Sunday, January 22, 2006

The ombudsman's naiveté

The eruption over Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s columns is a great case study for the cultural anthropologists studying the bumpy transition between old and new media. Howell, of course, is “old media.” And she was slammed by “new media” in a flood of nasty comments on a Post blog after she mistakenly said Democrats had received “Abramoff money.” She later apologized for the mistake – in fact, Democrats had not received direct contributions from Abramoff himself, though many had received money from Indian tribes under the direction of Abramoff and/or his firm. (This is an important distinction, given that many Indian tribes were giving to the same Democrats long before Abramoff came along – a subtlety Howell does not acknowledge).

Howell’s initial comment was not only mistaken but glib – she implied that the scandal might put Democrats in the dock shortly. It was a knowing comment, implying that all politicians deserve our close observation if not our outright suspicion.

Of course they do. And Howell obviously regards herself as an experienced journalist who has seen it all in her "50-year career." But it’s also obvious that whatever she’s seen didn’t prepare her for this.

Howell’s original column and her responses since then display a kind of naiveté about the nature of the scandal and the media coverage of it. She’s seeing it through a conventional MSM prism: She floats above the political fray, applying even-handedness tempered by cynicism. But as Josh Marshall points out, this once-praiseworthy approach can no longer be taken at face value. It has been deconstructed and compromised by the past decade's nasty political splits and evolving technology.

The MSM have spent years being thrashed by the conservative media/political apparatus for being too liberal and this has made them skittish. "Fairness" has evolved from one of the highest journalistic goals into a bureaucratic yardstick for media outlets to prove they're not biased. So journalists create false equivalencies – for every venal Republican in a story, there’s an unwritten rule that you have to find a venal Democrat. If such “fairness” leads to the reporting of objective falsehoods, though, something’s seriously wrong.

But it’s hard for the media to absorb this lesson. “Everybody does it” covers both the “fairness” requirement and satisfies the Republican critics. Unfortunately, it also coincides nicely with Republican spin, which artfully exploits traditional MSM rules in a variety of ways.

So there’s a backlash on the liberal side, particularly the blogosphere. The majority of critics, unfortunately, are sending flaming emails and comments. But the best critics urge the media to aim at telling a true story, rather than misrepresenting reality with “he-said, she-said” or “everybody does it” formulas. In addition to being intellectually lazy, those reflexive approaches favor those who are better at saying things in a coordinated fashion (i.e., Republicans).

Howell seems to exist a decade or so back so in media time. She appears unmindful or unaware of the history and subtle brilliance of Republican/conservative media coordination and manipulation, or its cumulative influence on the behavior and psyches of MSM-types. And she obviously had no clue about the anger and frustration over this trend on the liberal-Democratic side.

Add into this the Post's inexperience with blogospheric anthropological quirks – the more freewheeling comments on left-leaning sites, the ease with which comment threads can descend into vitriol as rage reverberates – and you have a meltdown in the making.

Howell’s column today doesn’t really resolve things. She concedes on the Democrats vs. Republicans issue, definitively calling Abramoff a “Republican scandal.” But the tone of the column is defensive and doesn’t betray much understanding of the swirling forces at work here. It would serve her and the Post to take a harder look at them rather than huffing about flaming comments.