I have mixed feelings about ombudsmen, but the latest effort by The Washington Post's Deborah Howell makes me think again about their usefulness. Howell dealt with the story the Post did a couple of weeks ago about the baseless rumors surrounding the Barack Obama presidential campaign that he is a closet Muslim. Even Post opinion cartoonist Tom Toles had a useful opinion on the piece. Howell rightly points out the obvious problems with the story, but then goes on to quote the newspaper's editors defending the piece and making what amount to affirmative denials that anything is wrong:
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.
But there was no deliberate "smear job," as some readers charged. The story said clearly in the second paragraph that Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago.
It is great to know that the Post is not out there to deliberately smear political candidates, but that is not the serious question that must be addressed. The big question is how such a story slides through the editing process at a major American newspaper. Are there not bigger issues about Obama than groundless rumors? Surely it deserves a mention, but it is not news that Obama is dealing with crazy claims that he is some kind of Manchurian Candidate:
Bacon referred a request for comment to Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics. Hamilton edited the story, which several top editors saw before it was published.
... Hamilton said, "Reasonable people can disagree on this. But the people I have heard from are not reasonable. What I find especially disheartening is the idea that our motives are simply assumed to have been malicious."
This is the new world mainstream journalists live in, one that will continue to be explored in this column.
The fact that "mainstream journalists" live in a "new world" is about 10 years old and should come as no surprise to anyone. Instead of focusing on people who try to accuse the Post of malicious behavior, the Post should be more concerned about those of us who think the newspaper was merely negligent in running this story.
In some ways, the negligence charge is worse than the charge of malice. If a reporter or editor was out to hurt Obama, the newspaper could simply fire or discipline the responsible person. That this seems to come down to insensitivity and/or carelessness is even more disheartening.