Michael Getler is the Washington Post’s ombudsman. He finds that Dana Milbank’s controversial story on the Bush campaign’s “unprecedented” negativity “was a powerful, carefully reported story and — given the blizzard of head-spinning campaign claims one is exposed to daily — a service to readers.” Yet Getler admits that the story’s headline, which proclaimed the campaign negative to an unprecedented degree, was troubling. As Getler points out, one of the two “scholars” who provided cover for Milbank’s screed said, essentially, that the Bush negativity was normal for a presidential campaign. And Getler might have noted that that other scholar also did not support Milbank’s claim, and seemed to find precedent for the present negativity in the Gore campaign.
One would think that an ombudsman would be outraged (not merely troubled) that a front-page headline for a highly-charged story about the election would contain an inflammatory headline that was not supported (to say the least) by the story itself. And this was not an isolated incident of offensive headline writing. Indeed, it was the Post’s headlines that finally induced me to cancel my subscription (I figured I could avoid the news stories, but the headlines are the first thing I see in the morning when I grab for the sports page). For Getler, though, this is no big deal.
Getler goes on to dismiss the claims of pro-Bush critics that the story itself is full of distortions. But he fails to address all but one of these claims. Instead, he simply announces “I think The Post’s story holds up well.” I guess when you’re an ombudsman for the Post that’s good enough. Still, it would have been interesting to hear how Getler would reconcile the Milbank piece with Milbank’s previously stated position, noted here that journalists should not assume the role of “negativity police” but instead should let the candidates fight it out themselves.
Getler ends up devoting considerable attention to responding to criticism from the left that Milbank’s story should not have discussed negativity on the part of the Kerry campaign. Getler defends the story on this count too, but seems to find this criticism closer to the mark. He certainly quotes it at length, while virtually ignoring all particulars of the pro-Bush critique. This pretty much says it all about the Post and its ombudsman.
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