06/12/2006 01:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two More Misleading Editorials From The Post – On Net Neutrality and Iraq

The Washington Post's editorial page is beginning to rival the WSJ's in its overall level of spin, tricky wordplay, and misinformation. I disagree with the positions taken in two of their latest editorials, but that's less important than a news organization's obligation to adhere to the facts and represent them fairly.

We can all differ on matters of policy, but facts are a newspaper's stock in trade - on the last page as well as the front page. The Post continues to trade away its credibility at its own peril.

One editorial covers net neutrality. The Post, unsurprisingly, is opposed. In it, they disclose their ownership of a number of cable systems, but then state that they have "interests on both sides of this issue" because they also provide free Web content. That's a misleading statement, in my opinion, since their free content is likely to receive wide exposure - if nowhere else, than through their own systems - while that of new independents will not.

More importantly, they characterize as "absurd" the argument that

"a non-neutral Internet would resemble cable TV: a medium through which only corporate content is delivered. This analogy misses the fact that the market for Internet connections, unlike that for cable television, is competitive: More than 60 percent of Zip codes in the United States are served by four or more broadband providers."

There are several problems with this paragraph. First, this point is not so much an "analogy" as a statement of fact: Corporations could and would, in fact, gain control of content without net neutrality. They would have great ability to manipulate accessibility, and ease of access.

The Post isn't arguing that fact, although tricky phrasing makes it appear that they are. Instead, they're arguing that corporations wouldn't exercise that control because it would result in lost market share. Even cable TV isn't "a market in which only corporate content is delivered," given the existence of open access and community programming. It's a market in which only corporate-approved content is delivered. That's exactly what net neutrality is designed to prevent.

Mischaracterization aside, their argument doesn't hold because a) markets with multiple broadband providers don't necessarily get the choice of content they want or deserve today (to quote one well-known commentator, "there's 57 channels and nothin' on" ; and, b) 40% of US markets don't have this level of choice.

They also argue that "... the Internet is the province of experimenters and hobbyists because creating your own Web site is cheap and easy. Thanks to technology, the Internet will always be a relatively democratic medium with low barriers to entry."

This totally misses the point. If it's cheap to create a web page, but expensive to make it widely accessible, the corporations will in fact become the controlling force behind the Internet. The issue is not the cost of content but the cost of distribution.

There's more, but you get the gist. Whenever the word "boogeyman" is used to mock an opponent's concerns, it's a good bet that spinmeistering is in the house.

"The weakest aspect of the neutrality case is that the dangers it alleges are speculative," writes the Post. But a nuclear terrorist attack is "speculative," too. So is bird flu. It's a specious foundation for an argument, but the Post uses it zestfully.

Maybe Mike McCurry's been earning those big fees from the telcos after all. His arguments were just repeated in a major media outlet, with whatever remains of the Post's credibility behind them.


Then there's the topic of Iraq and Zarqawi. Here too, the Post abuses the journalistic objectivity toward the facts that should be present in the editorial pages as well as the news pages of a paper.

They write:

"With one airstrike, U.S. forces deprived Iraq's insurgency -- diverse and fragmented though it is -- of its sole widely recognized leader, probably its biggest fundraiser and recruiter, and the organizer of some of the most spectacular and demoralizing attacks in Iraq, from the bombing of the United Nations headquarters three years ago to the beheadings of foreign hostages to the massacres of Shiite worshipers in Najaf and Karbala. Although al-Qaeda in Iraq makes up only a part of the Iraqi insurgency, it has been the organization most intent on fomenting sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites; the elimination of its leader will surely contribute to stanching that civil conflict."

The misstatements in this paragraph are legion. Overall, US military intelligence says that Zarqawi never commanded more than a few hundred militia, out of a total insurgent base they estimate at 25,000-50,000. (To be precise, they say he commanded "no more than 5%" although, as I read their own numbers, they're actually saying he commanded a minimum of less that 1% and a maximum of no more than 4%.) And this is using the Rumsfeld Pentagon's own figures, which have never been known for their impartiality or accuracy.

Zarqawi was widely disliked among other insurgents, according to many reports, which puts the idea of him as its "sole widely recognized leader" in a very different light than that which the Post presents. In fact, reports suggest he was either fingered by his own people, or by rival insurgents.

So why is his death "depriving" the insurgency of anything except a hated outsider? There's every reason to believe his killing will be a morale booster for the vast majority of insurgents.

And to say that al-Qaeda "makes up only a part of the Iraqi insurgency" is deceptive wording. It makes up a small part of the insurgency, and should be described that way in the interests of accuracy.

If there is credible evidence that al-Zarqawi personally masterminded the UN bombing and the massacre of Shi'ite worshippers, the Post should cite it. Otherwise, it should have learned its lesson about repeating Administration talking points without verification.

The same is true for the unsupported assertion that "the elimination of its leader will surely contribute to stanching that civil conflict." First, Sunni-Shi'ite friction is a millennium-old problem. Can we really give a 38-year-old foreigner such a significant share of the credit? Secondly, one would need to know who will be replacing Zarqawi - couldn't it be someone even more intent on promoting conflict? - before making this statement.

The Post's main contention is that any talk of drawing down troops, even Bush's, is irresponsible. "... the Iraqi government desperately needs continued U.S. military and economic support," it writes. While I strongly disagree, I don't challenge their right to advocate this point of view. But the use of misleading language is inappropriate for anyone, least of all a news organization.

The Washington Post has misled its readers on the editorial pages before. For them, unfortunately, this sort of thing is old news.

A Night Light

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Net neutrality's fighting for its life in the Senate. If you live in California or one of several other states whose Senators have not taken a position on this issue, you can make a difference.