Howl No More
Our hopes were high, early on, as Jane Hamsher wrote more than three years ago just as Deb Howell’s tenure began:
We know Ms. Howell has only has only been on the job as public editor a brief time but we look forward to the day when she actually represents the public.
We still await that day, even though today is Deb’s last column.
Let’s revisit one of Deb’s best efforts to evade responsibility for reader concerns, when John Aravosis at AmericaBlog found her telling readers she wasn’t taking emails about a controversy she ginned up herself by calling Washington Post Newsweek Interactive blogger Dan Froomkin "highly opinionated and liberal," which resulted in the disastrous hire by WPNI Executive Editor Jim Brady of serial plagiarist Ben Domenech:
Isn’t this interesting. The Washington Post ombudsman is now saying she’ll have nothing to do with the Post’s Republican blogger scandal because it’s not her jurisdiction. You see, the Post’s Web site is under totally different management, according to Post ombudsman Deborah Howell – you need to write the Web site management, not the Post ombudsman, to complain about the Web site.
Which is quite funny, considering the fact that the same ombudsman recently wrote an article critical of Post writer Dan Froomkin who writes exclusively on the .com, and considering that the Post’s Republican blogger was apparently hired to address the "liberal bias" concerns that the ombusdman raised in that very column about .com writer Froomkin.
So in what possible world is this issue not in the jurisdiction of the Post’s ombudsman when she started the entire thing in the first place in her own column?
Oh, that’s the right. We’re dealing with the Washington Post’s ombudsman, not a real ombdusman. Is it any surprise that the woman who only has problems with liberal bloggers and "liberal" journalists suddenly isn’t interested when the subject turns to the Washington Post’s conservative bias? The unmitigated gall to suggest that this doesn’t fall under her jurisdiction when she started the whole thing.
Deb also made enormous efforts to enforce the White House’s preferred Happy Talk version of news from the Iraq battlefield. Only six months into her tenure, she summarized her column on this subject (which then occupied five entire webpages) thusly:
The Post’s work (and that of other news media in Iraq) draws intense attention and a steady stream of complaints from readers, military and civilian, who say the coverage is excessively negative and too focused on violence.
It’s clear that many of those readers see war coverage through their own political filters. One reader wrote a Post reporter a few weeks ago: "Be nice to see your traitorous ass shot." Another reader who writes frequently, Bob Youcker of Bethesda, said: "Iraq is a country the size of California. Is there not one good thing happening in the country?"
After talking and corresponding with Post staffers and other journalists with Iraq experience and experts in and outside the military, I find no easy resolution to the complaints.
None of the complaints were from readers other than those who found the Post’s reporting excessively too focused on the bad news. None. And yet Deb was unable to find a resolution, even though the only complainers she paid attention to were those who criticized the Post’s reporting from one perspective.
Deb’s understanding of reader ‘filters’ would continue to serve her, and her employer, well.
When Debbie weighed in on Fact-Free Fred Hiatt’s mistaken (?) understanding of Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger, she ended up in exactly the place that made her happiest. Jane explained then why Deb was so useful:
Debbie falls back once again on the intellectually lazy "well, everyone’s upset so we must be doing something right" hokum. Yes, she’s an idiot. But she’s quite useful to the Post. Anyone with even a bit more intelligence would have a hard time getting all that insufferable, senseless drivel onto the page. And as they struggle to justify the blood on their own hands, that’s an opiate for which they seem to have a relentless hunger.
Christy, seeing a pattern of insulting readers instead of working on their behalf, took issue when Deb wrote a whole column to tell readers they wanted less indepth reporting and were too lazy to read long articles:
And spending an entire Obudswoman’s column explaining to the readers why they are too slow to read thorough reporting and why Deb knows best what they should like? Well, that’s incredibly condescending coming from a woman who is supposed to be representing all of our interests, and not just covering her own behind, now isn’t it? Here’s a thought: perhaps the readers who write in with complaints do so because they value what the paper COULD be, and that watching it descend into watered-down, faux balanced swill is painful and also dangerous considering how much real reporting could be done inside the Beltway these days.
Insulting your readers by telling them that they can only digest news in tiny bits and that they’ll like what they are given and that asking for accountability is not desirable? Not exactly good for the bottom line, now is it, Deb? Like I said, must have been a triple dog dare…
Pachacutec also noticed, as Deb’s second year got underway, that she was somehow now favoring "provocative" content, as long as it supported the wingnut view of, well, just about anything, but in this case, the Libby trial:
* Washington Post public relations hack ombusdman Deb Howell justifies the decision to run Victoria Toensing’s lies as the Libby case closes, amplifying the paper’s editorial level decision to go all the way in the tank for Team Libby. Since Deb is so interested in offering "provocative" content in the Outlook section, I expect Jane Hamsher to be published there any Sunday now. Here’s the difference: Toensing had her basic facts wrong and Jane will have hers dead on cold correct.
