Well, at least we know that the Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton (who apparently escaped from a Charles Dickens novel) is a dud. That’s one good thing that came out of his column about his employer’s unethical coverage of the “Niggerhead” rock, otherwise known as “Let’s smear that scary Republican, Rick Perry, so he’ll never come close to being President.” Other than that useful but unfortunate fact, however, Pexton’s piece represents the most incompetent and ethically clueless analysis by a media ombudsman that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them.
Pexton, who is supposed to present an objective and critical response to ethical issues in Post reporting and editing, instead adopts the stance of its partisan defender. Wrong. That’s not his job. His job is to keep his paper honest and to reinforce stringent journalistic ethical standards.
The rock story, which the Post inexplicably chose for front page prominence, raised the bizarre issue of whether Rick Perry frequented a hunting camp that had long born the name of “Niggerhead,” at what point after the camp was leased by Perry’s father was the offensive name painted over, how clearly the name was visible after it was painted, and at what point the rock was removed or flipped over. “Perry insists that the name on the rock was painted over in 1983 or 1984, before he was elected and before the hunting excursions. If the seven sources The Post relied on for this article are truthful, then Perry is lying or is badly misinformed about when the rock was painted,” explains the ombudsman. And why, exactly, is a story that could have been headlined, “PERRY LYING OR MISINFORMED ABOUT WHEN ROCK WAS PAINTED” end up on the Post’s front page? The fact that the Attorney General of the United States may have lied under oath to Congress has yet to appear on the Post’s front page! This crypto-ombudsman’s best excuse is “if Perry is lying about the sign, that’s something voters should know.” But the story doesn’t show that Perry is lying, or anything, really.
“I wish more of the seven people upon whom The Post relied were named; only one is,” Pexton writes wistfully. Yes, because as it is, one local whom we know nothing about and six anonymous sources are the only evidence that Perry’s account, “that the name on the rock was painted over in 1983 or 1984, before he was elected and before the hunting excursions” is flawed in any way. Where is the appropriate ombudsmanlike admonition that this is a mighty thin read to insinuate racism on the part of a candidate for public office? Where does Pexton ask an editor why anyone at the Post thought this was not only newsworthy, but front page worthy? Where does he ask the obvious question, “Why is there no Post photo of the evil rock?” Nowhere, that’s where, because Pexton isn’t doing his job. He’s making excuses.
“The article does not declare Perry a racist,” Pexton pleads. No, it just provides hearsay and dubious circumstance from over twenty years ago to give front page ammunition to anyone who wants to claim Perry is a racist—like the DNC-programed Donna Brazile, who raised the story in ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour.” If the story was not intended to suggest that Perry is a racist, what does it declare? Pexton believes the piece justifies itself because “It means that, at the very least, Perry was insensitive during a time when he carried the public trust of an elected official.”
1. Pexton is now discounting Perry’s account, and choosing to believe the 6 anonymous sources about whom we know nothing. Unfair, unjustified, and biased. He’s the Post’s ethicist???
2. Insensitive how? The article never made the case, implicit in its meanderings, that elected officials have an obligation to avoid setting foot in areas that once carried racially offensive names. I’d like to hear that argument, please. Does that mean any elected official who makes a speech in one of the thousands of school in the South that honor supporters of slavery, the Roger B. Taney High Schools or Stonewall Jackson Middle Schools, is “insensitive”? I guarantee Barack Obama has been in his limousine when it travelled over Jefferson Davis Highway in Northern Virginia…why didn’t he order all the street signs painted over? Of course, everyone would have still called it that, since that’s the highway’s name.
3. Insensitive how? How does the traditional name of a hunting camp reflect on any user of it who didn’t name it? What good does an elected official do, to race relations or anything else, by shunning such a place? Is Pexton saying that IF those six anonymous sources are right and Perry is mistaken, the Governor is “insensitive” because he didn’t think, “You know, twenty years from now I might want to run for president, and a liberal-biased newspaper may try to embarrass me because of this damn rock…I guess I better not hunt here”? Yes, Perry was insensitive to the unethical lengths supposedly responsible news sources will go to impugn the character of a conservative.
4. Even assuming that Pexton has a point (and he doesn’t), how does a story that could have been headlined, “Perry Insensitive About Name on Rock Twenty Years Ago” qualify as a legitimate front page story? Pexton does not even ask the question, and that is the main ethical issue!
Finally, Pexton wraps up his title as Worst Ombudsman Ever with this:
“After the article was published, the Perry camp put out a carefully worded statement reiterating its point that the rock was painted over in the early 1980s and stating: “A number of claims made in the story are incorrect, inconsistent, and anonymous.” Anonymous, yes, but incorrect how and inconsistent how?
“Since the article ran, no one from the Perry camp has contacted The Post to request a correction or dispute specific points made in the article. Politico also asked the Perry camp to detail its objections to The Post article. Perry officials said no. It makes you wonder.”
It sure does; it makes me wonder why the Post hired this hack. What does “carefully worded” mean? Pexton has no idea how “carefully” the statement was worded; he’s using this description to raise suspicion. Ombudsmen aren’t supposed to play that game, suggesting by pure innuendo that the statement is an attempt to hide something. I know why the Perry camp isn’t engaging this smear effort: because the more it does, the longer the story will stay in the news, where it never belonged in the first place. Here is something else I wonder: I wonder why is the Post ombudsman is bemoaning the fact that his paper’s foray into Big Lie tactics*—-make an outrageous misrepresentation, make the target deny it, take the denial as further evidence that the Big Lie is true—was recognized by its victim as the hit job that it was? Why isn’t the ombudsman questioning the Post’s motives for engaging in such biased and unfair journalistic practices, rather than casting suspicion on the wise decision by Perry’s camp to allow an irresponsible story die? Why isn’t he investigating how such a story was approved, and given such prominence?
Because Patrick B. Pexton is unqualified for his job. Because he is serving neither the needs of his paper, nor protecting its readers.
He is the Worst Ombudsman Ever.
* Clarification: I want to make it clear that by referencing Big Lie tactics, which were, of course, a favorite device of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitlers’s propaganda chief, I am not comparing the Post to Joseph Goebbels, or, by extension, Hitler himself, which I realize would get me fired by ESPN if I had anything to do with ESPN, which I don’t.
Goebbels didn’t invent The Big Lie; he just celebrated its usefulness and employed it with devastating effect. Notice that I didn’t say, “The Washington Post is using the Big Lie here, just like Hitler’s Nazis”, because then everyone would say, “Ethics Alarms says the Washington Post is like Hitler,” when in fact I would be saying that the Washington Post used a device that was used by Hitler to trap adversaries, and I believe the Post is using the device for exactly the same end, as indicated by its “ombudsman’s” comments. In such a case, the Hitler reference would be used, correctly, to indicate the despicable nature of the tactic, not to suggest equivalence between the Post and Hitler in any other way.
But it would still get me fired from ESPN.