Et Tu, WaPo?

The Post’s weightless weigh-in on the Black Panthers coverage

Looks like Fox News’s Megyn Kelly got what she wanted: everybody’s talking about the DOJ’s dismissal of charges against the New Black Panther Party. As of Sunday, “everybody” included The Washington Post. As of today, it includes us.

In a column that’s been smacked around the liberal blogosphere like some newspaper-thin piñata, oft-targeted Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander addressed the paper’s “silence” on the matter. As many have noted, Alexander’s call to arms—“it’s a controversy that screams for clarity that The Post should provide”—is a pretty tepid effort. By the end of it, he’s provided none of the deeper engagement he so strongly calls for.

Thursday’s Post reported about a growing controversy over the Justice Department’s decision to scale down a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party. The story succinctly summarized the issues but left many readers with a question: What took you so long?

For months, readers have contacted the ombudsman wondering why The Post hasn’t been covering the case. The calls increased recently recently after competitors such as the New York Times and the Associated Press wrote stories. Fox News and right-wing bloggers have been pumping up the story, accusing them of trying to manufacture a scandal.

We were heartened to read this opening and see The Post taking on the issue. The story has been mostly told online and on TV by those whose political shadings have dictated the angle, and the content. As Alexander writes, referencing J. Christian Adams, the Justice Department lawyer who filed the initial suit against the Black Panthers and, when it was dismissed in lieu of a narrower charge, blew the whistle on supposed anti-white prejudices at the department:

To be sure, ideology and party politics are at play. Liberal bloggers have accused Adams of being a right-wing activist (he insisted to me Friday that his sole motivation was applying civil rights laws in a race-neutral way). Conservatives appointed during the Bush administration control a majority of the civil rights commission’s board. And Fox News has used interviews with Adams to push the story. Sarah Palin has weighed in via Twitter, urging followers to watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s coverage because ‘her revelations leave Left steaming.’

That’s a nice summary of the controversies surrounding the story, but the ombudsman does not move beyond it to offer any “clarity.” Rather than addressing the case in any detail and the motivations of those pushing the story on either side—what actually happened at the polling station, whether Adams has a legitimate grievance, or whether he is merely an activist—Alexander’s column calls for someone else to do the work. We feel it’s not enough to say ideology and politics are at play without more fully detailing how. And it’s certainly not enough to report that Adams “insists” he has no motive.

The designated guardian of his paper’s integrity, Alexander might have led by example. Instead he provides the usual he said/she said pap without the adjudication the issue “screams for”—the kind of article The Post ran on the case on July 15, which the ombudsman says “succinctly summarized” the issues.

In his column, a correction of sorts to that piece, Alexander only touches on the polling incident that stirred the initial controversy and neglects to address the reasons given by the DOJ for the case’s dismissal. These include the use of a rarely used and near uniformly unsuccessful section of the Civil Rights Act as the basis of the suit, the fact that no intimidated voters gave depositions in the suit, and that complaints in Adams’ memo recommending the suit all came from Republican poll-watchers.

It’s difficult to read the column without the sense that Alexander and The Post are caving to at least one of the ideologies at play. After all, the take-away from the column is the same as one gets from watching Kelly’s segments on the matter—this issue needs coverage. As Paul Waldman points out on The American Prospect’s Web site, Alexander does not even mention or outline who these readers are who have been inundating the paper with requests for more coverage. Are they genuinely concerned Post readers miffed that they’re missing the story? Or—and we can’t help feeling this is more likely—are they the Fox viewers and @SarahPalinUSA followers he mentions in his cursory paragraph on the ideologies driving the story? If so, does the campaign of a highly motivated and hyper partisan group warrant the ombudsman’s call for more coverage from a newspaper traditionally above the fray?

Ironically, with little to say beyond exasperation at the lack of coverage, the column ends up reading as if it were one of the letters Alexander might have received. And The Post might have been better publishing one of those—at least we would have known who’d written it.

With D.C.’s legacy paper in tangles over the issue, online outlets have picked up some slack. Media Matters’s report on what it calls the “phony Black Panthers scandal”—cited by many liberal bloggers including Salon’s Joan Walsh over the weekend—effectively breaks down how Fox built the story. Kelly alone, it reported, aired forty-five segments on the issue after interviewing Adams on her daily Fox News program at the end of June. But the report’s assessment of Adams is hardly damning:

Adams is a longtime right-wing activist who is known for filing an ethics complaint against Hugh Rodham that was subsequently dismissed. Adams served as a poll watcher for George W. Bush in Florida in 2004, and he reportedly volunteered for a Republican group that trains lawyers to fight “racially tinged battles over voting rights.”

Adams was hired at the Justice Department in 2005 by Bradley Schlozman, who was found by the Justice Department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility to have improperly considered political affiliation when hiring career attorneys — the former head of the DOJ voting rights section reportedly said that Adams was “exhibit A of the type of people hired by Schlozman.”

All we learn here is that Adams is a conservative, hired by a superior who liked that fact, who has a failed ethics complaint behind him.

Politico’s Ben Smith, however, strongly indicted Adams and his backers with a fine piece of reporting on July 16. Noting that the Bush-appointed vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail Thernstrom, had called the case “small potatoes” in a piece she wrote for National Review, Smith followed up with her. What she told him said much about the “ideologies and party politics at play” in the Panther case and story and the suspect nature of Adams’ claims.

”This doesn’t have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use the issue to topple the [Obama]administration,” said Thernstrom, who said members of the commission voiced their political aims “in the initial discussions” of the Panther case last year.

“My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president,” Thernstrom said in an interview with POLITICO.

As Smith notes, the revelation is all the more damning because Thernstrom is a noted conservative. His story ran two days before Alexander’s column but was never cited in it.

Smith’s is the kind of pushback we need when ideologically driven news outlets are so determined to ram their stories into the mainstream—whether with forty-five heated segments or a mailroom full of letters. His call to Thernstrom should have been one of the first calls The Post’s ombudsman made. The next should have been back to Adams.

“Remember that thing you said about your sole motivation? Well…”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.