Howling into Cyberspace  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

Howling into Cyberspace   


I agree with much of what you say in your column about Deborah Howell ("Howl," Web Special), but I take issue with a couple of important statements. You write that "she never suggested that this was a bipartisan scandal." However, in her original column, hot on the heels of her statement about Jack Abramoff money going to U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Byron Dorgan (both Democrats), Howell says, "reporting on the investigations hasn't put Democrats in the first tier of people being investigated. But stay tuned. This story is nowhere near over." I know that these two sentences have been lost in the shuffle, but it implies that reports of Democratic guilt are right around the corner. Implications (even subtle ones) should not be made in a reputable publication unless a legitimate, documented charge is about to be leveled. It is also parallel (by coincidence or not) to the latest memes coming from the administration and RNC about the Abramoff scandal.

You also refer to "all sorts of obscene things" that were said about Howell. I admit that I did not read all of the responses, but I did read several hundred and saw only one instance of the word "bullshit." I do agree that there were some attacks that were entirely personal, including some references to Mrs. Howell from "Gilligan's Island," but most of the posts were at least tangentially related to Ms. Howell's role as ombudsman and her ability to do it. Either I am really missing something, or it's really a stretch to characterize the posts as obscene. Whether there is a First Amendment argument to justify protecting the posts no matter how one characterizes them is probably moot. I think that, at this point, the Post needs to err on the side of transparency egos and feelings be damned.

Their employees better develop some thick skins because I think they used up most of their goodwill/credibility chips backing the Woodward that lays the golden egg. Howell is partly responsible for creating the monster that is now calling her on the carpet. When Watergate icon Bob Woodward became the latest reporter to reveal that he has essentially been trading high-level access for completeness, professionalism and truth, Howell, as the readers' representative, suggested that maybe he needs an editor. I think that column was a big blow to her own credibility, and it hasn't helped the Post much either. While the media giants wrestle with the question of whether political access is a necessary evil, many who have come to rely on the media to hold our government accountable are now starting to feel like they might need to hold that same media accountable. It might not be pretty yet, and it may be causing discomfort, but I don't think it is going to go away.

David Ramos-Beban
Boulder Creek, California

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