Home Media Washington Post Ombudsman Ignores Numerous Gorillas in the Room

Washington Post Ombudsman Ignores Numerous Gorillas in the Room


Today’s Washington Post Ombudsman column, Andrew Alexander’s last in that position, raises several important problems besetting the Post, but it ignores numerous, gigantic gorillas in the room. First, here are a few that Alexander (correctly) identified (although even here, I’d argue he was wayyyy too kind).

…[the Post] has become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable “small” factual errors that erode credibility. Local news coverage, once robust, has withered. The Post often trails the competition on stories. The excessive use of anonymous sources has expanded into blogs. The once-broken system for publishing corrections has been repaired, but corrections often still take too long to appear. The list goes on.

All true, no doubt about it. The Washington Post today is a pale shadow of what it once was, in just about every way. But this list – plus the loss of hemorrhaging of newsroom talent, plus the “ethical dilemmas” arising from “building a new digital” paper, plus various “journalistic shortcomings” such as “link[ing] to breaking news reports that it can’t independently verify.”

Those are all important issues, and it’s great that Andrew Alexander raised them. However, I believe that Alexander – and the Post more broadly, and the newspaper industry even more broadly – is blind, or perhaps semi-aware but incapable of doing anything about – numerous structural problems that beset their industry, and their product.  

In the case of the Post, let’s start with a big one: it’s not so much the Washington Post anymore as the Corporate Post, specifically the Kaplan Post. Given that “Kaplan higher education revenues eclipse not only the test-prep operations, but all the rest of the Washington Post Company’s operations,” it’s pretty clear that Kaplan is the dog wagging the (withering, diseased) tail of the newspaper commonly known as the “Washington Post.” For starters, that means extremely little coverage of the for-profit “education” industry by the Post. It also means a paper that must constantly put its financial survival in front of whatever journalistic excellent it once might have strived for. That’s a major problem, pretty much a death spiral, for this once-proud newspaper, and it’s not clear how they get out of it.

Another issue not raised by Alexander is the increasing move towards “infotainment,” sensationalism, fluff, tabloid-style “reporting,” and generally the dumbing down of the newspaper in just about every way. For instance, in the desperate attempt to draw eyeballs to its online product – and, to a lesser extent, the physical one – the Post increasingly goes with the Freak Show version of “news” instead of what we’ll call The Economist or The News Hour version of news. The latter is what I’d call “real news” – solid reporting on what’s actually happening around the country and around thew world, intelligently written, with analysis that helps put it in context and explain it to readers. That doesn’t mean constant “what did Sarah Palin say” or “who’s up/who’s down in the polls,” which is what we see to a growing extent at the Post these days. It means doing the job a newspaper is supposed to do. Of course, that takes money, and that’s where the newspaper industry’s failing business model kills it, and turns all this into a vicious cycle.

Then there’s the issue of mixing fact – empirically verifiable, solidly reported with multiple sources (preferably not anonymous) – with opinion, “he said/she said,” gossip, and unsupported/anonymous reporting of all kinds. As far as I can see, this is rampant throughout the “news” business these days.

Then you’ve got my favorite, the “false equivalency,” in which the newspaper’s supposed “objective” model gets taken to utterly absurd extremes. For instance, we get laughable garbage and blatant lies “reported” seriously, like climate change denial (you can’t “deny” scientific findings, that’s not the way it works), “death panels” (100% false) or “government takeover of health care” (I wish we could go to single payer, but actually the recent health care reform legislation just entrenches the private insurance companies’ role and the for-profit healthcare model), etc, etc. None of this should be “reported,” except as a blatant lie, which is where the news media might actually provide some added value. PolitiFact is doing that, but what about the Post? And no, their “5 Myths About…” series doesn’t do it, as those are usually just one person’s opinions, not really myth-busting in any way.

Finally, there’s the decimation of both coverage, from international (WHAT international coverage?) to local (WHAT local coverage?). Pick up a copy of The Economist sometime, look through it, and you’ll realize that you haven’t seen 90% or more of the stories in there in the Washington Post.  Then, consider all the stuff going on in Virginia politics – and local politics – and see if you can find any of it in the print edition of the Post. Good luck.

Anyway, those are just a few of the many problems endemic to the Post, and which are getting worse every day that goes by. How will any of this be turned around?  Got me. But the Washington Post Ombudsman’s final column certainly doesn’t get at these core issues, which indicates to me that they don’t even see the biggest problems – the “gorillas,” so to speak – they face. And if they don’t see the gorillas, how can they have any hope of not getting mauled by them?

