Wash. Post ombudsman endorses practice of printing misleading -- even false -- Bush administration claims without rebuttal

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

In a post on her internal weblog, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has reportedly endorsed the practice of printing misleading -- even false -- Bush administration claims without including a word of rebuttal to those claims.

In a post on her internal weblog, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has reportedly endorsed the practice of printing misleading -- even false -- Bush administration claims without including a word of rebuttal to those claims. Howell's post, which concerned a recent Media Matters for America item about a Washington Post article, also contained a misleading description of a conversation between the Post reporter who wrote the article and a Media Matters spokeswoman.

In a January 4 article about the Bush administration's domestic spying operation, Post staff writer Dafna Linzer reported:

The NSA program operated in secret until it was made public in news accounts last month. Since then, President Bush and his advisers have defended it as legal and necessary to protect the country against future attacks and have said Congress was repeatedly consulted.

Linzer's article did not include a single word, in either her voice or anyone else's, pointing out that the administration's claim that "Congress was repeatedly consulted" is misleading at best. Media Matters noted in an item in response to Linzer's article:

Yet the available evidence suggests that the administration did not fully inform congressional leaders about the program, let alone "consult" them, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as "to ask the advice or opinion of" or "to deliberate together." As Media Matters for America has noted, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have all stated that they did not receive written reports from the White House on the surveillance operation, as required by the National Security Act of 1947, as amended in 2001. Further, Rockefeller wrote in a 2003 letter to Vice President Dick Cheney that security restrictions made him "unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse" the program, and has since said that his concerns about it "were never addressed." As the New York Times reported on December 21, Graham claimed that he was never informed "that the program would involve eavesdropping on American citizens."

According to a post on MediaBistro.com, Howell posted an entry on her weblog for Post employees to address the Media Matters criticism of Linzer's article:

The e-mail campaign of the week _ a weak one _ is from mediamatters.com [sic] and says that Dafna Linzer in a Jan. 4 story "repeated the much-disputed White House claim that the Bush administration 'repeatedly consulted' Congress about its domestic surveillance program."

It was clear if you read the story that she was simply giving the administration's point of view as well as others. Linzer tells me she has called the blog (not easy to reach) and demanded a correction that she "uncritically" wrote her story. The spokesman for Mediamatters.com would not tell her who wrote the story and said that no one involved in the story would talk to her. The website lists David Brock as the president and CEO. Brock is the conservative-turned-liberal who wrote "Blinded by the Right."

But Linzer's article did not give readers any point of view that rebutted the administration's claim that Congress was "repeatedly consulted." That misleading claim was simply printed without challenge. The Washington Post's ombudsman has therefore endorsed the practice of printing misleading Bush administration spin without providing readers any information that counters the misleading spin.

Howell and Linzer seem to believe that, because Linzer mentioned people who disagree with some of the administration's claims, the article need not include information rebutting all of their claims -- even if that means printing false claims without any refutation. By Howell's -- and Linzer's -- logic, if the Post reports that Bush says "the earth is flat, the sky is red, and the moon is made of green cheese," the Post is under no obligation to include information rebutting each of these false claims, as long as it includes mention of someone disagreeing with one of them.

Her casual dismissal of Media Matters' item as "weak" is par for the course for Howell, who has displayed an alarming habit of using her position as ombudsman not to advocate for readers but to flippantly dismiss their concerns.

Further, Howell's statement that Media Matters is "not easy to reach" (it isn't clear whether this is Linzer's characterization or Howell's) is simply bizarre. Linzer did reach Media Matters, by telephone, as she acknowledged. It couldn't have been too difficult for her to do so; Media Matters' contact information is prominently displayed on the Media Matters website. Any difficulty Linzer encountered likely arose from the fact that she called three Media Matters media contacts after 7 p.m. and did not leave a message for any of them. She ultimately reached a fourth Media Matters staffer and received a call back from Media Matters' media relations director the next morning.

In light of Howell and Linzer's perplexing complaint that Media Matters is "not easy to reach," it is worth noting that Howell herself has been quite difficult to reach. When she began her new job as the Post's ombudsman, a Media Matters representative attempted to contact her by both phone and email to introduce the organization. Howell never responded. Further, University of California professor and blogger Brad DeLong has written that Howell is the "one and only one person at the Washington Post who will not return my phone calls" -- a strange practice for an ombudsman.

Nor is Howell's description of Linzer's conversation with Media Matters accurate.

Howell wrote that Linzer said she "demanded a correction that she 'uncritically' wrote her story." The Media Matters item in question did not say Linzer "uncritically wrote her story." It said she was guilty of "uncritical repetition of the Bush administration's claim." She did, in fact, uncritically repeat a misleading Bush administration claim and included no information countering that claim. Media Matters stands by the item.

Howell continued: "The spokesman for Mediamatters.com would not tell her [Linzer] who wrote the story and said that no one involved in the story would talk to her."

Media Matters' items, including the item about Linzer's article, conclude with the initials of the person who wrote them, so "who wrote the story" is no great secret to Linzer or anyone else who cares. The claim that a Media Matters spokeswoman "said that no one involved in the story would talk to her" is false. The spokeswoman Linzer talked to was the Media Matters staff member responsible for media inquiries about the item in question. In that capacity, she explained the item to Linzer. When Linzer indicated that she did not accept this explanation, Linzer was encouraged to detail her complaints in an email. She chose not to do so. Linzer said the Post would do a story about the Media Matters item; she was told that if the Post decided to do so, the reporter assigned to the story should contact us for comment.

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Deborah Howell
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