Howell Critiques Post’s Edwards Story

From her internal Omblog:


    More than a dozen readers, both inside the newsroom and outside, were troubled by the John Edwards story on Page today. So was I. Most complainers thought that the story either wasn’t worth a story or wasn’t worth fronting or both. It was interesting enough to make an item in In the Loop, but not Page 1. I kept looking for the graf that would tell me that the buyers had some history with Edwards, that they were big campaign contributors, that there was some quid pro quo. Nada.

    Bill Hamilton, the editor on the story, obviously disagreed. “If the mixture of Georgetown, real estate, a presidential candidate and a secret buyer who turns out to be under investigation for screwing a major union that that candidate is courting is not front page news in a Washington newspaper, then we just have different news judgment.

    “I think writing about the finances of presidential candidates is an important service that this newspaper needs to do more of. In this case, we went beyond what was clearly an attempt to shield the important details of a transaction that earned a presidential candidate more than $5 million. And that presidential candidate just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man.

    “Nowhere in the story did we say that Edwards did anything wrong. But it is a fact of life that a guy who is running for president has to be careful of major financial transactions in a way that normal people do not. In this case he did not take the time to even Google who was buying his house.”

See the rest of her omblog when you click below…

    Readers speak: David Hirsch of the District wrote. ” I was hoping you could address why the story on John Edwards’ home sale was front-page news. I read through it twice trying to see the point – to me it seemed as though the writer was looking for evidence of wrongdoing on Edwards’ part, but couldn’t find it. Without this evidence, the article could have served as a lesson in the difficulties politicians face when involved in a large financial transaction, but the article barely touched on this.

    “Since there seemed to be evidence of wrongdoing (or a broader discussion), the placement and tone of the story could still lead someone to infer that Edwards had done something unethical. Since all the article could do was leave this inference about someone who is running for president, I have to wonder what the point was, except to present a subtle smear on Edwards. Is that what was going on?”

    David Axelson wrote: “Can you please explain why the article on John Edwards selling his Georgetown home was considered front-page news, or why Edwards’s name appeared in the headline? There’s no allegation that Edwards did anything immoral, unethical, or illegal in the article. The only thing that … link(ed) to Edwards was that the house was sold to people who chose to take title in the name of a LLC – and Edwards had nothing whatsoever to do with that decision. This looks like character assassination by insinuation, and I would have thought the Post was above that.”

    Pat Flanagan of Tulsa wrote: “I am not a John Edwards supporter.However, I strongly object to this story about the sale of Edwards’ home… It not only lacked substance, it was an obviously sleazy, deliberate smear one might expect to find in the New York Post but not in your fine newspaper. If the Washington Post is going to smear someone I expect them to do it with some class.

    “The majority of people who can afford a five million dollar house are probably not going to be loved by union workers. And, more to the point, if home sales to persons of dubious character were prohibited in Washington, the bottom would completely fall out of the housing market.”

    David Siegler of Oakton, Va., called it “an interesting story. Kind of heavy on implication but no matter. Still, I wonder.. What is your cut-off for requiring public officials or candidates to conduct background checks on anyone with whom they might have a business relationship? Should a candidate know if someone he or she is dealing with has been, say, accused of child abuse, robbery, embezzlement, theft? Would it be news if a candidate, say, bought a pair of shoes from someone who had been sued? Is there a dollar value threshold? And why is this on the front page?”


    I mentioned in an earlier omblog that I was going to send tearsheets to reporters when I thought a story was too long. I decided that was the wrong way to go about it. Reporters report and write. Editors edit. I’ll send them to editors.


    I glanced at Adrian Higgins’ story on houseplants in the winter and was sucked right in. Describing his plants in winter: “Mine currently huddle in the corner of the dining room, as if waiting for a bus that never arrives.” And: “With sufficient humidity, most houseplants achieve a measure of health; without it, they grow sullen.” On giving them moisture from a humidifier: “You could see the plants clearing their nasal passages.”

    And I loved Carol Leonnig and Amy Goldstein’s piece on how hard it is find a jury in the Scooter Libby case because Washington is just a small town that everybody knows someone who’s been called as a witness _ from White House assistants to the former Post reporter who seemed to know every journalist in town to finally a potential juror, who had moved here from North Carolina. He said he had no basis for judging White House officials, including Vice-President Cheney though he was “not sure I would like to go bird hunting with him either.” The whole story brought some humor to the long-running soap opera.


