines of "Iowa Voters Are Grossly Misinformed About the Candidates."
Naturally, that's the sort of story that might lead a reader to question whether all these professional reporters, stalking the Iowa landscape, are doing anyone any good.