Wash. Post's Deborah Howell misfires, ignoring falsehoods in Milbank article

››› ››› MARCIA KUNTZ

In her February 19 column, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell claimed that liberals have complained that Post columnist and reporter Dana Milbank has "skewered Democrats." But Howell said next to nothing about complaints liberals have registered about Milbank's work. Instead, she simply wrote that liberals have objected to Milbank's columns "skewer[ing] Democrats" and made no effort to consider the actual flaws in his January 31 column, including at least one outright falsehood and one distortion.

In her February 19 ombudsman column, The Washington Post's Deborah Howell claimed that liberals have complained that Post columnist and reporter Dana Milbank has "skewered Democrats," and pointed specifically to a January 31 Milbank column. Despite exploring in detail the validity of conservatives' objections to a recent appearance on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, in which Milbank wore a bright orange hunting outfit to discuss Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion, Howell said next to nothing about complaints liberals have registered about Milbank's work. Instead, she simply wrote that liberals have objected to Milbank's columns "skewer[ing] Democrats" and made no effort to consider the actual flaws in his January 31 column. In fact, as Media Matters for America noted at the time, that column contained at least one outright falsehood and one distortion, the latter undermining the column's entire premise.

In a column that purported to discuss whether Milbank inappropriately injects his opinion into his work, Howell missed a key point. Regardless of whether Milbank has license as a news columnist to inject his views into his work -- and whether he has license to appear on television making light of a serious matter -- he certainly does not have license to inject falsehoods into his work. This is a key distinction that appears to have escaped Howell in her February 19 column -- the difference between opinion and fact, negative opinion and factual falsehood. Columnists may or may not be allowed to express opinions, although Howell quotes Post editor Liz Spayd suggesting that even that is off limits for a news columnist like Milbank; what they can't do -- whether they are news or opinion columnists -- and what Howell failed utterly in her column to call Milbank on, is base those views on false information.

Readers would never know it from Howell's column, but in his January 31 column, Milbank falsely reported that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) "got only 25 of the 60 needed votes" to mount a filibuster against President Bush's nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. In fact, as Media Matters and numerous weblogs (see, for example, here) noted at the time, it was Alito's supporters who "needed" the 60 votes to invoke "cloture," or end debate on the nomination and proceed to a floor vote; filibuster supporters needed 41 votes. Recognizing the error, The Washington Post ran a correction, which, according to the Nexis database, appeared in the print version the next day.

As Media Matters also noted, in that same column, Milbank depicted advocates of impeachment as a fringe element of the Democratic Party -- which he said is in one of its "periodic splits between pragmatism and symbolism" -- while ignoring polling that has shown that a majority of respondents believes Congress should consider impeaching Bush over his authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance. Moreover, as Media Matters previously noted, a poll from November 2005 found that 53 percent of Americans thought that Congress should consider impeachment "[i]f President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq." Given that, in Howell's words, the column was "about a liberal political event that featured former attorney general Ramsey Clark and antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan," Milbank's distortion was inextricable from the column's central premise.

From Media Matters' perspective at least, Milbank's "skewer[ing] Democrats" was not the problem per se with his column. The problem was that his assertions were based on misinformation. Howell ended her February 19 column by quoting a reader approvingly:

"If you are going to keep using his work, how about labeling it as opinion and not news?"

Exactly.

No, not exactly. Any newspaper should insist on factual accuracy from reporters and columnists. Howell, the readers' representative at The Washington Post, did not do that in her column.

From Howell's February 19 column:

Most of the critical mail I got last week came from conservatives, but I've also received complaints from liberals when they think Milbank has skewered Democrats, especially in a Jan. 31 column about a liberal political event that featured former attorney general Ramsey Clark and antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan.

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The Washington Post
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Deborah Howell
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