This weekend, we looked at the Washington Post ombudsman column that revealed that the newspaper has an extremely serious problem with doing basic journalism when it comes to the thorny issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples. The ombudsman column is something that could be discussed for many reasons, but I want to narrow it to just one point of discussion: anonymity. Should the ombudsman have granted anonymity to the reporter who was revealing his or her bigotry and egregious ignorance against the people he or she is supposed to cover intelligently and fairly?
Again, you can read my piece "WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists" for the details of this breathtaking admission from the Post, but for our purposes the relevant portion is this:
Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.
Now, I don't get as animated about anonymity as many journalists do, although I do agree it poses serious problems. I also know that I would have written very few stories about waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government without granting it.
You know how when people are granted anonymity, reporters write why they wanted it? Say, because they're not supposed to talk publicly about that personnel decision or sensitive bill negotiations or whatever? Well, one media critic recently suggested that instead of talking about why the source wanted anonymity, reporters should simply say why they granted it.
Anyway, the problem with the anonymity granted to the reporter in this case is that it tarnishes 100% of the reporters at the Washington Post. I was at a party of journalists this weekend where various people named who they thought the reporter in question was. There were a few theories and some were stronger than others. But if I were a decent reporter at the Post, one who did not hold uncontrollably bigoted views against religious adherents or people with different moral or political views than my own, I'd be unhappy to have many of my readers wondering if I seethed with contempt for them.
Let's look at an interesting Twitter conversation between a few other reporters who discussed the ombudsman's piece, including the Washington Examiner's Byron York, Jan Crawford of CBS News, and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:
@Byron York: WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper's mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him.
@JanCBS: It's the reporter's obliviousness to bias (lecturing on what conservatives "should" believe) that's most revealing.
@JamesTaranto: If he were truly oblivious, he wouldn't have insisted on anonymity.
@JanCBS: He was emailing with a reader. I assumed he wasn't anonymous.
@JanCBS: My point is he/she is saying those things publicly as a reporter. Byline is irrelevant.
@JamesTaranto: But he was suddenly inhibited when faced with the prospect of having his views published in his own paper.
@JanCBS: So what? That he/she initially saw nothing wrong in expressing those views is my point re newsrooms.
@JamesTaranto: Imagine how you'd feel if CBS aired a similar rant by one of your colleagues without identification.
Don Surber, an editorial writer at the Charleston Daily Mail wrote:
@DonSurber: It's not the liberalism, it's the condescension.
@JamesTaranto: To a journalist it's the utter lack of professionalism most of all
@JanCBS: Gasp! Gambling in Casablanca! But it's the honesty abt it that's refreshing.
@JamesTaranto: I don't think an anonymous confession is especially honest.
So what do you think about granting anonymity? Is it a case where the revelation of the bias is more important than the byline identification? Or does it unfairly tar everyone at the Post, instead of the one reporter who has proven himself or herself unable to be a professional?
And what do you think the Washington Post should do -- internally and externally -- in response to this ombudsman column? To do nothing would be quite the powerful statement, and one that puts into question all of that paper's coverage of this topic. So I imagine, for reasons of basic journalistic integrity, something will be done -- but what?
Image of Washington Post reporter working on a story about same-sex marriage via Shutterstock.