Letter to Wash. Post ombudsman re: Solomon article

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

January 25, 2007

Deborah Howell
Ombudsman
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Ms. Howell:

I was pleased to learn, via Greg Sargent's Horse's Mouth blog, that you plan in your column this weekend to address John Solomon and Lois Romano's January 19 article about John Edwards' recent sale of his Georgetown home.

According to Media Bistro, you wrote on your internal Omblog that you were "troubled" by the article and that "[i]t was interesting enough to make an item in In the Loop, but not Page 1. I kept looking for the graf that would tell me that the buyers had some history with Edwards, that they were big campaign contributors, that there was some quid pro quo. Nada."

As you may know, Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman expressed similar sentiments during a January 19 "Post Politics Hour."

While the newsworthiness -- or lack thereof -- of Solomon and Romano's article is a worthy topic for your ombudsman column, I write today to bring to your attention several other points that should be addressed.

The article's newsworthiness is ultimately a subjective question about which reasonable people can disagree. But it appears that the article and subsequent statements by Solomon and Post editor Bill Hamilton are based on fundamentally false premises. You would do your readers and your newspaper a great service by addressing the following:

  • Solomon and Romano's article asserted in the first sentence that "the names of the buyers were not publicly disclosed." Solomon later argued, in a January 23 "Post Politics Hour" discussion, that this purported lack of public disclosure is what made the sale newsworthy: "This wasn't a story about whether John Edwards should or shouldn't have picked the Klaassens as buyers. It was a story about the transparency of the deal." Likewise, according to the Media Bistro excerpt of your Omblog post, Post editor Bill Hamilton described the sale as involving "a secret buyer" and "an attempt to shield the important details of a transaction."

    One wonders how Hamilton knows what the parties involved in the transaction were attempting to do, as nobody quoted in the article describes it as an attempt to "shield the important details."

    Perhaps more significantly, the assertion made in the article and later by both Solomon and Hamilton that the buyers were "secret" and "not publicly disclosed" appears to be false. Publicly available records show that the buyer of the home was P Street LLC. LLCs are required to file articles of organization. Those documents should list the members of the LLC -- in this case, the Klaassens. Unless those documents omitted mention of the Klaassens -- and no one at the Post has indicated this to be the case -- it is simply false to say that the buyers were "not publicly disclosed," or that they were "secret."

    If, in fact, there are no public records that show the Klaassens' relationship to P Street LLC, Solomon and Romano should have made that clear. Otherwise, this requires a correction by the Post, at the very least. But an explanation of how Solomon and Hamilton came to describe the transaction falsely would also benefit readers -- as would some assurance that the Post will make every effort to avoid similar false allegations in the future.

  • In his January 23 "Post Politics Hour" discussion, Solomon's very first answer suggested that Edwards had violated "federal campaign law" by insufficiently disclosing the buyers. Solomon wrote:

    Certainly there's been lots of discussion in the blogs about this story and let me try to address the core issue. This wasn't a story about whether John Edwards should or shouldn't have picked the Klaassens as buyers. It was a story about the transparency of the deal. Those who aspire to the highest office in the land are required to disclose their financial dealings to the fullest extent. That isn't a political requirement or some media-driven imposition. It is encoded in the federal campaign law. When Edwards' campaign first disclosed the deal, much detail was lacking about the deal _ most importantly the name of the buyers. Such information is critical to the transparency of a transaction involving $5.2 million that occurred on the night before Edwards launched his candidacy. Our story simply filled in the missing blanks.

    Later, Solomon acknowledged that Edwards "hasn't filed his financial disclosure form yet" and "still has some time to do that," adding, "That's where he'll fulfill his legal obligation. There are very specific and technical rules for how to handle everything from stock transactions to house sales."

    Solomon's assertion that the question of Edwards' disclosure is not "a political requirement or some media-driven imposition," but rather a matter of "federal campaign law" is deeply problematic. The first answer appears to accuse Edwards of breaking the law -- but even with the later clarification, Solomon appears to be badly misstating "federal campaign law" and the disclosure requirements that apply to Edwards' sale.

