An ombudsman who doesn't appear to understand her job

Deborah Howell is the ombudsman for the Washington Post. The function of an ombudsman is to keep an eye on reporters, to correct them when they're wrong and to insist on remedies when things go awry. Reporters are human, they make mistakes, they get too close to their sources, they allow their human sympathies to overwhelm their professional judgment, they don't remain detached enough to do their jobs effectively. The ombudsman is supposed to be a counterweight to that tendency. An ombudsman is supposed to correct the inevitable problems that arise.

Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt has been christened "Steno" Sue Schmidt for her slavish devotion to her sources in the Bush Administration. She's known for writing what they tell her, whenever they tell her, using the exact phraseology they use.

In Schmidt's story, "The Fast Rise and Steep Fall of Jack Abramoff" the connection of Abramoff to the Republican Party is not clear until the 15th paragraph. Before then, she describes Abramoff as dealing with “politicians” and "lawmakers", making everything sound very bipartisan. Schmidt does mention Abramoff's close connections to Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, very important people to the Republican Party, but relatively obscure to the general public. Atrioscaught the passage on Abramoff and Tom DeLay (Former House Majority Leader and premiere Republican Party fundraiser) and reproduced another Schmidt passage:

"DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men."

Major problem though. Earlier, on October 18:

"Ney and Abramoff, whom DeLay once described as 'one of my closest and dearest friends,' crossed paths as early as 1996. That year Ney took a trip to Montenegro sponsored by a foundation that had links to Abramoff, who was a lobbyist for Montenegro."

Dan listed all the quality time Tom spent with Jack and asked:

Dan:...are you concerned?

Dick: There's no question that they are friends and Tom Delay's not the kind of person that's going to turn his back on a friend that's in trouble---Tom Delay is not going to abandon Jack Abramoff just because Abramoff has done some illegal things.

And from Michael Isikoff:
"For years, nobody on Washington's K Street corridor was closer to DeLay than Abramoff. They were an unlikely duo. DeLay, a conservative Christian, and Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew, traveled the world together and golfed the finest courses. Abramoff raised hundreds of thousands for DeLay's political causes and hired DeLay's aides, or kicked them business, when they left his employ."

Were one to read Schmidt's article critically and without having heard anything about it beforehand, one would have a very difficult time believing in the legitimacy of telling the story in an "even-handed" manner, i.e. in a manner that showed Democrats and Republicans in an equally bad light. It's quite clear from the evidence presented that it does not in the slightest support the notion that Abramoff worked for or gave a single red cent to the Democrats. People have examined and reproduced the official record and sure enough, every single solitary contribution Abramoff gave throughout his entire life went to politicians with an "R" after their name. Democrats didn't get a dime.

Were your average responsible, diligent manager to come in as ombudsman and note that Schmidt had some problems keeping her story straight and some difficulty with over-applying the concept of balance, i.e., trying too hard to make the Democrats and Republicans look equally guilty, one would think that the ombudsman would issue a truly fair and accurate statement that clearly laid out the issue, wouldn't one? Well, one would be wrong.

Deborah Howell wrote on January 15th that:

"Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties."

This is simply, purely, flat-out wrong. Howard Dean appeared with Wolf Blitzer and made the following comments on the case:

BLITZER: Should Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, who has now pleaded guilty to bribery charges, among other charges, a Republican lobbyist in Washington, should the Democrat who took money from him give that money to charity or give it back?

DEAN: There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff, not one, not one single Democrat. Every person named in this scandal is a Republican. Every person under investigation is a Republican. Every person indicted is a Republican. This is a Republican finance scandal. There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money. And we've looked through all of those FEC reports to make sure that's true.

BLITZER: But through various Abramoff-related organizations and outfits, a bunch of Democrats did take money that presumably originated with Jack Abramoff.

DEAN: That's not true either. There's no evidence for that either. There is no evidence...

BLITZER: What about Senator Byron Dorgan?

DEAN: Senator Byron Dorgan and some others took money from Indian tribes. They're not agents of Jack Abramoff. There's no evidence that I've seen that Jack Abramoff directed any contributions to Democrats. I know the Republican National Committee would like to get the Democrats involved in this. They're scared. They should be scared. They haven't told the truth. They have misled the American people. And now it appears they're stealing from Indian tribes. The Democrats are not involved in this.

[Author's note: Blitzer was clearly taken aback at this assertion and made a very audible "harrumph" sound.] BLITZER: Unfortunately Mr. Chairman, we got to leave it right there.

Comments poured in to the Washington Post blog The Post responded by getting all huffy and defensive and eventually, by deleting comments. The blog firedoglake wrote: "Li'l Debbie Can't Handle the Truth" and wondered why the Post was now claiming that reader comments were so awful, that deletions were called for.

Ms Howell tried to "clarify" her remarks later:

"I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties."

Problem: There's no evidence that Abramoff 'directed' any contributions anywhere. The Indian tribes that gave money to Democratic politicians did so because they felt those particular Democrats would represent them on particular issues. If there's any proof to the contrary, if there's any evidence that Abramoff directed the Indians to give money to Democrats, that evidence has yet to be made public. The blog Wampum has been discussing the issue from the point of view of the Indians.

Lou Dobbs weighs in:

"For the record about a third of the money from Jack Abramoff and his clients did in fact go to Democrats and 2/3 to Republicans. That's the reality. Don't blog me! It's the fact. And poor Washington Post ombudsman not being able to deal with reality on their own blog."

Problem: Jack Abramoff and his clients should be considered two separate groups, not as one group lumped together. They don't have the same goals in giving cash to politicians. Abramoff gave to, and played a substantial role in, the Republican Party. The tribes gave to the politicians they thought would advance their own interests.

See MediaMatters for how to write to media companies concerning their commentators. Click on the desired media company, click on the first story concerning them and the corporation's contact information will be featured on the right side of the column.

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