Wash. Post ombudsman Howell again displayed misunderstanding of difference between fact and opinion

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell again conflated objections to factual errors and differences of opinion to dismiss readers' complaints against a Post editorial about the Valerie Plame case. The editorial contained demonstrable falsehoods previously exposed by the Post's own reporting, as Media Matters for America documented.

In her column dated September 17, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, discussing readers' recent complaints about Washington Post editorials and columns, again conflated objections to factual errors and differences of opinion. Writing that "[u]nderstanding the separation and role of opinion and fact in a newspaper -- often on the same page -- is hard enough for even sophisticated readers," Howell then appeared to have some trouble with the difference herself, comparing the reaction to the September 1 Post editorial about the Valerie Plame case -- which was demonstrably false, according to the Post's own reporting -- and the Post editorial board's endorsements of candidates in the September 12 District of Columbia and Maryland primary elections.

Howell wrote in her column:

Columns and editorials are powerful tools to drive public opinion -- or to alienate readers. There aren't any good ones that don't sometimes do both. Editorial writers and columnists mean to enlighten, influence and connect with readers, public officials and anyone they can get to pay attention.

Although there were numerous complaints about the Sept. 1 editorial on the Plame case, there were hardly any complaints about the Post's endorsements in Tuesday's primary elections; most candidates endorsed by the Post won their races.

Howell's passage appears to assume that the only difference between the Plame-related editorial and the editorials in which the Post made its endorsements is that many readers were angered by and disagreed with the former, while agreeing with -- and perhaps being influenced by -- the latter, the Post's endorsement editorials. But the September 1 editorial was flawed not because it was provocative or expressed an unpopular opinion, but because it was based on, and promulgated, fundamental falsehoods previously exposed by the Post's own reporting, as Media Matters for America documented. Howell did not share the content of the reader communications she received about the Post's Plame-related editorial, but Media Matters, for one, took issue, not with the opinions expressed in the editorial, but with the falsehoods the editorial advanced.

Howell simply misrepresented the fundamental distinction between disputes based on differences of opinion and complaints over falsehoods. She chose instead to dismiss "complaints" about the September 1 editorial as simply the byproduct of a "good" editorial that successfully, in the words of editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, "provoked, educated or stimulated" readers.

The September 17 column was not the first time that Howell misinformed readers about what would seem to be a fundamental tenet of opinion writing: Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion; no one is entitled to his or her own facts. Once again, as with an April 16 column that Media Matters noted, Howell apparently found cover for factual falsehoods on the Post editorial page simply by virtue of their appearance on that page.

Even Hiatt purports to recognize that the editorial page is not entitled to its own facts. As Media Matters previously noted, Hiatt has acknowledged the need for the editorial page to correct factual errors:

In a March 8 online discussion hosted by washingtonpost.com, Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt lavished praise on his copy editing staff, writing:

Fortunately I have a copy desk chief and three full time copy editors who are terrific at their jobs ... They catch a lot of mistakes before publication. And while sometimes we have plenty of time -- an oped that we accept days before we can use it -- a lot of times they're working on pretty tight deadlines.

Hiatt also noted during that discussion: "I'm ultimately responsible for the factual accuracy of what appears on either the editorial or the oped page. When there's a mistake, sometimes the columnist corrects it in a subsequent column, sometimes we run a correction."

From Howell's Washington Post column, dated September 17:

Readers buy newspapers for information and opinion, but it's more often opinion that drives them around the bend -- as was abundantly clear to me in catching up on thousands of e-mails after vacation.

Understanding the separation and role of opinion and fact in a newspaper -- often on the same page -- is hard enough for even sophisticated readers.

Most columnists and editorial writers are idealists who want their work to build their version of a better world. Their job description is not to please readers but to drive them to think more deeply -- or to support a cause or to be horrified or pleased by what the writer has to say.

Columns and editorials are powerful tools to drive public opinion -- or to alienate readers. There aren't any good ones that don't sometimes do both. Editorial writers and columnists mean to enlighten, influence and connect with readers, public officials and anyone they can get to pay attention.

Although there were numerous complaints about a Sept. 1 editorial on the Valerie Plame case, there were hardly any complaints about The Post's endorsements in Tuesday's primary elections; most candidates endorsed by The Post won their races.

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said, "We take seriously the motto atop our column: 'An Independent Newspaper.' That means we are neither red nor blue but try to figure out what we think is best for the country or city or region on any given issue. On the editorial page, we try to make an argument and explain our reasoning, not just shout out an opinion, hoping that readers will be provoked, educated or stimulated even by -- or maybe especially by -- pieces with which they initially disagree. We listen to people who disagree with us respectfully. But in the end we shouldn't ask people to take the time to read our editorials if we're not usually going to come down one way or the other."

[...]

A reminder to readers: Editorial opinion is not in my purview, and most columnists have wide latitude to write what they want, including the ombudsman.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Deborah Howell
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