Howell’s Howl

In her internal “omblog,” Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell discussed a number of topics, including…

…the tendency of Posties to run many impressive–and impressively long (meaning they don’t get read)–feature stories during the holiday season in order to meet prize deadlines. Howell encourages reporters and editors to space them out so they get the attention they deserve.

…reader reaction to the Post radio deal.

…the campaign claiming that “Dafna Linzer in a Jan. 4 story ‘repeated the much-disputed White House claim that the Bush administration ‘repeatedly consulted’ Congress about its domestic surveillance program.”

…the Post’s distortion of the French language.

Full post after the jump…

I fall on my knees and implore you not to do to readers what you did this December and cram the paper full of long projects during the middle of the busy holiday season. I went crazy trying to read them and finally gave up on some.

Hey, I know the dirty little secret — prize deadlines. But some of your best journalism gets lost in the holiday rush. And this isn’t the only year it has happened.

My guess is that there will be no projects in January — when readers have more time to read them. Give us all a break this year. There is always a project or two that you have to run in December. So space the rest of them out.


I’ve gotten a few letters from people protesting the Post radio deal. One anonymous caller said, “I’m calling to protest the role of The Washington Post apparently played in this coup against the Washington area radio stations. It’s bad enough to just blow off WGMS like this. I’ve been listening to WGMS for 40 years now, but to do it with no notice whatever and no consultation with the listenership. Who do you think you are, King George?”

Another wrote with these questions: “Why did the Post sell WTOP in the first place? If they want to break into local news radio, why didn’t they seek to go into WTOP’s new address? Are there any market projections made regarding the loss of listeners WTOP might experience and the gains the Post’s station would get from those listerers? Finally, what made the Post decide to team up with Bonneville, a group owned by the Mormon Church, that is very conservative, instead of one of the NPR stations? I would think they would need substantial guarantees of editorial independence from the church and nothing has been said about that.”

Bill Samuel of Silver Spring wrote: “The Post should not let its business interests affect its reporting of the WTOP frequency switch. The Post gains the 1500 frequency, which has extraordinary coverage in the metropolitan area. It shouldn’t dishonestly report that WTOP’s move to 103.5 will give WTOP the most powerful signal in the region. On the FM band, the strongest signals are at the bottom of the band. WAMU has the strongest signal in the area because it sits at the bottom of the FM band. The signal weakens significantly as you go up the band. Technically, you can not get good coverage over the whole metropolitan area from as high as 103.5 on the band.

“Practically, I listen to WTOP when going from Glenmont Metro to my home. I tried switching from 1500 from 103.5 for this. 103.5 fades in and out. It is too weak even this close in to be really usable. I also tried 103.5 at my office in downtown D.C. It was even worse there. After March 30, many regular listeners to WTOP will no longer be able to receive the station well enough to listen to it.

“It will lose its #1 rating due to greatly reduced broadcast coverage. Probable gainers are the Post’s new radio station (resulting in an enormous conflict of interest in the Post’s reporting on the switch) and NPR Morning Edition, which benefits from the best signal of any radio news program in the area. But many of those who want the type of quick update we can currently get from WTOP are going to be left in the lurch, because no one else provides this service.”


The e-mail campaign of the week _ a weak one _ is from and says that Dafna Linzer in a Jan. 4 story “repeated the much-disputed White House claim that the Bush administration ‘repeatedly consulted’ Congress about its domestic surveillance program.”

It was clear if you read the story that she was simply giving the administration’s point of view as well as others. Linzer tells me she has called the blog (not easy to reach) and demanded a correction that she “uncritically” wrote her story. The spokesman for would not tell her who wrote the story and said that no one involved in the story would talk to her. The website lists David Brock as the president and CEO. Brock is the conservative-turned-liberal who wrote “Blinded by the Right.”


And now a scolding on minding our French (and other languages not English) and a note from an Alexandria reader telling me _ apropos of my last column_ for journalists not to impute bad motives to government officials.

Journalist Nicolas Bruilliard is from France and married to the Post’s own Karin Bruilliard. I met him as a student at my alma mater, the University of Texas. (How ’bout that game!)

Exerpts from his letter: “As both a (proud) French native and devout reader of American newspapers, I have noted widespread misuse and misspelling of French words and phrases.

“Culprits have included almost every publication I have read regularly from the Austin American-Statesman to the New York Times, but I have singled out the Post of late because it has become my main morning paper. Two recent stories illustrate my point.

“At the end of the fourth paragraph of ‘On the Night Before the Big Event, Hollywood’s Brightest Stars Are Twinkling in the East” published Monday Dec. 5, Jose Antonio Vargas used the phrase “haute monde” to describe Washington’s personalities. ‘Monde’ being a masculine word, the agreeing adjective should have been ‘haut,’ not ‘haute.’ And while the phrase “haut monde” would not have been absolutely incorrect in itself, the appropriate expression Mr. Vargas should have used is ‘beau monde’ or “haute société,” which both accurately describe groups of people with a high social status.

“The second example I find much more puzzling. In ‘A Droll Pinot, With Notes Of Aluminum and Cheese’ published Sunday Dec. 11, Don Oldenburg opened his story with the words ‘Sacre bleu.’ This favorite of American journalists is misspelled here. It should have read ‘Sacrebleu’ in one word. I understand that everybody makes mistakes, but when a foreign word is used so prominently, I am truly amazed that neither the author nor his editors or copy editors felt the urge to check the spelling of a word in a language that they are obviously not very familiar with.

“I have another issue with the use of ‘sacrebleu.’ Described in my French dictionary as ‘vieilli’ or old-fashioned, the word has all but fallen out of the French language. Now that I think about it, I can’t recall anyone — even my grandparents — ever using the term in my presence. And this I believe speaks to a different problem, which is the use of clichés. French people nowadays rarely sport a beret or a fine, elaborated, moustache, and they almost never say the word ‘sacrebleu.’ All my journalism professors and editors have warned me against the use of clichés, and I think this should extend to the use of foreign words in American stories.

“In his first paragraph, Mr. Oldenburg’s use of ‘ze’ also mocks the way French people supposedly pronounce the English word ‘the.’ It would be grossly inappropriate for the Post to make fun of the way a Hispanic or Asian person pronounces English words, and I find Mr. Oldenburg’s use of stereotypes just as inappropriate and insulting.

“Again, my tirade is not a personal attack as these errors are by no means the monopoly of the Washington Post. I think the Post is a great newspaper that I enjoy reading every day, and I believe Mr. Vargas is a talented writer. I have nothing personal against Mr. Oldenburg either, although I have to admit I was so put off by his first paragraph that I never proceeded to read his story.

“But the use of the French language and the way the French are portrayed in the American media are things I care deeply about, and I would assume I’m not the only one to do so in a city that carries French news on public television every night and where francophile events and groups are countless.”


An Alexandria reader’s reply to my asking readers not to impute bad motives to the Post: “In your New Year’s Day column you instruct the Post’s critics to ‘Be civil … don’t always impute partisan or bad motives to this paper or to journalism.’ I note that you don’t repeat that injunction to the Post’s reporters and editors. However, that might not be a bad idea. Certainly, many in government feel that the Post often imputes partisan and bad motives to them when the reality of such motives is far from evident, let alone proven. It almost never happens that the Post imputes good, public-spirited motives to a government official — when was the last time a government official’s action was explained by saying that he or she evidently thought that the action in question was in the country’s best interests.”