'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Deborah Howell Destroys the washingtonpost.com Blog 

UPDATE (1/20/06): Interested in the actual comments in response to Howell's column and web statement described below? Responses to her original column that initiated the controversy can be read here and here. Responses to her subsequent clarification on the web at washingtonpost.com can be found here.

ORIGINAL POST (1/19/06): As frequent visitors here are aware, I rarely tread within the treacherous waters of DC party politics. Nor do I commonly engage in media criticism. There are plenty of bloggers who do it well, people over in the high traffic universe, especially Jane Hamsher at firedoglake as well as the multitude of posters over at DailyKos. I am more to the left than them, but I visit their sites because the discourse is usually informative, and the participants provide me with insight about the current condition of liberalism. And, for lefties like us, there is, of course, the inimitable, award winning Left i on the News.

Normally, I don't link to DailyKos, they certainly get enough traffic as it is, and any traffic directed from here would be difficult to discern, but the situation is so incredible, so astounding, and georgia10 has so brilliantly summarized it, that I have no choice.

What happened? Turns out that the Washington Post's purported ombudsperson, Deborah Howell, keeps getting caught with her hand in the GOP cookie jar, so much so that washingtonpost.com had to shut down blog comments indefinitely. Let the enormity of that response sink in: ". . we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely." For an Internet site, this is the cyberspace equivalent of Jonestown.

It was Howell's willingness to obsfuscate and create the illusion of Democratic involvement in the ever expanding Jack Abramoff congressional corruption scandal that broke the camel's back. Here is some background, gleaned from from georgia10's post:

On January 15th, Howell penned a column "Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff" where she lauded the reporting of Susan Schmidt, including the following statement:

Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.

Instead of correcting the GOP talking point that Abramoff made contributions to Democrats, Howell gleefully reinforced it. Readers rightfully assailed Howell for condoning Schmidt's GOP stenography skills rather than calling her out on her egregious factual error. Howell's column received over 700 comments, which, according to the Post, overloaded the system.

Post media reporter Howard Kurtz stepped into the breach and offered this creative defense of Howell during a Media Talkback segment:

Fort Washington, Md.: Reporter Sue Schmidt and ombudsman Deborah Howell have both asserted repeatedly that Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans. The FEC shows no record of any Democrat getting any money from Abramoff, period. Some Indian tribes who were among Abramoff's victims contributed funds to some Democrats, but suggesting that that somehow is a donation from Abramoff defies logic. How does the Post justify passing on what appears to be nothing but GOP spin as fact?

Howard Kurtz: Howell's column Sunday said that a number of Democrats "have gotten Abramoff campaign money." That was inartfully worded. I believe what she was trying to say, and I have not discussed this with her, is that some Democrats have received campaign cash from Abramoff clients, and that this may have been orchestrated by the convicted lobbyist. That's why you have a number of Democrats (as well as many Republicans, now including Denny Hastert) giving back the tainted dough or donating it to charity. Even National Review Editor Rich Lowry says this is basically a Republican scandal -- we are talking about a Bush fundraiser and Tom DeLay pal -- but where the tangled web has extended to Democrats, we need to mention that too.

Got it? It's a little convoluted: ". . . some Democrats have received campaign cash from Abramoff clients and that this may have been orchestrated by the convicted lobbyist . . . " is transformed into " . . where the tangled web has extended to Democrats, we need to mention that too." If I was being tried for a crime, I sure wouldn't want Kurtz on the jury. James Ellroy has humorously described such carefully crafted, legally safe defamation as "sinuendo" in his novels, such as LA Confidential.

Echoing Kurtz's lead, Howell thereafter responded on washingtonpost.com with a similarly false and sinuendo ridden explanation of her published column:

I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties.

Lobbyists, seeking influence in Congress, often advise clients on campaign contributions. While Abramoff, a Republican, gave personal contributions only to Republicans, he directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

Records from the Federal Elections Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff’s Indian clients contributed between 1999 and 2004 to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats. The Post has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with specific directions on what members of Congress were to receive specific amounts.

Of course, there's just a couple of little problems. First, to suggest that Abramoff "directed" tribal contributions to Democrats is absurd, as tribes have historically given significant sums to them prior to any employment of Abramoff. Second, Howell's implication that the tribes were participating in a conspiracy to illegally channel campaign funds to Democrats sounds even stranger when you realize that Abramoff has already plead guilty to three felony counts, conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion, involving lobbying activities in Washington on behalf of Native American tribes, requiring him and other defendants to make restitution of at least $25 million that was defrauded predominately from these tribes. So, it's just another sly, unsubstantiated effort to conceal the fact that there is no evidence that the Democratic recipients engaged in any misconduct.

Predictably, internet readers who had diligently documented the errors in Howell's original column went berserk, resulting in this response, already linked:

Posted at 04:22 PM ET, 01/19/2006

Comments Turned Off
As of 4:15 p.m. ET today, we have shut off comments on this blog indefinitely.

At its inception, the purpose of this blog was to open a dialogue about this site, the events of the day, the journalism of The Washington Post Company and other related issues. Among the things that we knew would be part of that discussion would be the news and opinion coming from the pages of The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com. We knew a lot of that discussion would be critical in nature. And we were fine with that. Great journalism companies need feedback from readers to stay sharp.

But there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we've decided not to allow comments for the time being. It's a shame that it's come to this. Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it's a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about.

We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it. Any thoughtful feedback on that (or any other issue) is welcome, and you can send it to executive.editor@washingtonpost.com.

Jim Brady
Executive Editor, washingtonpost.com

For a hilarious refutation of Brady's justification for shutting down the blog, read Jane Hamsher here, where she acidly observes the she, along with her co-blogger, Redd Head, effortlessly delete the posts of trolls. Significantly, note that the Post has also removed all previous comments to Howell's web statement, so that it now appears on washingtonpost.com as uncontested fact. See the UPDATE for links to comments in response to both her web statement and her original column.

As for what needs to be done to reopen the blog, Brady should consider speaking with the Chinese government. They have developed sophisticated measures designed to prevent uninhibited public comment on the Internet. Sarcasm aside, one still can't help but be amazed. The defense of Howell, a conservative propagandist, is considered more important to the Post than the viability of its website, which will be seriously damaged by this decision. It is all the more incredible, given that it is considered axiomatic that the print media must successfully make the transition to the Internet to survive. Apparently, the Post is willing to jeopardize this transition to avoid jettisoning its effectiveness as a conveyer belt of conservative talking points.


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