Two years ago, Deborah Howell -- the late Washington Post ombudsman -- wrote a column responding to the reporting of Harper's Ken Silverstein which detailed how the Post's David Broder and Bob Woodward benefited from speaking fees despite a Post policy against such action and Broder having frowned on the practice in the past.
Silverstein wrote of Howell's column at the time:
Howell acknowledges that Broder and Woodward broke the Post's own rules and "did not check with editors on the appearances Silverstein mentioned." She extracts an apology from Broder, and says the Post "needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses. . . . Fees should be accepted only from educational, professional or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and politics are not a major focus–with no exceptions."
But Howell goes very easy on Broder—who has been flagrantly dishonest with his own employer and with Howell–and Woodward, who is allowed to glide away from some very embarrassing matters. Also, Howell deals with only a few speeches by Woodward and Broder, even though Woodward gave dozens and Broder gave roughly a score. I understand that she could not deal with each instance individually (nor did I), but she could have mentioned prominently the fact that the two men, and especially Woodward, are regulars on the talk circuit and that the problem is not restricted to the few speeches she discusses in her column.
Meanwhile, Woodward told Howell that he turns down "lots" of speech requests and gives "many" for free. That's nice, but irrelevant, he's still broken Post policy by receiving payment for a number of the speeches he did accept. He also called Post policy "fuzzy and ambiguous." So why didn't he ask anyone at the paper to clear things up for him before accepting so many speaking appearances for fees that apparently top (easily) $1 million?
Finally, Woodward told Howell "all his speaking fees — which range from $15,000 to $60,000 — go to a foundation he started in the 1990s." He added, "It's a straight shot into the foundation that gives money to legitimate charities. I think that's doing good work."
St. Woodward can don his halo and gaze in the mirror all he likes, but he really shouldn't treat Post readers with such contempt. The facts are clear. He reaps significant tax savings by giving the fees to a "charity" that gives away a small fraction of its assets, and by far the biggest beneficiary of his foundation is Sidwell Friends, the elite private school sitting atop a reported $30 million endowment and attended by his own children.
According to a new report it looks like nothing much has changed. Silverstein writes this week that Broder and Woodward continue to take speaking fees despite the dust-up and eventual contrition from two years ago. Silverstein writes that Broder keynoted a conference last May sponsored by GenSpring Family Offices at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida:
Broder spoke at a dinner on the conference's first night, immediately after attendees had returned from a visit to the International Polo Club. The following day the conference offered a panel called "Uncle Sam Comes to Dinner: Washington's Increased Presence in the Ultra High Net Worth Family," during which the speakers analyzed "proposed and pending legislative agendas to assess how healthcare and tax reform might affect your family enterprise."
Among the panelists was Patricia Soldano, a lobbyist who heads up GenSpring's office in southern California and who is president of the Policy and Taxation Group, "an organization that educates on the destructive effects of the estate tax to families and their businesses." In other words, the conference Broder spoke at was not only hosted by a business with significant interests in Washington, but the group's lobbying agenda was a notable component of the event.
Broder writes about financial reform and tax policy with some regularity. Last July, two months after the GenSpring affair, he wrote a column in which he cited a poll by a group called Third Way, which asked whether voters would prefer job creation programs that relied on new government investments or cutting taxes on business. "Cutting taxes on business won 54 percent to 32 percent," Broder wrote. "This sounds to me like Ronald Reagan returning to whomp Barack Obama. Maybe all the Republicans have to do is to reject the Bush label and bring Reagan back for an encore."
According to Silverstein's report, Woodward to continues to speak at groups with "big interests" in Washington:
A review of tax records shows that [Woodward's] foundation continues to give about half of its donations -- about $230,000 during the past three years -- to Sidwell Friends.
In November of 2009, he spoke to the Semiconductor Industry Association Award Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Last month, he spoke to the Grocery Manufacturers of America at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. (Jenna Bush was another keynoter.)
Silverstein did reach out to Broder and Woodward for comment over email but neither have yet replied.
In November 2007 the Washington Post published an article by staff writer Perry Bacon that detailed "rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet [that] continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim." Bacon and the Post drew widespread criticism for failing to make clear in the article that Barack Obama is not, in fact, Muslim.
Deborah Howell, the Washington Post's Ombudsman at the time, weighed in:
My problems with the story by National Desk political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. and the headline ("Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him") were that Obama's connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn't included in the story.
Post media critic Howard Kurtz also took issue with the article:
Post editors say they were trying to knock down the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor, but I don't believe the piece was well executed. It didn't read like a debunking piece. There was too much about Obama "denying" or "disputing" allegations rather than just branding them false. This was particularly true in the case of the madrassa he allegedly attended as a child. That charge is bogus, as a CNN interview with a top official at the Indonesian school demonstrated, and the Post story failed to make that clear, in my view.
After all that, you would think the Post would be careful about printing claims that Obama is Muslim without making clear those claims are false, wouldn't you? Take a look at how today's Washington Post describes a recent Tea Party meeting in Tennessee:
About 40 people came to the meeting. They cheered when the organizer, Vince DiCello, told a long-winded joke about a new metal called Pelosium, after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("its mass keeps getting heavier"). And they murmured in disapproval when he passed around a photograph of Obama with his shoes off -- evidence, DiCello said, that the president prays with Muslims but not Christians ("That's because he is a Muslim," one audience member called out).
No, the Post didn't give any indication whatsoever that Obama is not a Muslim. Not even a denial.
For some reason, it seems difficult for reporters at the Washington Post to understand that debunking a lie occasionally isn't good enough; you have to make clear that it is a lie every time you mention it. Unless, of course, you want people to believe the lie.
In her column, Deborah Howell misrepresented Thomas Edsall's views on the purported liberalism of most journalists. Although Edsall asserted, as Howell reported, that "most journalists he knew were liberal" during a radio appearance, he explained in a subsequent online chat that, while many of its members are indeed liberal, the press at large is "inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right" and that the right wing's "campaign against the media ... has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right."
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In a column purportedly explaining the inconsistencies between The Washington Post's April 9 editorial titled "A Good Leak" and an article published the same day by staff writers Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell suggested the principal reason for the differences in the two pieces was that reporters and editorial writers "can see things quite differently." But the editorial did not merely advocate a position; it did so with numerous false statements.
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The Washington Post ombudsman has responded to a recent Media Matters item.
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