Washington Post Ombudsman Unsure of What He's Supposed to Be Doing

Just what is a newspaper ombudsman for? This is a question raised by Sunday's column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander -- not because he raises it, but because the column is so misguided it's actually quite instructive.

The column is about the manufactured "scandal" of the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case. Alexander notes that the Post did a story about it, and writes, "The story succinctly summarized the issues but left many readers with a question: What took you so long?"

Who are these "many readers," one might ask, who have been so determinedly demanding coverage of this issue? Might they have some ideological agenda beyond good journalism? Alexander doesn't tell us. Yet as I said last week, this story is being pushed by the right using a well-worn formula: "Take some incident or person who can embody something you want people to believe about the left (elitists, scary black people, etc.); put it into heavy rotation on Fox and conservative radio; immediately begin screaming that the liberal mainstream media are ignoring this vital story; watch while the mainstream media pick up the story to prove they really aren't liberal. Rinse, repeat. It works pretty much every time."

Now if you're a newspaper ombudsman, how do you approach this? The way Alexander approaches it is to relate the barest facts of the story, then add that "to be sure, ideology and party politics are at play." Liberals are skeptical of the conservative activist and George W. Bush appointee who's pushing the case; conservatives think it's significant. Who's right? Who knows?

That, amazingly enough, is as far as Alexander goes, other than to say that the story ought to be reported well. In other words, he offers an example of just the kind of lazy, cowardly "he said/she said" writing that ombudsmen are supposed to be critical of. Here are some questions he could have asked, but didn't:

Just how significant is the Black Panther case? How does it compare to other voting-rights cases? Is this really the Greatest Crime Against Democracy in History, as Fox News would have us believe, or is it about conservatives' "fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the administration," as Abigail Thernstrom, the American Enterprise Institute scholar and conservative member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has said? If it's so important, why are there no actual voters who say their rights were compromised? Why did even George W. Bush's Justice Department basically think this case was a nothingburger? Should that fact that this is the first time in memory that conservative activists and media have expressed concern about the possibility of someone being prevented from voting (they're nearly always concerned about people, particularly minorities, voting when they allegedly don't have the right to) make reporters skeptical about the case? What role does race play in the aggressiveness with which Fox and other conservative outlets are pushing this story? Do journalists have an obligation to cover something for no reason other than that activists and ideological media are making noise about it? Shouldn't there be some criterion of newsworthiness that is met, beyond the fact that it's being discussed on "Fox and Friends"? Don't reporters have a responsibility to assess the fundamental substantive questions before they give publicity to a plainly drummed-up issue?

Aren't those the kinds of questions an ombudsman is supposed to ask?

-- Paul Waldman

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