‘Wash Post’ Ombud Hits Handling of Blog Column

By: E&P Staff

It’s an issue rising to the surface more and more as newspapers nearly everywhere jump on the blog bandwagon: How do you keep freewheeling and very opinionated bloggers from stirring controversy for their home newspapers?

The question rose to national attention last week when William Arkin, a national security expert and longtime Early Warning online columnist for The Washington Post’s site, offended many in the military, and some outside the military, by referring to our “mercenary — oops sorry, volunteer — force.” Arkin’s larger point was that the troops who complain about Americans back home turning against the war should not portray this as a failure to support them.

This led to angry letters, over 1500 postings in the comments section at the Post’s site, numerous Bill O’Reilly and other Fox News attacks, a followup column and apology, more comments, and then (E&P confirmed) Arkin being instructed by his editor to drop the subject and move on.

Along the way, critics took dead aim at the Post itself, even though Arkin’s columns do not appear in the print edition.

Now, today, Deborah Howell, the Post’s ombudsman, weighs in by criticizing the lack of editing on the original piece, and highlighting the from-my-head-to-the-Web-page nature of blogging, even at many newspaper sites.

A few excerpts from Howell’s column follows. The entire piece can be found at www.washingtonpost.com.

Did one online column irreparably damage Post national security journalism? No. But it does show that an online column rubs off on the newspaper. Opinions on Arkin vary among Post reporters who write about the military and national security. Some respect him; others think he harms The Post’s reputation….

Bloggers thrive on their opinions. Many newspaper journalists, often attacked by bloggers, think they are the “real” journalists, working in a parallel and better journalistic universe.

I’m sure journalists at washingtonpost.com see their work as the journalism of the future, while we of the dead-tree format can be seen as the past. Arkin said that “newspaper reporters would try to wipe me off the bottom of their shoes . . . if they acknowledge [bloggers’] existence.”

An editor read his column before it was posted but didn’t see the problem. Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com’s executive editor, said that had he seen it, he would have asked for changes. Arkin said he would have made them.

What’s the difference between opinion writing for the newspaper and for washingtonpost.com? The writing can be similar, but the editing is more intense at the newspaper. More experienced eyes see a story or a column before it goes into the paper; The Post has several levels of rigorous editing. There is “less of an editing process” for blogs at the more immediacy-oriented Web site, Brady said.

Several Post reporters also blog on washingtonpost.com. One is Joel Achenbach, who said blogging is like dealing with “live ammo. The blog software is a very powerful weapon. You can publish something very quickly under the name of The Washington Post. You need a steady hand and good judgment.”

Software allows writers to post with a delay for editors to raise questions. Brady said: “We do edit almost all blogs. Usually, it’s pre-publication. Sometimes — like when live-blogging a hearing or a Redskins game — we’ll edit live.” Blogs are held to the same standards as any Post journalism, he said.

Arkin’s column did not meet Post standards, but then, newspaper editing isn’t perfect, either. But “mercenary” surely is live ammo; such an incendiary word should have popped out in flames to Post editors.

And it is good editing that should prevail when a report carries The Post’s banner.

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