On the same subject, and not much later, Christy asked whether Deb would ever address the big steaming pile of conflict of interest generated by Ms Toensing’s Op-Ed: that she submitted a friend-of-the-court brief unacknowledged by the Post when it printed her silliness:
And the fact that readers expect some honesty about this sort of thing up front when they read the article? Well, that isn’t important. At least, not to the WaPo’s ombudsperson. The fact that this conflict of interest might have some bearing with regard to why the WaPo commissioned the op-ed? Or why they have refused to allow any semblance of rebuttal to grace the paper’s pristine editorial pages?
Ethics, schmethics, eh, Deb? Moving right along.
I weighed in on Deb’s vision-quest to always approve management’s decisions when she overlooked a Novak misstatement about Valerie Plame’s covert status, a Fred Hiatt misstep in identifying Liz Cheney, Krauthammer’s fact-free-ness on the Lieberman general election victory the previous fall, Howie Kurtz’s discussions of Don Imus’s charm, RNC talking points’ graceful elision into an editorial about Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Damascus, and Richard Cohen’s description of Monica Goodling as "no criminal." During that ten-day period any Ombudsman would salivate over, Deb undertook to resolve one complaint from one reader on a burning issue:
From this embarassment of riches, what choice did Ombudsman Deborah Howell make? In response to ONE reader’s complaint, she devoted her entire weekly output to a Masters golf tournament betting pool among five Post sportwriters that totalled $250. Reaching her customarily management-friendly conclusion, Deb opined
The Masters pool is not a grave ethical matter, but The Post should have written rules to guide sports journalists on betting. This answer didn’t please [reader] Sullivan, who wrote, "Reporters go after others with zeal while believing that the rules don’t apply to them and that they are above reproach. Accountability for thee but not for me."
Even when just one reader complains about something completely inconsequential, Post owner Donald Graham can count on Deb to side with the house.
In mid-2007, as war with Iran loomed, I wondered whether Deb would let the Post repeat its cheerleading:
(Special P.S. for Deb):
Mrs. Howell!! There are powerful forces afoot in the world capital where your paper is published every day. These forces seek to take our nation to war — again! — against another sovereign country that is no imminent threat to our lives, our fortunes, or our sacred honor. The Federal Government’s hometown paper, having cheerled these forces into our current quagmire, must not mimeograph The Regime’s illogic to the nation again without challenge.
You, madame, are at a critical point in your Ombudshood. Wake up! You must — starting today! — challenge The Washington Post at every level to do better than it has done in the past. You must stop seeing readers as complaining and disturbed. You must recognize that The Regime your newspaper has enabled is utterly corrupt and has bankrupted our national reputation. And you must acknowledge your newspaper’s role in that. You must begin editing your newspaper for the public who reads it. You must watch Keith Olbermann — every evening! You must read Glenn Greenwald — every day! You must read Marcy Wheeler’s Anatomy of Deceit — immediately!
Or you must get out of the way. The Regime’s hometown paper must not continue its sycophancy and stenography unchallenged while you make a half-dozen phone calls and type a weekly column.
Please choose wisely — many, many lives as well as the future of the American republic may weigh in the balance. Thank you.
Of course, this was a critical time for Deb: she was beginning to think that her sinecure was quite comfortable and that another year in the Ombudsnest might suit her just fine. Somehow, never explained to readers, her two-year contract she had bragged about when we were calling for her head was magically extended through the end of 2008. No reason given, although many asked.
But none of us thought it happened because of her ferocious representation of readers. We knew it was a happy management that decided Deb could stay past her sell-by date. And so she did, never realizing that it was this extension that gave away the game: if she couldn’t be fired because she had a run-of-the-play contract, she could instead do her best to please the people who could ask her to stay another year.
And that’s just what we’ve been blessed with throughout 2008.
Having locked in another year, Deb let readers know what she really thought. One of my favorites was this past April:
Deb Howell greets Washington Post readers who want more content in the paper with four small words this Sunday morning:
Get over it. Please.
Wow, way to ombuds there, Deb. Don’t hurt yourself advocating for the reader or anything. But you make it pretty clear that’s not whose side you’re on very quickly in today’s column, right Deb?
In her valedictory column today, Deb Howell indicates her view of readers when she writes:
The worst part of my job as official internal critic hasn’t been dealing with readers, though that has been both daunting and rewarding.
You know, it never occurred to me that the readers’ representative would tell us that the worst part of her job WASN’T dealing with readers. Excuse me, Madame~! it’s the primary part of your job. You were supposed to be the readers’ representative. And yet you find it necessary to reassure us that dealing with us wasn’t the worst part of your job!?
For all your speculation and congratulation in today’s column, there’s very little else about readers, and what you do write isn’t very pretty.
After agreeing — yet again! — with management about the exciting future of the happy guild of journamilizts ("a band of brothers and sisters working intensely together"), you provide a final glimpse at your attitude about readers when you sign off with the same regret George Bush has expressed so often about Iraqis: not thankful enough!
That’s my own fervent wish — along with wishing that readers appreciate journalists’ work.
Ungrateful wretches ‘r’ us!
I won’t miss her. Will you?