Guess which WPost reporter refuses to cover you fairly

This weekend, we looked at the Washington Post ombudsman column that revealed that the newspaper has an extremely serious problem with doing basic journalism when it comes to the thorny issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.

The ombudsman column is something that could be discussed for many reasons, but I want to narrow it to just one point of discussion: anonymity. Should the ombudsman have granted anonymity to the reporter who was revealing his or her bigotry and egregious ignorance against the people he or she is supposed to cover intelligently and fairly?

Again, you can read my piece “WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists” for the details of this breathtaking admission from the Post, but for our purposes the relevant portion is this:

Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.

Now, I don’t get as animated about anonymity as many journalists do, although I do agree it poses serious problems. I also know that I would have written very few stories about waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government without granting it.

You know how when people are granted anonymity, reporters write why they wanted it? Say, because they’re not supposed to talk publicly about that personnel decision or sensitive bill negotiations or whatever? Well, one media critic recently suggested that instead of talking about why the source wanted anonymity, reporters should simply say why they granted it.

Anyway, the problem with the anonymity granted to the reporter in this case is that it tarnishes 100% of the reporters at the Washington Post. I was at a party of journalists this weekend where various people named who they thought the reporter in question was. There were a few theories and some were stronger than others. But if I were a decent reporter at the Post, one who did not hold uncontrollably bigoted views against religious adherents or people with different moral or political views than my own, I’d be unhappy to have many of my readers wondering if I seethed with contempt for them.

Let’s look at an interesting Twitter conversation between a few other reporters who discussed the ombudsman’s piece, including the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York, Jan Crawford of CBS News, and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:

@Byron York: WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper’s mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him.

@JanCBS: It’s the reporter’s obliviousness to bias (lecturing on what conservatives “should” believe) that’s most revealing.

@JamesTaranto: If he were truly oblivious, he wouldn’t have insisted on anonymity.

@JanCBS: He was emailing with a reader. I assumed he wasn’t anonymous.

@JamesTaranto: See the piece. @wapoombudsman granted him anonymity.

@JanCBS: My point is he/she is saying those things publicly as a reporter. Byline is irrelevant.

@JamesTaranto: But he was suddenly inhibited when faced with the prospect of having his views published in his own paper.

@JanCBS: So what? That he/she initially saw nothing wrong in expressing those views is my point re newsrooms.

@JamesTaranto: Imagine how you’d feel if CBS aired a similar rant by one of your colleagues without identification.

Don Surber, an editorial writer at the Charleston Daily Mail wrote:

@DonSurber: It’s not the liberalism, it’s the condescension.

@JamesTaranto: To a journalist it’s the utter lack of professionalism most of all

@JanCBS: Gasp! Gambling in Casablanca! But it’s the honesty abt it that’s refreshing.

@JamesTaranto: I don’t think an anonymous confession is especially honest.

So what do you think about granting anonymity? Is it a case where the revelation of the bias is more important than the byline identification? Or does it unfairly tar everyone at the Post, instead of the one reporter who has proven himself or herself unable to be a professional?

And what do you think the Washington Post should do — internally and externally — in response to this ombudsman column? To do nothing would be quite the powerful statement, and one that puts into question all of that paper’s coverage of this topic. So I imagine, for reasons of basic journalistic integrity, something will be done — but what?

Image of Washington Post reporter working on a story about same-sex marriage via Shutterstock.

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  • Lola LB

    I think I should be able to know who this particular reporter is. That will allow me to then read any future articles that this reporter writes with this knowledge in the back of my head. Considering that my household has not been subscribing to WaPo for the past couple years or so (oh, how I miss the Food section!), I will continue to be in the dark as to who this reporter is.

  • Darren Blair

    On one hand, I can see why the names were withheld since this was originally personal correspondence.

    On the other hand, given the serious nature of the allegations the correspondence raises concerning the *absolute* inability of a reporter to remain neutral on a particular topic, it’s the reporter who needs to be named & shamed rather than the ombudsman.

    Otherwise, the entire paper is going to get hit with “guilt by association”.

