Howl  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

Howl   

The vicious response to a Washington Post column on Jack Abramoff exposes the worst of the Web and politics. Posted Jan. 25, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Used to be that press bashing was a specialty of the right. For years conservatives have railed regularly against the dreaded "liberal media," claiming that the newspapers and the networks never gave them a fair shot.

Now it's a bipartisan sport.

I never thought I'd see anything to match the right's visceral disdain for Bill Clinton, but I was wrong. Spurred by contempt for President Bush and the media's stumbling performance after 9/11 (symbolized by the WMD fiasco), the left has the MSM squarely in its sights.

That's been clear for a while, and it was vividly underscored by the online hysteria triggered by Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell's column on the Post's investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The fury and vitriol unleashed against Howell was stunning and disheartening.

Much has been made of the Web's great contribution to instant and freewheeling political discourse. But this wasn't discourse, this was target practice.

Now there's no doubt Howell made a mistake. She said both Republicans and Democrats had received "Abramoff campaign money."

Technically that isn't correct. Abramoff didn't make any personal donations to Democrats. But he did direct his Indian tribe clients to give money to both parties, albeit far more to the Republicans. It's a distinction without a difference.

Yes, as she acknowledges, Howell should have been more precise. But the point she was trying to make was correct. And she never suggested that this was a bipartisan scandal. Much of the column focused on Abramoff's dealings with Republican icon Tom DeLay.

That didn't stop an incredibly vicious and uninformed assault on Howell, calling her everything from a Republican hack to all sorts of obscene things it makes no sense to repeat.

The onslaught was such that the Post felt compelled to shut down an area of washingtonpost.com earmarked for comments about the ombudsman.

The Web site drew fire, not surprisingly, for that decision. But I don't have a problem with it. That hardly amounts to "censorship." There are plenty of other venues where dissenters can make their points. And I'm not sure there's a compelling First Amendment case for preserving a space where critics can brutally assail one of your journalists at will.

Howell weighed in last Sunday, a week after her original piece ran, with a sensible column admitting her mistake, explaining her position and responding to the cascade of calumny.

"Going forward, here's my plan," she wrote. "I'll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can... But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for."

It was a good column. But it might have been wise if she had written it earlier, just after the firestorm erupted, and posted it on washingtonpost.com.

These days debates are waged in real time Internet time not newspaper time. And as John Kerry no doubt would tell her, you don't want to leave allegations, no matter how scurrilous, hanging out there.

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