Post Ombud Says “It Wasn’t Us! We Swear!”

In which we criticize Deborah Howell's criticism of the Washington Post's Web site.

In responding to a crisis sparked by a January 30 blog post by William Arkin on, the paper’s ombud Deborah Howell took Arkin and the Post’s Web site to the cleaners in her Sunday column.

The blogosphere has been in an uproar for the past week or so after Arkin, in a poorly worded and ill-conceived post, complained about an NBC news report which featured soldiers in Iraq griping about the level of support they’re receiving back home. Arkin wrote, “The recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary - oops sorry, volunteer - force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.”

After being eviscerated on Fox News and in the conservative blogosphere, Arkin apologized, but not before one of Bill O’Reilly’s producers cornered Arkin in a parking lot, chased him down in his car and confronted him about the post in front of his children. Stay classy, Fox News!

Arkin’s post deserved what it got, but Howell’s meditations on the incident demand some scrutiny, too.

She begins with a lament that “the fact that The Post and are interlocking yet separate is lost on most readers, who do not care that the two are miles apart physically and under different management.” The Post, Howell says, is taking the heat for “a column that never appeared in The Post — but for which The Post was blamed.”

We understand that the print and online versions of the Post are different, but it’s a cop out to try to divest the Post of responsibility for what appears on a Web site that bears its name. Howell continues, “Did one online column irreparably damage Post national security journalism? No. But it does show that an online column rubs off on the newspaper.”

Of course it does. And it should. Even if the Post’s Web site has a staff separate — both physically and operationally, as Howell is quick to point out — from the print edition, everyone still works under the auspices of the Washington Post, whether there’s a .com added on to their business card or not. And what is posted on the Web site should rub off on the paper.

Then Howell engages in some silly “print versus blog” scuffling: “I’m sure journalists at see their work as the journalism of the future, while we of the dead-tree format can be seen as the past.”

Howell paints a picture of a print edition staffed by mature professionals, and a Web site populated by brash upstarts, but she might want to read some of the non-blog work the staff produces. The news stories on the Web site don’t read all that different from the print edition, and they even contain some real reporting, proving that those kids over at the Web shop can work a phone just as well as the print folks.

This ghettoization of online newsgathering, and, by implication, the professionalism of reporters who work on the Web, needs to stop. Howell appears to be trying to shirk responsibility for Arkin’s comments by saying, “Oh, well, it was on the Web, and that’s not really the Washington Post, anyway.”

The fact that we have both online and print versions of newspapers should be embraced as a boon for the news business. It gives newspapers a global audience, allows them to break news, and provides more room for journalists to work. Yes, there are kinks to be worked out, but erecting imaginary walls — as Howell does in her column — is not the way to find a hybrid model of print and digital that works.

In short, Arkin screwed up, and his editors dropped the ball; but he’s an opinion writer, and these things happen. Anyone care to review a couple of month’s worth of the Post’s Charles Krauthammer’s columns for offensive or inane commentary? The fishing would be pretty rich, I suspect.

Howell ends her piece with this gem: “And it is good editing that should prevail when a report carries The Post’s banner.” True. Very true. Given that, maybe for her next column she can address how the print-side editors thoroughly botched this page 1 piece from Friday. You know, glass houses and all that.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.