  • http://www.presidentandceomagazine.com Paul

    Isn’t the more pertinent question this: Had WaPo or any other “journalistic” organization come across a similarly incriminating (in the professional sense) email exchange involving, say, a police officer or a lawyer or a politician, would they have even dreamed of granting anonymity to the violator in question? Not a chance. The guilty party would be inundated with hostile questions and his/her identity would be trumpeted to the skies, all in the name of “the people’s right to know.” Somehow, “journalists” like the WaPo’s ombudsman (and apparently Jan, who is less than troubled by the anonymity granted) believe that they get a pass from such treatment. It’s revolting.

  • mollie

    Just a reminder to commenters that personal attacks, lying about your email address, and sock puppetry are violations of our commenting policy.

    In short, be nice, be honest and stick to discussions of media coverage.

    And if you think that I’ll stop advocating for good journalism because you say vile things about me under the veil of pseudonyms, you are mistaken. Kind of the opposite, in fact.

  • FW Ken

    You are the journalist, Mollie, so I’ll take your word on the ethics of the situation. As a consumer, I know I probably should want to know the reporter’s name. Except that I don’t. We know the bias of the paper, as illustrated by their ombudsman and articles too numerous to mention. It is what it is. Again, as a consumer, I have lots of options and opportunities to ignore the Washington Post, or read it with a careful eye.

    I’m not really being cynical here (maybe a little fatalistic), but my feeling is that a media outlet we can’t trust has a short shelf life.

  • http://www.herbely.com Herb

    I dropped Newsweek on the basis of their “reporting” on what the bible says about marriage. At least I’m not paying for the WaPo on-line. If they set up a paywall they will have a hard time convincing me to subscribe.

  • Martha

    “I’d be unhappy to have many of my readers wondering if I seethed with contempt for them.”

    But who is the readership for “The Washington Post”? Who do the reporters think they are writing for? I imagine that the reporter in question is pretty sure he/she is writing for a constituency that don’t think he/she was addressing his/her contempt towards them, but towards those bigots/zealots/unenlightened rubes out there.

    This is just one more reason why I was never very convinced about the “American model of journalism versus the European advocacy model”. It’s just that now the personal opinions and tendencies to sympathise with a particular point of view are coming out into the open, but I very much doubt they were not there all along to begin with.

    As to anonymity, I suppose if you’re going to give it to one party in the exchange, you have to give it to the other, particularly in the case of an exchange of emails which were (to start off with) not intended for publication. A letter to the editor or a column written in reply and published in the paper would be different.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Martha, it’s not a matter that the viewpoints weren’t there all along before — of course they were. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t understand the basics of human nature. What’s at issue is that, prior to this change occasioned by a number of different factors, most reporters were able to be professionals and at least made the attempt at treating their subjects (both the topics and the people) in a fair-minded way without allowing their prejudices to get in the way of their reporting. This was the standard for American journalism, one which is apparently only held by very few people anymore.

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    The biggest problem with anonymity is that you now must trust the reporter writing the story. Reading that article, how much should any “religionist” trust either of the reporters? You used to trust the reporter because they worked for a certain institution, but those institutions were trashed. (Same thing happened in protestant denominations by the way). That trust moved to the byline. Unless the reporter’s public reputation is remarkably different than the private communication I don’t think anonymity is that big. I already assume such sloppiness until proven otherwise by public reporting. By granting anonymity what I’m assuming is that the ombudsman thinks this attitude is easily apparent in the reporter’s everyday work. The two biggest problems are: 1) given the ombudsman’s column could I trust them to be professional and not grant anonymity if it greatly conflicted with public persona, and 2) if the WP cared about its institutional standing as an honest reporter, it wouldn’t allow anonymity. My guess is at this point the WP and most MSM institutions probably care more about righting the wrongs of society as they see them that they do about the mission of journalism. After all, they all went to schools and journalism “to do something and change the world”, not be referees of our politics. I wouldn’t expect any action.

  • Martha

    Speaking of “The Washington Post”, you have to go over and read Sally Quinn’s latest. I was steered to it by a commenter on another blog and you must, simply must, read it.