    I’m a fan of skylines and skyboxes, as I’ve written before, because I think they help sell single copies and tell readers about important things inside. And I’m glad to see The Post using more of them.

    But I really don’t like that sort of dull khaki color that is often used. And the part of skyline today that said “Our Annual Guide to Area Events” was washed out. The skylines ought to pop out and drive you inside with enthusiasm


    Ben Beach of Bethesda wrote: “I thought David Finkel’s story from Kansas on the minimum wage was terrific. I consider such stories the essence of journalism, giving us a glimpse into how people’s daily lives are affected by policy. For those of us in Washington, where we are so focused on legislation & the politics & rhetoric, this real-life stuff is easy to lose sight of. I wish the Post had more reporters filing from such places around the U.S.”


    I liked seeing the tagline on Michelle Boorstein’s piece on the small torn-asunder Episcopal church. It let you know a longer piece was on the Web. I tacked on to my column last week, which almost always has links, a tagline with a link to the Newseum Web site so that readers could see how other newspapers handled the Saddam hanging.


    I’m gathering string for a column on government secrecy. I was FOI chairman for ASNE in the mid 1990s. What we saw as problems then are picayune compared to what’s going on now. I would appreciate any examples you have of secrecy from the dog-catcher’s office to the White House. I think the news business doesn’t do enough to tell readers what obstacles journalists have to finding out what they might like to know.


    I was looking up a Karin Brulliard article on line and noticed it had links, which you usually don’t see. I tried them and found that most didn’t go anywhere. Karin said she did not put any links in her story. A mystery.

    So I wrote Jim Brady and asked about it. He replied: “This was from the day we ran a test of our linking to topics pages. It worked well for a topic like Martin O’Malley, but didn’t work well for a bunch of the other terms, so we went back into testing. But, once we get this right, we’re planning on linking major terms in articles to send readers to pages with more content about that topic. Not sure when we’ll get the technology right, however… ”


    I got several complaints about the use of the word “cherry-picking” in Leonnig’s story opening story on the Libby trial. Here’s the sentence: “I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby’s case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003.”

    Reader Bob Askew wrote: “With all due respect, I was shocked to read the “cherry picking” comments early in your article this morning. Do you think this article might be better in op-ed? Professional reporter or commentator?

    Carol replies: “Thanks for writing. I can understand, with all the arguments going back and forth, why you might consider the assertion of cherry-picking to be opinionated. But this sentence, trust me, is based on a very careful review of specific facts about the National Intelligence Estimate and the release of some selected elements of it that were misleading in the absence of other information.

    “Through Fitzgerald’s investigation and through information that administration officials have confirmed in their testimony, no one disputes that Libby released pieces of the NIE while misleadingly asserting that the intelligence suggesting Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger was solid. He described this intelligence about Niger as a key “judgment” of the NIE, when it was not. He described it as well-buttressed information, but the parts he did not share raised numerous doubts about its accuracy, its source, and its vagueness.

    “I hope that helps. And of course, if there is something else you’d like to add or know, feel free to write again.

    “We always like to hear from readers, because not only is it good to know how your stories are perceived/received, but we also learn something from time to time that improves our coverage.”


    From Gunnar Bodahl-Johansen of The Norwegian Institute of Journalism in Fredrikstad: “The Post stylebook says: “The Washington Post is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent. We want to make our reporting as transparent to the readers as possible so they may know how and where we got our information.”

    “In connection with this, I kindly ask you to take your time to answer the follow question: Are the reporters committed to clarify with the sources to which extent they can disclose the position of the sources?

    “A Norwegian newspaper run a story about the administrations inner life based on 53 anonymous sources. But the sources were disclosed as ‘a source working very close to the prime minister,’ ‘a source working at the party’s headquarters’, ‘a source participated in the negotiation to forming a government’ etc.

    “For some of us it was very easy to identify the sources. I talked to several of them afterwards and they were very upset about how they were identified as an anonymous source. That was not a part of the deal, they said, they were promised anonymity.

    From my point of view the journalist has to clarify if the source wants completely or ‘partly’ anonymity or to which extend they can be disclosed.

    To your information: I have worked with press ethics for many years, both as a journalist and editor, director for the Norwegian PCC and now at the institute. I regularly take groups of Norwegian journalists and editors to the US (I am planning to take Norwegians editors to the US to study your ombudsman system).”