CommunityFDL Main Blog

Sunday Late Nite: Slurping Her Own Bathwater

Madame Deborah Howell, Ombudsman to The Washington Post, is undertaking A Study of the paper’s presidential campaign coverage. Her study appears to have been prompted by the recent revelations in a Project for Excellence in Journalism content-analysis study (pdf) released October 29th that shows the media “have offered Americans relatively little information about [the candidates’] records or what they would do if elected.”

Christy well-covered the kind of reporting Americans deserve this morning. I wanted to talk about The Study Deborah is undertaking, and talk about the clues she gave us in this morning’s column about how, exactly, she’ll go about her Studying.

First, Deborah checked in with Executive Editor Leonard Downie to find out what he thinks about the PEJ study. Not much, in case you hadn’t guessed.

The study did not single out any news medium, and Executive Editor Len Downie said he doesn’t think the study’s broad conclusions necessarily apply to The Post because the analysis of The Post was done only every other day, dealt only with front-page stories and took place “well before anyone’s coverage was in high gear.” He also thinks the horse-race complaint is overblown.

Good to know that the Executive Editor has an opinion or two at the ready about the outsider Study, especially if you’re his Ombudsman undertaking your own Study. The Executive Editor’s five complaints about this outsider Study can be summarized as:

1. The outsider Study wasn’t just about newspapers

2. The Post published excellent stories on the other days

3. The Post published excellent stories on the other days, but cleverly placed them inside the paper so as not to disrupt the constant flow of haircut, cleavage, and gender-card-crap stories taking up front-page Post real estate

4. The Post wasn’t really writing much about the campaigns anyway, as they weren’t in high-gear

5. The Post doesn’t write that much about horse-races [Can you say “overblown” to Deb Howell without her running to her fainting couch?]

Not content to simply solicit the prevailing management opinion from the highest levels, Deb also checked in with Bill Hamilton, the Post’s assistant managing editor for politics. He

says that “strategy and tactics are serious subjects to us” and that The Post also plans extensive coverage of the candidates’ backgrounds and issues.

So, what have we so far? The Harvard-sponsored study was wrong on many counts; the idea that the horserace is something only journalists care about might be true, but gee there’s a lot of journalists in DeeCee so that’s important to us; and the paper plans to extensively cover important icky stuff — sometime soon.

And what about those DeeCee egos who need stroking, especially when they are advising a candidate for Preznit, clearly an important inside-the-Beltway role? How will reporters at The Post enjoy themselves at cocktail-weenie shindigs, and ensure they are attended to by the craven consultant class?

Because The Post is “the home-town newspaper of the politics industry, we wanted to focus on the people who are running national campaigns. That was the origin of our Gurus series– to explain the art of politics and the strategic thinking behind each campaign,” Hamilton said.

Egos, stroked. The gurus even get a capital G.

Having gotten guidance from management, executive and line editor, Deb’s puzzled about whether a Study is even necessary. Flitting about the newsroom, trying to decide how to Ombuds this “outsider” study, and hoping there’s Ombudsing to be done, Deb spies a kindred soul: Dean Broderella.

Post columnist and political writer David S. Broder has counseled for decades against too much coverage of consultants. He believes they have an “inordinate amount of influence” on reporters. For instance, Broder said, “Joe Trippi [John Edwards’s campaign consultant and one of the featured gurus] is only important to maybe 20 people in the world, but he’s important to reporters.”

Ew, John Edwards.
{Glad we managed to insult someone associated with his campaign. And didn’t he work for that Howard Dean, too?}

Broder is a longtime advocate of coverage that focuses on voters; I am his acolyte on that. “The best tactic is to orient around the voters, not the candidates. If reporters spend enough time with voters, you find out what voters want to know,” he said.

Ew, voters.
That sounds like spending time with readers, advocating for them. Something Madame Howell is entirely unfamiliar with, and intends to remain so.

How, then, to cast her Study, so that it will sound serious, will satisfy management, will appease Broderella (whose acolyte she admits to being, ewww!), but not have too many strictures or time-consuming tasks?

The ombudsman, with readers’ help, will monitor coverage within some qualitative boundaries and common-sense categories that readers and journalists understand. This will be done with transparency as a goal, and I hope to post it in some way on the Web with periodic reports in the paper. The hallmarks will be newsworthiness, fairness and service to voters.

Got it?

Let me translate Deb’s plan for her big Study:

I will read the paper.

I will decide what I think about what’s in the paper.

I will tell you what was in the paper, and what to think about it.

I will dumb it down.

I’m doing The Study with management’s knowledge and approval, and I have their permission and guidance on how to best illuminate their reporters’ excellent work.

I used the word transparency, so the bloggers better leave me the fuck alone.

Maybe they’ll let me post on the Internet again, even after that Abramoff-funded-Democrats fiasco.

Oh, and there will be Hallmarks.

PS The downside of this new Study appears to be that Deborah Howell has obtained an extension on her purported two-year contract, set to end fall 2007.

Previous post

Getting Better All the Time?

Next post

Blend exclusive: Liveblog with NC U.S. Senate candidate Jim Neal

Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge