Deborah Howell, ombudsman at The Washington Post, needs to brush up on what exactly an ombudsman is supposed to do. See, an ombudsman is supposed t to correct factual errors, not condone them. An ombudsman is supposed to reply to reader's concerns, not ignore them.
Yet in the span of a week, Howell has done just that. On January 15th, Howell penned a column "Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff" where she lauded the reporting of Susan Schmidt, including the following statement:
Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.
(You can read Califlander's diary on the subject here). Instead of correcting the GOP talking point that Abramoff made contributions to Democrats, Howell gleefully reinforced it.
Readers rightfully assailed Howell for condoning Schmidt's GOP stenography skills rather than calling her out on her egregious factual error. Howell's column received over 700 comments, which, according to the Post, overloaded the system.
Instead of responding appropriately to the reader's concerns, Howell dug her heels in, insisting that the scandal was indeed bipartisan because Abramoff "directed" tribe contributions to both parties. Did she provide any evidence that Democrats were aware that Abramoff directed these contributions? Of course not. Because Howell does not concern herself with facts.
What she does concern herself with is giving a green light to factual inaccuracies at the Post. And when readers challenge her to, I don't know, do her fucking job, how does the Washington Post respond? By shutting down its blog comments completely:
Comments Turned Off
As of 4:15pm ET today, we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.
At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.
But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we've decided not to allow comments for the time being. It's a shame that it's come to this. Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it's a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.
We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive Editor, washingtonpost.com
Readers spent countless hours writing those comments, many of which were carefully researched and debunked Howell's claims. So now we see the WaPo embracing Bush's policy--when you're confronted with the facts, ignore them, silence the truth-speaker, and play the victim.
Update [2006-1-19 17:9:59 by georgia10]:: The "hate speech" excuse is just that--an excuse. As Media Matters has noted, Howell has refused to engage in any constructive dialogue about her performance:
Omb Learns Lesson
Posted By: Deborah Howell
Date: 1/13/06 5:45:52 PM EDT
The omb lesson is that I replied to mediamatters.org last week that I thought I had been misrepresented. That's just brought another attack. From now on, I don't reply.
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