Saturday, August 09, 2008


Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell gets the facts fairly straight this week in a column on the Post's extreme misrepresentation of Obama's "I have become a symbol" statement. Unfortunately, her interpretation of those facts is completely wrong.

Long story short, Obama, addressing a closed House Democratic caucus meeting, said something to the effect that the accolades drawn by his candidacy are "not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."

According to Howell, Post political reporter and columnist Jonathan Weisman received a secondhand version of Obama's statement from an anonymous source. He posted that version of the statement to the online Post, together with this misleading spin:

...Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype.
Importantly, the context Weisman provided for his version of Obama's statement reveals to close readers that his earlier spin contradicts what Obama actually said:
The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source.
Weisman shared the anonymous source's version of Obama's statement (together, presumably, with its exculpatory context) with his colleague at the Post Dana Milbank, who then tailored a highly misleading version of the quote to fit into a column he published the next day on Obama's "presumptuousness."

(Milbank later called readers complaining about his hatchet job "whiners." Howell accepts that Milbank was forced to give his readers what they deserved: "Milbank said he chose to answer some nasty attacks with humor." Tee fucking hee.)

Howell's primary conclusion (among several even sillier ones) is that the reporters shouldn't have relied on an anonymous source. But according to Howell herself, the anonymous source provided Weisman and Milbank with an essentially accurate version of Obama's statement. It was the Post reporters rather than their source who, willfully or not, misconstrued Obama for the Post's readers.

Like Milbank (and according to her usual practice), Howell is at pains to undercut the validity of reader complaints. She describes this week's controversy as "an uproar among partisans," "partisan blogs" and "Obama fans." The hostile framing extends to the column's very headline, "The Anger Over An Obama Quote," casting as an irrational reflex the legitimate, reasonable and thoughtful critiques many readers made of these Post errors; and to the column's subhead on the Post's Opinion page, "Readers question the use of a quote in a story about [Obama's] presumptuousness," casting Obama's uppityness as a given fact warranting further discussion.

The Post has stubbornly refused to issue a correction even to the flagrant misrepresentation Milbank made of Obama's statement. According to Howell, "there's no tape to verify [the Obama camp's version of the quote], either, and Post editors refused to publish a correction." Apparently it doesn't matter that Weisman's version of the quote supports the Obama camp and flatly refutes Milbank.

So, once again, in her foolish zeal to unmask and resist partisan motivations and spin in complaints to the Ombudsman, Howell has managed to largely excuse an entire week's worth of partisan spin by the GOP and its assorted tools.

And so it goes.