    Her explanation of the doctrine of Purgatory alone is worth reading the whole article, but warning: you may want to have a box of tissues handy to wipe away the tears* as you read the heart-rending tale of how Sally herself was mistreated by the Vatican.

    mollie, with incisive, informed comment of this calibre regarding the single largest Christian denomination in the world, can you really be surprised about the reporter who thinks gay-marriage opponents are just bigots and knuckle-draggers?

    *Note: I make no specifications as to whether you will be wiping away tears of sorrow or of laughter.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      I shed no tears, Martha — I simply shook my head at yet another horribly uninformed “Catholic.”

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  • FW Ken

    Sally Quinn is not actually Catholic. She’s just ignorant.

    And more crunchy goodness, this from NPR. By my reading, their numbers don’t add up and the surveys to which they link don’t control for Mass attendance or other measures of participation (I may have overlooked it, though on one of the surveys). But amid the cliches, you’ll find another obit for the Catholic Church.

    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/npr.php?id=172826637

  • tmatt

    Quinn is, by her writings, an atheist who is a spiritual seeker who attends an Episcopal church.

    • Martha

      I was particularly impressed by the word-picture she paints comparing Williamsburg with the eventual fate of Catholicism: come with me, dear readers, to a time twenty or so years in the future. An aged priest, one of the last remaining openly Roman Catholic -identified persons in the world, agrees to give an interview to a WaPo cyberjournalist. The backdrop is the theme park formerly known as St. Peter’s in Rome.

      Q. Where did it all go wrong, Reverend (that is the right term you call yourself, yeah?)

      A. Looking back at it, I would have to say – the Church survived the fall of Rome, the collapse of the Western and Eastern empires, the barbarian invasions, the split with the Eastern Churches, the Reformation, the French and other Revolutions, the Enlightenment, two World Wars and even the Spirit of Vatican II. But we grew cocky and over-confident, and our downfall – though we didn’t know it – was set in train the day we turned Sally Quinn away for having too short a skirt. What kind of fools were we, to think we could take on a giantess of her stature and importance to the entire global civilisation? How did we think we could remain relevant, topical, and attractive to middle-class blonde white university-educated professional women who wear ballet flats and pearls and thirty years later would write online opinion pieces for American newspapers about it?

      Q. You – you turned away Sally Quinn? Wow – I’m speechless. You guys… you are disgusting. Disgusting, you hear me? Good riddance to your antiquated rubbish! I’m outta here!

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        LOL! What a way to start my day! Absolutely hilarious!

        • Martha

          Thank you, Thomas. I know I’m breaking a butterfly on a wheel here, but it just occurred to me that if Sally was in her 20s when she was turned away for having a skirt a half-inch too long, that would have been in the 60s.

          As you may see from this image of a 60s style shift dress (which was a popular style at the time, and may have been the kind Sally was wearing), half an inch in the hem length would make a big difference :-)

          Apart from that – what kind of informed opinion starts off with a plaint about “Fifty years ago, the mean ol’ Vatican was mean to me?” and then jumps forward to make a connection between the (genuinely horrible) sex abuse scandal and her skirt length back then?

          “But standing there in Rome, I thought about the reality of children being molested and priests who had committed those crimes being protected and excused by the Vatican, the complaints years earlier about my half inch too short skirt seemed pathetic in comparison.”

          Yeah, that silly old European etiquette when meeting heads of state! I mean, can you imagine – if Sally were to be presented to the Queen, she would be expected to curtsy? It should be the other way round!

          I also had to laugh about her quoting Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell (‘mm, mm, he’s so dreamy!’ seems to be her attitude) as proof of how the papacy used to operate; yes, Henry did break away to marry Anne Boleyn. But Sally omits to mention how he then tired of her, particularly over her failure to provide him with an heir, and how Hilary’s crush Thomas Cromwell facilitated the king in getting shot of her by bringing accusations of adultery (including incest with her own brother) against her, which resulted in her execution and the legal declaration that their daughter Elizabeth was illegitimate. Yes, really liberated women and religion from the heavy hand of Rome, there!

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