Just a week after suggesting that she addresses only factual errors in opinion columns and asserting that "columnists own their space," Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote that columnist Harold Meyerson made a "pretty broad statement" when he referred to the Catholic Church's "inimitable backwardness." She then quoted a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who denounced Meyerson's column for its "despicable bigotry."
Howell's December 24 column is not the only recent instance of her claiming to take a hands-off approach to opinion columns, a self-imposed rule apparently violated in her December 31 statements about Meyerson. In a September 17 column with which Media Matters for America took issue for other reasons, Howell wrote: "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."
From Howell's December 31 column:
Questions of taste bedevil readers: Why would The Post run a "Mother Goose and Grimm" comic on Dec. 11 that depicted a vampire couple wondering why they get so many "bat mitzvah" invitations? Or print an entry to the Style Invitational on Dec. 10 that said "For Sale: Sally Hemings, well used"? Or let op-ed columnist Harold Meyerson refer on Dec. 20 to the "Catholic Church's inimitable backwardness"?
The bat mitzvah line was supposed to be funny, but it offended some Jewish readers. The Sally Hemings line was tasteless, but then the Style Invitational always pushes the edge of the taste envelope. Meyerson is an opinion columnist. Still, his was a pretty broad statement. That phrase, in a column about Episcopalians' debate about homosexuality, angered several Catholics, including Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy media director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who wrote: "The bigotry against Catholics expressed in [the] column . . . is nothing short of despicable."
From Howell's December 24 column:
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.