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?