Who is looking out for WaPo op-ed page readers? Apparently no one

Blog ››› ››› ARI RABIN-HAVT

On March 1 of last year, Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander began his weekly column in the Post stating that "Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them." He was absolutely right.

It is unfortunate that Alexander cannot hold opinion columnists accountable when they do distort the facts. He told me as much on the phone yesterday.

Let me back up.

Alexander made his comment that opinion columnists "aren't free to distort facts" response to widespread criticism from Media Matters and others of the Post for allowing George Will to suggest that data from an Arctic research group undermined the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused global warming -- a claim that the group itself debunked. Alexander acknowledged that "readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods."

In the time since Alexander's response, Will has on four additional occasions misled Post readers about the scientific basis for the existence of global warming -- most recently this past Saturday when he wrote that the "menace of global warming" is "elusive" and claimed that an acknowledged error about Himalayan glaciers in a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) constituted "another dollop of evidence of the seepage of dubious science into policy debate." But scientists have routinely presented strong evidence of long-term global warming and its consequences, including evidence of "widespread mass loss from glaciers." Just this month, major meteorological organizations throughout the world -- including NASA -- released reports showing that the past decade, 2000-2009, was the warmest on record.

Alexander assured readers in March that Will's column undergoes "fact-checking at multiple levels." Based on the number of errors since, that system clearly is not working.

I decided to raise the issue with Alexander. Either the Post needed to guarantee a more rigorous fact-checking of Will's column or the columnist should no longer be allowed to opine on climate change. His track record of global warming falsehoods have damaged the public debate on this important issue for far too long.

Considering his March 1 column, I believed this issue would be well within the purview of the paper's ombudsman. But, according to my phone conversation with Alexander yesterday morning, that is simply not the case. He informed me he is the "reader representative for news coverage," pointing out that this was reflected on page 2 of the Post's print edition which states, "Ombudsman (reader representative for news coverage)."

Previous Post ombudsmen have criticized opinion coverage, when they deem it necessary. Alexander's predecessor, the late Deborah Howell, criticized columnist Harold Meyerson, though she also wrote:

Some readers mistakenly think that the ombudsman can force change on The Post, its editorial policy or what columnists write. My job is not to tell the editorial board what to write, and I wouldn't presume to tell David S. Broder what to say about politics. Columnists own their space. If they make a mistake, let me know, but the opinions are theirs alone.

So, let me get this straight. If a reader finds a "mistake" in an opinion column, they can alert the ombudsman. The ombudsman just can't do anything about it. Perhaps that explains why, with the exception of Alexander's March 1 column, George Will's multiple errors on the topic of climate change have gone unaddressed.

A newspaper's editorial page is clearly different from its news pages and Howell is correct: It is not the job of the ombudsman to dictate columnist's opinions. But Alexander was also correct when he wrote that columnists should not be free to distort the facts in order to support those opinions. After all, errors in opinion columns are just as much a reflection on a newspaper's journalistic integrity as errors in news articles.

If the Post's policy dictates that the Ombudsman serves as the "reader representative" for pages A1-A13, then who is looking out for us on pages 14-15? Considering Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt in the past has refused to respond to inquires or run corrections to Will's errors, the answer is no one.

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