Tuesday, January 24, 2006

the Howell nonsense, and Shafer's lame response

Howell's original comment:

"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."

The second sentence is a lie planted in the discourse by Republicans. We expect better from an ombudsman.

Howell's followup. She admits that this statement about Abramoff is untrue (and it's easily shown to be untrue, which makes us wonder how it got into her column in the first place), but insists on setting up a line of defense on another lie that makes it seem like the point was essentially true.

"But there is no doubt about the campaign contributions that were directed to lawmakers of both parties."

There certainly is plenty of doubt.

This has been blogged aplenty in the past week, by Kos, Firedoglake, Media Matters, and the rest of the usual suspects. Jack Shafer's response at Slate is disappointing.

Even though the bloggers were correct and Howell was in the wrong, Shafer still finds room to throw a dart at the bloggers, portraying them as whiners. The phrase he uses is 'perpetually aggrived'. Is it realy appropiate to say that about somebody who brings up a valid complaint?

My response to Shafer. Shafer said:

"I'm no Howell fan, but blogger accusations that she is carrying
water for the right or peddling some bias are completely
It's not merely that she made a factual error claiming that Abramoff
had given money to Democrats.

This is what she said on January 15:

"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."
Jack Abramoff has never made any contributions to Democrats. So
where does this 'factoid' come into the public discourse? It's
fairly clear that this is a lie put out by the Republicans trying to
water down the impact of the Abramoff scandal. Many have complained
about Sue Schmidt's willingness to pass on Republican stories into
her reporting without a real effort at challenging or verifying them.
In this case, the story is a lie, an easily debunked lie.

What outrages Howell's critics, and ought to outrage you if you care
about journalism, is that Howell is purportedly an _ombudsman_. She
is supposed to represent the views of the readers (and not the GOP
establishment). So what is her response when readers challenge
Schmidt's reporting? There is no effort to contact people who know
the facts in this column. Instead, she simply repeats what Schmidt
wrote. I.e, she repeats a lie.

There are different levels of outrage when a lie is spread. At the
first level, there is the primary liar. One understands that lying
is a part of politics. Yes it is annoying, but it happens. Some
outrage is held in reserve for the primary liar.

The second level is the reporter who uncritically passes on the lies.
Apparently this is the Post policy these days, and it is widespread
in 'journalism' as it is commonly practiced. My personal opinion is
that a person who facilitates the spread of lies into the wider
community is doing that community a disservice. The reporter
invovled here is either a dupe, in which case she merits our contempt
for her reporting skills, or an active participant in the lie, in
which case she merits our contempt for her morals.

But the ombudsman who responds to reader complaints by throwing the
lie back in our faces, again uncritically? It's hard to see that
she's not a huge part of the problem. Again, she's either
incompetent or malicious. It has been said that one should not
presume malice when incompetence is an equally likely possibility,
but in this case, the incompetence required is staggering. How does
one rise to the position of Post ombudsman, one of the most visible
journalistic positions in the country, with such a feeble grasp of
the basics of fact-checking? And it is one thing to miss a fact
check as the primary reporter, who is dealing with a large number of
facts and possibly mendacious sources. But we expect a higher level
of performance when a disputed claim is singled out to the ombudsman.
In the current instance, the higher level of performance only
occurred when she was criticized heavily.

And even the higher level of performance was not terribly high. Ms.
Howell moved from the obviously debunked lie of 'Abramoff gave
substantial campaign dontations to both parties' to the less easily
debunked, but still mendacious, claim that he had 'directed his
clients' to make donations to both parties.

It is true that Abramoff's Indian clients gave donations to the
Democrats. Other things that ought to have been mentioned include:
- the Indians had been giving donations to Democrats long before they
had any association with Abramoff
- the tribes with the closest relationships to Abramoff significantly
reduced the amount of money they gave to Democrats when they came
under his influence
- Abramoff has been quoted mocking the decisions of his clients to
give money to Democrats
- nobody involved in the Abramoff criminal investigation is alleging
that there is any criminal connection to Indian tribes' dontations to

In the larger picture, we have an effort on the part of the GOP to
drag down the Democratic party in the scandal that centers around a
prominent Republican activist. A news media that was doing its job
properly would point out the falsity of this spin. Ms. Howell,
instead, passed on the canard dutifully, and seems instead to feel
that her critics, who correctly point out that she's passing on lies,
are somehow to blame.

Back to your point that I cite at the top: to all appearances,
Howell has been willing to carry water for the Republicans, at least
until she is held up to a firestorm of criticism.
"Attacking somebody as if they are your enemy when they clearly
aren't makes no sense."
I would dispute your usage of the word 'clearly' here. Clearly Ms.
Howell has at best a lazy attitude towards the responsibilities of an
ombudsman. Her behavior is much more like a water carrier than like
a serious journalist.

And finally,
"Unless, of course, you're among the perpetually aggrieved and you've tired of flogging the usual villains."
Either you agree with Howell's original statement, that Abramoff
donated substantial sums of money to the Democrats, or you have no
business whining about the people who correctly took her to task for
her role in perpetuating the flow of misinformation.

Shafer responded to my letter.

"I intended no defense of Howell. I think what the bloggers did to the post site is a little sick. Would you defend the smashing of Post windows?"

Well, I'm glad that no defense of Howell is intended. But I'm not seeing the analog to window smashing.