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.