Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler used his June 19 column to respond to FAIR's June 14 Action Alert regarding Post reporter Dana Milbank's use of the term "wing nuts" to describe activists pressing the media to take the Downing Street memos more seriously.
The relevant portion of Getler's column is below, followed by FAIR's response.
The Washington Post
June 19, 2005 Sunday
HEADLINE: Memos, 'Wing Nuts' and 'Hit Lists'
BYLINE: Michael Getler
The bulk of the mail last week, by far, was focused once again on the "Downing Street Memo." This is the memo produced by a national security aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, based on notes taken in a meeting with Blair and his top advisers on July 23, 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. It is marked "Secret and strictly personal--UK eyes only" but was leaked to the Sunday Times of London and published May 1.
Included in the note-taker's account was an assessment by the chief of British intelligence, after returning from a visit to Washington, that: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The memo, and the coverage and interpretation of it, continue to generate contention, especially among critics of the war and Bush administration policy. The overwhelming majority of e-mails I received last week seemed to have been prompted by a write-in campaign sponsored mostly by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal, self-described media watchdog organization.
Their target this time was a column by Post staff writer Dana Milbank on June 8 in which the term "wing nuts" was used. Many of the e-mailers said the reference disparaged the real concerns of many people that the administration misrepresented the situation that led the country to war.
Milbank is one of the paper's most talented and observant reporters. On the other hand, for the past several months he has also been serving as a columnist, frequently writing observations that go beyond straight reporting in a column labeled "Washington Sketch" that appears in the news pages of the A-section. On Friday, for example, The Post covered an unofficial antiwar hearing on Capitol Hill only in a Milbank column. Several readers found this inappropriate.
Unfortunately, it has never been announced or explained to Post readers that reporter Milbank is also now columnist Milbank. The reference to "wing nuts," as in left-wing nuts and right-wing nuts, appeared in the June 8 column, not a "news story," as many e-mailers wrongly stated. This is also understandable because FAIR neglected to tell its subscribers that this was clearly marked as a "Washington Sketch" and not a news story.
Milbank's column was about the June 7 Bush-Blair news conference in Washington and it reported that "Democrats.com, a group of left-wing activists" had sent e-mails offering a "reward" for anyone who could get an answer from Bush about the report that intelligence had been "fixed" around Iraq policy. Later in the column, Milbank wrote that a reporter who did ask such a question, and who had no idea of the activists' e-mails, "wasn't trying to satisfy the wing nuts."
Post Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd said "the term referred to one specific group" and not everyone who was questioning coverage of the memo. As for the term "wing nuts," she said "that word is probably sharper than it should have been." I agree. It was a needless red flag that undoubtedly would be read as disparaging beyond the group that Milbank was referring to. But columnists do get more leeway and the term has infiltrated political discussion in these heated times.
Here's Milbank's view: "While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as 'wingnuts' a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech."
Much of the mail criticizing Milbank was also directed at op-ed columnist Michael Kinsley, who, in a June 12 column, said leftist activists' continued focus on the memo showed an ability to develop "a paranoid theory." Later in the week, The Post's editorial page also weighed in on the Downing Street memos (another has been leaked), saying: "They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002." That also brought mail.
I have a different view. The July 23 memo is important because it is an official document produced at the highest level of government of the most important U.S. ally. Its authenticity has not been disputed. Whatever some people said or wrote three years ago, there has never been--except for this memo--any official, authoritative claim or confirmation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Blair denied that at the news conference. But could the secret minutes of such a meeting be wrong? Maybe there's a different interpretation, or maybe "fixed" means something different in British-speak.
Or maybe Blair could produce the former intelligence chief, and the note-taker, for a news conference or open parliamentary session and let reporters or legislators ask for an elaboration on the assessments in the memo.
FAIR continues to be puzzled by Getler's persistent references to FAIR as a "self-described media watchdog organization," which seems to be an attempt to marginalize FAIR's work. One could just as easily call Post reporters "self-described" journalists working for a "self-described" newspaper.
Getler's attempt to rationalize Milbank's choice of words is also peculiar. Getler stressed that Milbank has a special status at the paper as a "columnist, frequently writing observations that go beyond straight reporting in a column labeled 'Washington Sketch' that appears in the news pages of the A-section." This could present problems, according to Getler: "Unfortunately, it has never been announced or explained to Post readers that reporter Milbank is also now columnist Milbank."
Indeed, the Post could do a much better job of explaining Milbank's status. It's worth noting that you get to Milbank's pieces through the "News" section of the Washington Post's website, not through the "Opinion" section. Milbank's latest piece (6/18/05) has a line at the end noting, "Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report"--an odd thing for the Post to add to an opinion column.
Still, despite the Post's lack of clarity, the ombudsman blames FAIR for any confusion:
This comment suggests that "Washington Sketch" is a well-known category of opinion journalism, and not a name that the Post invented to label some of Milbank's writings starting in March. Similar labels are often put on "news analysis" pieces, such as Elizabeth Bumiller's "White House Letter" in the New York Times.
In the end, however, what category the Post thinks Milbank's writing should be placed in is beside the point. Whatever you want to call it, his piece used the slur "wing nuts" to describe people calling for coverage of a patently newsworthy controversy that was largely ignored by mainstream media--in other words, people calling on the media to do their jobs.
Getler notes that the term "wing nuts" "undoubtedly would be read as disparaging beyond the group that Milbank was referring to." But even the use of the term to refer only to Democrats.com is problematic. In back-and-forth emails posted on the Democrats.com website ( http://www.democrats.com/milbank ), Milbank provides no evidence that the group was responsible for any "hateful, obscene [or] anti-Semitic speech."
It is not unusual for people who work in the public eye to receive criticism, some of it intemperate, angry and abusive. FAIR receives such emails and calls on a daily basis, sometimes including anti-Semitic taunts and death threats. But to respond in kind to such hostility in one's journalism is a mistake-- in a news article or a "Washington Sketch" column. In the "wing nuts" piece, Milbank refers to another journalist as a "consummate professional." Milbank's use of name-calling removes him from that category.
Indeed, Milbank's displeasure with Downing Street Memo activists seems to be unprofessionally twisting his coverage of the issue. When Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) convened a panel to discuss the issue, Milbank ridiculed the event in what Getler correctly notes was the Post's only coverage of the event (6/17/05):
Milbank dragged Democrats.com into the story, misleadingly referring to the group as "the event organizer"; After Downing Street, a coalition of some 60 groups including Democrats.com, put together an off-site closed-circuit viewing of the panel for the overflow crowd, though the way Milbank refers to the "organizers" of the actual panel two paragraphs later a reader could easily conclude that Democrats.com were responsible for the panel itself. Milbank harped on stickers, T-shirts and leaflets seen at the overflow viewing; needless to say, the Washington Post does not usually cover congressional hearings by talking about the material distributed by random individuals on the Capitol steps.
Conyers wrote a letter in response to Milbank's article, noting that the meeting was held in a basement room for a reason: "Despite the fact that a number of other suitable rooms were available in the Capitol and House office buildings, Republicans declined my request for each and every one of them."
Milbank went to great lengths to mock the event, turning a Republican effort to block an investigation of a significant document into evidence of Democratic delusions. One can't help but wonder whether Milbank has allowed a personal grievance to slant his coverage of a major topic.
NOTE: Dana Milbank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone.