Mar 2 2001

Washington Post Responds to FAIR

Letter-writing campaign called "group-thinking"

FAIR’s February 16 Action Alert criticizing the Washington Post‘s reporting on a lawsuit by the Miami Indian tribe generated hundreds of letters of concern to the Post. Commendably, the paper’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, responded by devoting a column to the controversy (2/25/01), and the article’s author, William Claiborne, sent FAIR a detailed reply to our criticisms.

In his column, Getler conceded that “the specific points focused on by FAIR are fair ones to raise questions about.” He also agreed with our charges–that the phrase “greedy Indians” was “a red flag that an editor should have spotted,” and that the article should have included “quotations to back up the historical assertion” attributed to local residents in the piece.

However, Getler devoted only part of his column to responding to the substance of the criticisms received. The rest of the column criticized the very idea of a coordinated letter-writing campaign.

Characterizing the “message flood” initiated by FAIR’s alert as illustrative of “the new dimensions for group-thinking,” Getler wrote that “the uniformity of the messages and the spectacle of so many people– having been told only a small part of what appeared in the paper, told whom to write to and told generally what to say– responding in this fashion seemed, frankly, dispiriting.” He added that “many emails came from states where the Post isn’t widely circulated. There were few indications that emailers had read the full story on the paper’s website.”

FAIR generally does include links to the media our alerts criticize whenever possible. We would have liked to do so in this case, but the Claiborne piece was not available on the Post‘s website at the time we sent out the alert. It was not added to the Post‘s online archives until sometime after Getler’s column appeared on February 25. (It’s also available on FAIR’s website.)

In any case, it is ironic for a newspaper veteran like Getler to imply that it is illegitimate to use quotation and summary to convey the sense of an article. Isn’t that the essence of journalism? Surely Claiborne included in his article only a small percentage of the interviews he conducted. Getler quoted only a few words from the action alert he criticized, and did not tell readers where they could find the original for themselves. This is the normal practice of newspaper journalists, and of media critics as well.

And while no doubt it is dispiriting to receive hundreds of letters of criticism, FAIR’s experience has been that mainstream media outlets are much more likely to take critiques seriously when they receive broad feedback on an issue.

More importantly, letter-writing campaigns are a way to demonstrate that media can be a two-way street, and that media outlets can and should be accountable to the public (whose members may be affected by biased or inaccurate coverage in influential media outlets, no matter where they live). To us, the dispiriting thing is not that hundreds of activists worked together to make their voices heard, but that the ombudsman– ostensibly the reader’s representative– at a major paper like the Washington Post considers such collective action to be “group-thinking.”

* * *

In his response to FAIR’s alert, reporter William Claiborne also acknowledged that, “even though it was used by some of those interviewed,the term ‘greedy’ is a word that is so highly charged and emotive that it should have been omitted.” But he said that FAIR’s alert should have mentioned the lead of his piece, which described the 19th Century removal of Miami Indians from Illinois at gunpoint.

But this lead hardly balanced the derogatory remarks about Indians in the piece, since just three paragraphs later, the article asserted an equivalency between this past treatment of Indians and current treatment of whites: “As in similar Indian property claims that have been growing in number across the country, the historic roles of white men and Indians have been reversed.” This statement is the paper’s own words, not attributed to any source.

The article then presented ten paragraphs of comments from white Illinoisans, either directly quoted or paraphrased, expressing such views as “an injustice is about to be committed on them that will equal those inflicted on American Indians throughout the 19th Century,” “we can’t fix all the atrocities of past generations,” and “creating new separate little Indian nations with their own rights and own sovereignty isn’t the equal rights that Lincoln fought for.” One source “doubts any injustices were committed against the Miami tribe.”

Reporter William Claiborne may privately believe that such views are “outrageous and offensive,” as he said in his response, but since he follows the journalistic convention of not describing his reaction to his sources, he gave no indication of this in his article. Claiborne did not, however, follow the journalistic convention of providing balance to controversial assertions: Virtually every claim made by critics of the Indian lawsuit goes unrebutted in his piece. (The relatively few lines allowed to Indian or pro-Indian viewpoints in the article are almost entirely taken up with the question of whether the Miami do or do not intend to build a casino.)

Claiborne apparently feels that the point of view presented by the Illinois residents was so absurd as to require no response. But he should not assume that all of the Post‘s readers would feel that way. It seems quite possible that, in the absence of a Native American perspective that is unfamiliar to many Americans, the anti-Indian arguments put forward could appear persuasive.

FAIR accepts Claiborne’s assurance that he was not motivated by an animus towards Indians when he wrote the article. However, his personal views are less important than what appears in the paper, and readers would have been better served by an article that made more of an effort to include the perspectives of both sides in the land dispute.