    Solomon is right that "[t]here are very specific and technical rules for how to handle everything from stock transactions to house sales." Unfortunately, it appears that those very specific rules indicate that Edwards does not have to disclose the sale of his house at all. Though Solomon was not specific, he was apparently referring to the Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, which must be filed by Executive Branch employees and presidential candidates, such as Edwards.

    However, The instructions for Standard Form 278, the Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, make clear that presidential candidates do not fill out Schedule B, which covers transactions.

    But even if Edwards did have to fill out Schedule B, he would not have had to disclose the house sale unless he used the home as a rental property. And even if Edwards used the home as rental property, and thus had to disclose the sale, it would not be necessary to list the buyer -- indeed, Schedule B contains no field in which one would list the buyer even if one wanted to.

    To sum up: As a presidential candidate, rather than a current executive branch employee, Edwards does not have to fill out Schedule B at all. But even if he did have to, he wouldn't have to list the sale of a personal residence. And even if he did have to fill out Schedule B, and even if he rented out the home, and thus had to disclose the sale, he would not have had to disclose the buyer.

    Edwards might have to disclose the sale on Schedule A of the Disclosure Report. But Schedule A, like Schedule B, does not require disclosure of the buyer -- nor does it provide a space in which to do so.

    It is possible that Solomon was referring to some other "federal campaign law" that requires John Edwards to publicly disclose the members of the LLC that bought his home. If so, Solomon should identify the law immediately, and I will promptly withdraw this complaint.

    Otherwise, he -- and the Post -- owe Edwards a public retraction and apology for suggesting that Edwards had, or may, run afoul of the law by inadequately disclosing the transaction. Solomon and the Post also owe readers an explanation of how the Post's lead reporter on campaign finance issues and his editors could apparently be so completely wrong about the disclosure requirements -- and an assurance that the Post will make every effort to avoid such false claims in the future.

  • Solomon and Romano's article made much of the sale price, and of the difference between the sale price and the amount Edwards paid for the home four years earlier. But the article didn't give readers any of the context necessary to assess whether Edwards' profit was unusual or improper -- there is no mention of the performance of the Georgetown real estate market over the time in question, for example. Such context would seem to be an essential element of an article like this. And, as Salon.com's Tim Grieve demonstrated, such context would likely have shown that there was nothing unusual about the $1.4 million difference between sale and purchase prices.

    Moreover, the article makes reference to the Edwardses' having undertaken a "substantial renovation," but it gives no indication of the actual profit made by the Edwardses, after the transaction costs and the presumably substantial cost of the "substantial renovation" are considered.

    It is worth noting that last year, while employed by the Associated Press, Solomon co-wrote an article about a real estate transaction in which Sen. Harry Reid made what appeared to be a sizable profit -- and that article, too, omitted any context about the Las Vegas real estate market that would help readers assess the transaction.

  • Finally, Hamilton reportedly told you that the sale justified front-page treatment because it involved a "presidential candidate [who] just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man."

    Hamilton's statement appears to suggest that, because Edwards' campaign is based in part on promoting policies designed to benefit "the common man" and combat poverty, his personal financial transactions and wealth are newsworthy.

    I hope Hamilton does not mean to suggest that the personal financial transactions and wealth of candidates who oppose such policies would not be newsworthy.

    Indeed, it would seem that exploring the personal finances of wealthy candidates who support policies that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy would be a better use of the Post's resources.

    In any case, the Post should clarify whether it plans to subject candidates who base their campaigns on an "appeal to the common man" to greater financial scrutiny than those who advocate policies that will benefit the wealthy.

I hope you will use your column to explore these issues and to determine that these mistakes were made, rather than focusing solely on an assessment of the news value of the story -- and that you will use your position to urge the Post to retract and apologize for any false or misleading statements, either in the original article and in subsequent comments made by Solomon and Hamilton.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Jamison Foser
Managing Director
Media Matters for America

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
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Deborah Howell, John Solomon
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