Downie Overdoes It

A mostly reasonable defense of a reporter oversteps a fairness boundary

In an otherwise reasonable and spirited defense of a reporter, The Washington Post’s Leonard Downie Jr. trips by employing ad hominem attack and innuendo against a critic—the very tactics Downie seeks to criticize.

For those not following the debate, a Post story under the byline of Perry Bacon Jr. on how the Obama campaign dealt with (false) rumors that the candidate is Muslim drew widespread criticism, including from Chris Daly, a Boston University journalism professor, who questioned why someone of Bacon’s age (he’s young) was given such responsibility. Our (negative) take on the Post story is here.

Downie criticized the journalism site, Romenesko, for linking to Daly’s critique and said Daly owed Bacon an apology. It’s all fine with me, a fair criticism of Daly, until this:

The Washington Post has now and has had in the past many outstanding journalists like Perry who successfully take on great responsibility here at a similar age. Daly, however, during his time as a contract stringer for this newspaper, failed to earn a similar role for himself.

To imply that Daly harbors ill-will toward the Post—without actually saying so—is to engage in innuendo. Let’s not.

And it’s usually bad idea to assign motive, and in this case, Downie improperly links cause and effect. Who knows why Daly wrote what he did? Remember when News Corp. said The New York Times was “using its news pages to advance its own corporate business agenda” in its reporting on Rupert Murdoch’s company in the run up to the Dow Jones. See, now you’re in bad company.

It’s a complicated media world, with many intersecting relationships. People come and they go. I suppose Downie, if he had wanted to bother, could have criticized Daly for failing to disclose the stringer relationship. But there is no need to imply Daly wrote the bit because he “failed to earn” something a decade ago.

I was a contract worker for the Post during most of 2005. If you’re wondering, I enjoyed it.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.