Apr 25 2005

Post Responds on Lott Profile

In the paper’s April 24 edition, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler responded to FAIR’s action alert regarding the Post’s soft profile of Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.)

Below is Getler’s column, followed by FAIR’s response.


FAIR or Unfair Game?

By Michael Getler

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B06

I was inundated with e-mails and phone messages last week from 700 or so faithful followers of FAIR, short for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. One of several self-described media watchdog operations on both sides of the political divide, FAIR labels itself “progressive” and comes at things from a liberal position. Its targets are usually on the right.

The target this time was a front-page story April 14 by reporter Shailagh Murray headlined, “Lott Puts ‘Little Bump’ Behind Him; Ex-Senate Leader Rebuilds Power Base.” The story was about Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who resigned as Senate majority leader-designate in December 2002 after saying, at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, that had Thurmond’s 1948 run for the presidency as a “Dixiecrat” been successful, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”

FAIR sent out an “Action Alert” to its subscribers, claiming that “Lott’s efforts to rehabilitate his public image were given a valuable boost by the Washington Post, which ran an uncritical profile in its April 14 edition.” The alert told people to write to me and “ask the Post why their profile of Trent Lott glossed over Lott’s racism — ignoring the paper’s own coverage of Lott’s racist past.” And so they did.

I don’t like write-in campaigns. I don’t like my e-mail queue, and the e-mail of others writing in about other things, overwhelmed by hundreds of people saying essentially the same thing, in large part because somebody alerted them to something and suggested what to say. For that comment, I will now get 700 more e-mails asking how dare I impugn their assessment. I much prefer original commentary from readers, or one letter directly from FAIR laying out its critique. On the other hand, even though such campaigns are annoying, and frequently partisan, it doesn’t mean that the points raised are not legitimate challenges.

Aside from the criticism that the article — which was about Lott’s efforts to rebuild his power base — was itself helping in the political rehabilitation, FAIR said that “if Lott has detractors, readers of the Post certainly aren’t aware of them, since none are quoted” and “while Lott’s many critics go unmentioned, so does Lott’s long history of racist affiliation.” I thought those were, so to speak, fair criticisms, worthy of consideration by editors here.

Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd countered that “the intent of the piece was not to reexamine Senator Lott’s controversial comments about segregation. In fact, The Post led in bringing attention to Lott’s remarks when he originally made them. Shailagh’s story was an intelligent, fresh look at what Lott’s been up to since then and his ability to survive what appeared at the time to be a knockout punch.”

I also thought it was a smart piece to do and helpful to me as a reader. I did think it was strange to place the article in such a prominent position, and I thought the headline was potentially misleading because it made it seem as though The Post was saying that Lott had put his “little bump” behind him. And the article was long enough to have dealt with some of the omissions FAIR points out.

But I read the piece as, generally, what The Post says it intended it to be — a pretty detailed political story focusing on the early stages of Lott engineering a potential comeback, with a sufficient reminder of what got him into trouble. On the other hand, this story and the way it was presented could wind up giving a boost to Lott’s rehabilitation efforts, as FAIR claims. So there’s no clear guilty or innocent verdict here, as I see it, but a healthy exchange between the paper and its critics.

FAIR is glad that Getler concluded that the FAIR alert provoked “a healthy exchange between the paper and its critics.” That was not the impression Getler gave at the beginning of his column, complaining about how “annoying” it was to be “inundated” by messages generated by a “self-described media watchdog operation,” as if FAIR’s identity was somehow dubious– would one speak of a “self-described” newspaper, or a “self-described” ombudsman?

Getler stressed that he doesn’t care for “write-in campaigns,” and would prefer “one letter directly from FAIR laying out its critique.” We have, in fact, written individual letters to Getler and others at the Post, and gotten no response. The message we get is that the Post does not care a great deal about what FAIR thinks, which is of course the paper’s prerogative. It appears to care a great deal more about what hundreds of members of the public think, which seems to make good business sense.

Aside from the fact that a letter-writing campaign is clearly more effective than a private letter at getting results, it’s FAIR’s belief that an active and engaged public is essential in redressing some of the serious, dangerous problems that exist in the news media. Allowing readers to be passive spectators to a dialogue that goes on between FAIR and news outlets does not bring us closer to that goal– unlike a mass letter-writing campaign that encourages activists to express themselves in their own words.

It’s curious for a representative of a newspaper to suggest that it’s illegitimate for people to have an opinion “because somebody alerted them to something”–given that newspapers are ostensibly in the alerting business. Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund took a similar line in her farewell column (4/25/05), contrasting “ideologues’ web-orchestrated campaigns” with the “legitimate criticism” of people who arrive at their opinions “with honest independence.”

Both the Post and the Globe offer editorials every day, attempting to persuade readers to alter their opinions. Sometimes they urge readers to take a particular action, like voting for a particular candidate. If someone’s opinion has been influenced by a newspaper, is it somehow illegitimate because it wasn’t arrived at through “honest independence”? Should governments try to figure out which citizens have been swayed by newspaper editorials and try to discard those votes?

As for the substance of Getler’s response, after he agreed that it’s fair to criticize the article for leaving out Lott’s critics and his history of racism, it’s unclear why he concluded that the article included “a sufficient reminder of what got him into trouble.” It’s impossible to understand the uproar over Lott without knowing his record of opposing civil rights measures and embracing white supremacist organizations– things that long preceded his (most recent) expression of regret at the defeat of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential bid.

If you’re hoping to stage a comeback from a political “knockout punch,” it certainly helps if the most powerful news outlet in the capital refrains from discussing what it was that knocked you out in the first place.