  • with their supposedly “new improved” Sunday Post just brings to my mind the phrase, “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” None of it does anything to address ANY of the issues listed above. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  • Mike1987

    I think they all want to be woodward and bernstein, yet it seems they really don’t want to do the serious in-depth research. There has crept into the Post an “agenda” that I did not see years and year ago.  Some of this has I think to do with their major source of income (and it’s not journalism).  Couple that with, like CNN, fair and balanced means getting the “unhinged’s opinion”.  Discussion of black America needs a racist’s point of view, LGBT issues needs a right wing christianist’s bigoted views.

    In the last year, I don’t read the “paper” post anymore and for some reason it keeps showing up on my doorstep and directly into the trash.  I do read certain articles but am left unfulfilled as the what, beyond the usual political speak are the issues and solutions.

    Yes WAPO, there is right and wrong and good journalisms identifies it and calls it for what it is.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    The Post, like far too many print newspapers, has an outmoded business model that will never succeed in a time of ever-increasing competition from the new media. Couple that with a publisher who doesn’t know what she is doing and the laying off too many reporters to adequately create a newspaper, and you get the monstrosity that is the Post today.

    The sad fact is that the nation’s capital doesn’t have a newspaper worthy of that name. Also, the employees left at the Post work as if they never took a course in journalism.

  • somethingblue

    The Post is a sad joke. It’s hard to see how they can expect to be taken seriously after that Sally Quinn column about the scheduling of her son’s wedding.

  • on the op-ed pages like George Will (climate denier), Bjorn Lomborg (not an “environmentalist”, “skeptical” or otherwise) and Jennifer Rubin.

    …Hiatt’s latest hire, Jennifer Rubin, has a tendency to engage in short-cut sliming rather than engaging in the same constructive tone and spirit that my exchanges with Hiatt have had. This is unacceptable — and undermines the brand of the Washington Post.

  • Teddy Goodson

    for all its (many) faults and misadventures—-like supporting Bushboy’s Iraq war, or Judith (Miller?)’s loving connection with Cheney-Rove in the Plame affair—- is so far superior to the WaPo that I am considering dropping the Post and reading only the NYT for my daily newspaper fix. That, and The Economist, plus The Week (for condensed snippets from various world newspapers) and what I get off the Internet is about all I can read through in a timely fashion, since I do not have television and only see clips of TV stuff on YouTube when someone calls them to my attention.

    No wonder the vast hinterland is so Repub-red; their main, and frequently sole, news source is Fox.

  • Cato the Elder

    are very few publications I actually pay money for. The Economist is one. If you like The Economist, also check out The Financial Times. Predictably they are heavy on the business sector, but report fairly on a wide range of U.S. and global geopolitical issues that never show up in our press.  

  • richmonder

    Not sure which earlier incarnation of Washington Post you all are comparing to, but I don’t share the blatantly dismissive opinions of the Post expressed in comments here. Of course the quality of journalism at the Post as elsewhere (including NYT) has declined. But do the diatribes here have as much to do with disappointment over the contents of the op-ed pages as with anything more specific?

    I read the Post nearly every day and their foreign reporting on the wars in Iran and Afghanistan continue to be well done, in my opinion. They published a lengthy piece off the front page today about the democratic revolution in Tunisia that was informative and well written. Same with their excellent reporting today on the conflict between NY congressman Peter King and his Muslim constituents. My point is that they are still doing some things well, things that few other papers have the inclination or the resources to do. Also, I see the Washington Post’s owners’ dependence on Kaplan for most of their profitability as both an asset and a liability. Perhaps they haven’t done an expose on the for-profit education industry, but why should they bite the hand that feeds them? I’ll bet the LAT or any number of other papers wish they had a goldmine in some low-life business venture that helped keep them afloat. No newspaper scores 100 on every issue of the day, and this is one of their weakpoints. We don’t live in a perfect world. Sure, I hate the fact that Hyatt keeps signing up crappy polemical conservatives who lack talent or ability to persuade. But wishing the Post were dead is not a reasonable response to the challenges they face. The Post is much better than most of you seen to realize. Believe me, if you had to read the Richmond Times-Dispatch every day, you’d think again. The Post needs vocal constructive criticism, which is how I read Lowell’s blogpost, not bomb throwers.