HOWELL AND ABRAMOFF….One of the least appealing aspects of the blogosphere is its obsession with “media criticism,” most of which, upon examination, turns out to have about as much heft and substance as a Krispy Kreme donut. Just in the past day or two, for example, I’ve come across this from a conservative, complaining about a passing remark dating the start of the current North Korean crisis to 2003. I’ve come across this from a liberal, complaining that the New York Times dared to even quote someone from the Discovery Institute. And I’ve come across this from a libertarian, complaining about differing coverage of Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite the fact that the difference was due to the reality of what people were actually saying and doing at the time.
But sometimes the criticism is spot on, and the mainstream media would do well to figure out when those times are. I mean, what can possibly explain this week’s spectacle, in which the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, made a simple factual error (namely that Jack Abramoff made “substantial campaign contributions to both major parties”) and then stonewalled for days instead of issuing a quick and straightforward correction?
And then the followup reaction, in which (1) Howard Kurtz brushed off Howell’s mistake as merely “inartfully worded,” (2) Howell finally issued a statement but declined to admit any real error, and (3) Jim Brady, the Post’s online executive editor, panicked and shut down comments on one of their blogs because he didn’t like the barrage of abuse readers were directing their way?
Flame wars are ugly things, to be sure, but I think Brady is dead wrong when he says, “I don?t think the tone would have been much different if she?d posted something on Monday or Tuesday. The basic issue here is that she didn?t deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to.” In fact, if Howell had posted a simple correction to her column on Monday saying that she had made a mistake and Jack Abramoff donated money only to Republicans ? and left it at that instead of straining to justify her original error ? none of this would have happened. The messenger may have been rude and crude in this case, but the messenger was also right.
POSTSCRIPT: By the way, why is it that Howell’s original column still doesn’t have a correction appended? Nobody reading it either at the Post site or via Nexis would have any idea that she had made a mistake.