Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Simplistic Truth

Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell this morning:

Every day I hear from readers who tell me the reason The Post's print edition is losing readers and advertising is that (1) The Post is too liberal, (2) The Post has gone downhill with three buyouts in five years or (3) The Post is arrogant. Or all of the above.

Those notions are simplistic, but each holds a grain of truth. Let's consider them:
(1) Neither the hard-core right nor left will ever be satisfied by Post coverage -- and that's as it should be. But it's true that The Post, as well as much of the national news media, has written more stories and more favorable stories about Barack Obama than John McCain. Editors have their reasons for this, but conservatives are right that they often don't see their views reflected enough in the news pages.

The Post's latest circulation losses were less than many large papers suffered, and business executives say the advertising downturn has more to do with the economy than with political coverage. That said, the imbalance still needs to be corrected.


(3) Arrogance. It is a disease easily caught by journalists, who can overlook its symptoms. We believe that we have a collective "nose for news" and the judgment to know best what readers need to know and how to present it. We believe in our own wisdom and experience and in the purity that keeps us out of politics and special-interest groups. We have our own rules, and we don't change them. We seldom ask for input from readers. We believe that if it weren't for us, the world couldn't be as well informed and democracy wouldn't operate as it should. But this sounds self-important to readers.
Does the Washington Post's ombudsman really believe that news -- or truth, for that matter -- is somehow symmetrical? Or that reader feedback is a mechanism for accurately measuring such a thing?

In addressing her readers' third complaint -- about the Post's "arrogance" -- Howell justifiably deplores the paper's dearth of issues coverage. But if The Post isn't covering issues, just how deeply can it be skewing "the truth"?

Isn’t it obvious that it's the quality and not the quantity of news coverage that the ombudsman should be attending to? Reading between the lines of this and other recent Howell columns, you can see that this is a point Post editors keep trying to impress upon her. But it's a point she simply refuses to accept.

Howell doesn't even seem to be able to keep the Post's news and opinion writers straight, as she shows us by pointing to columnist Ruth Marcus's issues coverage. As for the quality of Marcus's reporting, I guess Howell has missed her continuing efforts to bury the recent GOP Social Security bamboozlement. Howell also points with pride to Post contributor David Broder, who has steadfastly refused to express an opinion on such important issues as Sarah Palin's qualifications to be president.

Just a thought: It might be helpful to The Post's efforts to meet its challenges, to have an ombudsman qualified to accurately and honestly identify them.