A newspaper ombudsman is supposed to be some kind of reader representative, a person who -- in the words of the Organization of News Ombudsmen -- "receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers ... about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports."
So what do you do if the ombudsman gets it wrong and the readers start to complain about her?
If you're the editor of washingtonpost.com, you shut down the venue for letting readers make their concerns public.
In a column on the Jack Abramoff case last week, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell said that Abramoff "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties." It's not true, and it's no secret that it's not true. From the president on down, the Republican Party has tried to spread the spin that Abramoff was some sort of "equal money dispenser." But while Indian tribes and others associated with Abramoff have given campaign contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle, it has been widely reported that Abramoff himself has given money solely to Republicans.
Not surprisingly, liberal bloggers and their readers went ballistic when they saw the Post's ombudsman -- a sort of fact checker for the fact checkers -- parrot a discredited Republican talking point. Critical comments flooded into post.blog, the spot on washingtonpost.com where readers and editors are to discuss "site policies, design and goals." When some of those comments suddenly stopped appearing on the page early this week, critics accused the editors of censorship. Washingtonpost.com opinion editor Hal Straus dived into the fray to say that it was just a technical glitch, maybe caused by the flood of e-mails, maybe caused by editors' attempts to "remove a few comments -- about a dozen -- that failed to make a substantive point and were simply personal attacks on Howell and others."
Earlier today, Howell finally responded to her critics. She didn't admit or apologize for her error, exactly. She simply said that she might have used a different choice of words. "I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties," she wrote. "A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff 'directed' contributions to both parties."
Even assuming that Howell is right on that -- a subject of some debate -- it's a pretty important distinction. But don't just take our word for it. The Bush-Cheney campaign is giving away $6,000 in contributions it received directly from Abramoff, his wife and one Indian tribe he represented, but it's holding on to more than $100,000 in other donations Abramoff raised for the campaign as a Bush "Pioneer" in 2004. "At this point," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said the other day, "there is nothing to indicate that contributions from those individual donors represents anything other than enthusiastic support for the BC-04 reelection campaign."
Not surprisingly, Howell's response drew another round of criticism in the comments section at post.blog. A few of those who posted came to Howell's defense; many attacked her and the Post, and they didn't mince words when doing so. By 4:15 p.m. today, washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady had apparently heard enough. He announced that the editors had "shut off comments on this blog indefinitely." While insisting that "transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture," Brady said he and his colleagues are disappointed "that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about."
"We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers," Brady said, "but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it."
While they're doing that, perhaps the Post's ombudsman could "think more carefully" about how she does her job, too.
Update: Brady has just posted an update in response to a "ton" of email on the decision to shut down the comments. In it, he takes issue with the notion that editors at washingtonpost.com are afraid of criticism. "Washingtonpost.com has done an awful lot to be as transparent as possible," he says. "We've started a ton of blogs, we've linked out to bloggers who are writing (often negatively) about Post content and we've made journalists from The Post and post.com available to answer questions online on a daily basis. So I find it hard to make a case that we're unwilling to be criticized. What we're not willing to do is allow the comments area to turn into a place where it's OK to unleash vicious, name-calling attacks on anyone, whether they are Post reporters, public figures or other commenters. And that's exactly what was happening." If readers think the comments being posted on Howell's work weren't all that vicious, Brady says, that's because editors were deleting the nastiest of them as quickly as they could until the task became overwhelming.
And one more thing: As a reader notes in the comments below, Democratic Underground has posted what appears to be a screenshot from washingtonpost.com showing at least some of the comments that were posted in response to Howell's response before they were deleted. To be fair, Brady says that editors were deleting the most egregious comments as they went along, so the screenshot may not show the worst of the worst.