Accuracy in Media

Some newspapers, such as the Washington Post, have reluctantly hired an “ombudsman,” or consumer’s advocate, to handle complaints about coverage.  But what happens when the ombudsman fails in his job?  That’s the question in the wake of Michael Getler’s column trying to defend a Post hatchet job on the Bush campaign for running ads on John Kerry’s record.  Getler, the Post ombudsman, defended a Post article that ran under a headline accusing the President of “unprecedented” negativity. 

He didn’t like the word “unprecedented” but said that, “I thought this was a powerful, carefully reported story and?given the blizzard of head-spinning campaign claims one is exposed to daily?a service to readers.  I’ve looked over the challenges made by Bush campaign officials, but I think The Post’s story holds up well.”  What were those challenges?  Getler didn’t suggest that readers consult the Bush campaign’s detailed 12-page rebuttal to the Post story.  In a previous Media Monitor we offered our own rebuttal to the Post story.  We simply analyzed the charges in the paper and what was already known about the Kerry record from public sources.  On that basis alone, we found that the Post was guilty of publishing its own inaccuracies and deceptions.

Getler tries to justify the focus on Bush campaign ads by saying, “We have just experienced a situation in which almost everything we were told about the war in Iraq has turned out, thus far, not to be the case.  It is the most glaring and important demonstration in my aging memory of the need for the press to challenge claims, on all sides, before the fact; especially before wars and before elections.”

He may be referring to Saddam’s failure to account for weapons of mass destruction.  They haven’t been found, but those who believed he had those weapons ran the gamut from Bush to Kerry to the U.N. and our allies.  It’s difficult to see how this possible intelligence failure is any reason for the press to subject Bush campaign ads to intense scrutiny.  The burden was on Saddam to account for the weapons, not for the U.S. to produce them.

If Getler is referring to Saddam’s ties to terrorists and al Qaeda, he should take a look at the new Stephen Hayes book on “The Connection.”  The Post has been quick to run a negative review of the book.  But the reviewer, former FBI counterterrorism analyst, Matthew A. Levitt, admits the book “points toward disturbing links between Iraq and al Qaeda?”  Levitt says the book paints “a disturbing outline of the former Iraqi regime’s links to terrorists, but the picture still reveals no smoking gun.”  But that may be because the CIA and FBI could not produce one.  The CIA’s problems have resulted in George Tenet’s resignation.  Confidence in the FBI has been badly shaken by the failure to find the perpetrators of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks.

Confidence in Post ombudsman Michael Getler has been shaken by his wild charges about the justification of the Iraq war.  This is no way to justify an aggressive attitude by the press toward the Bush campaign.  It looks like Getler may share the bias of the Post reporters.  Perhaps the ombudsman needs an ombudsman.

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