The ombudsman as schoolmarm


I have a certain sympathy for those who have served as ombudsman for the Washington Post. Their offices are on the same floor as the newsroom (at least they were when I was there), they are surrounded every day by the people they are paid to criticize, and they must live with a left-wing newsroom culture that resents any deviation from the line of the day. The policy at the Post, as I recall, is that the ombudsman serves for a certain time and doesn't work for the paper afterward. This presumably reduces the pressure to conform to newsroom orthodoxy. But it doesn't always work.

Case in point: the recently hired ombudsman Deborah Howell's column this past Sunday on Bob Woodward. Howell's bottom line is, "He has to operate under the rules that govern the rest of the staff–even if he's rich and famous." But that's silly. Woodward for a long time has had an unusual arrangement with the Post: He works on his books, mostly out of the Post building, and saves the information he has compiled for occasional articles—excerpts from the books or occasional scoops on breaking stories. He reports to Executive Editor Leonard Downie, the top editor at the paper.

In this case, Downie has said that Woodward should have disclosed to him the conversation he had with someone who was then an administration official revealing the fact that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. That conversation came a month before the conversation in which, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said, Scooter Libby first disclosed Wilson's wife's status to someone outside the government. Woodward has agreed that he should have made that disclosure and has apologized to Downie. Evidently, they both agree that Woodward's nondisclosure was a violation of the arrangement he has with the Post.

But I don't take that as an admission that, as Howell concludes, "He has to operate under the rules that govern the rest of the staff." Why should he? If the Post, which is run by capable adults, and Woodward, whose work as a reporter is unique, agree that he should operate differently, what's wrong with that? Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post Co., authorizes some of its reporters every four years to follow the presidential campaigns and publish their findings only after the election; before that, as I understand it, they keep the information they have to themselves and don't disclose it to other Newsweek reporters or editors. Unusual, but why not?

Howell's position sounds like that of an elementary-school principal. Bob is a very smart little boy, but he must come in at 8:15 and attend all second-grade sessions like all of the other pupils. He cannot be allowed to spend class periods doing research in the library, and he cannot be excused to go on field assignments by himself. Appropriate for second graders, quite possibly (although I was allowed to spend class periods in the library in second or third grade). But we are dealing here with adults. Bob is not in second grade anymore.

Top reporters and writers do not always have to punch time clocks. (I know I don't at U.S. News.) They often do their work with a minimum of supervision because their editors have confidence in them and because they value their work product. If the editor feels they should share more information, he can say so, as Downie did, and the reporter can apologize for not having provided it, as Woodward did.

One more point. Howell writes: "He also committed another journalistic sin–commenting on National Public Radio and Larry King Live about the Plame investigation without disclosing his early knowledge of Plame's identity." Woodward refuted this on Larry King Live last night. "Every time somebody appears on your show talking about the news or giving some sort of analysis, there are going to be things that they can't talk about."

Of course that's right. Reporters are invited to appear on television programs precisely because they know more about stories than what is in the public domain. They certainly don't have time to describe every scrap of information on which they base their opinions. Viewers are free to agree with those opinions or not. I know that when I am asked my opinion of how elections are likely to turn out, I don't specify every conversation I've had with a political consultant or every poll result or election return I've analyzed. There isn't time, and the producers of the program presumably have confidence that the judgments I make are based on extensive knowledge.

The real reason the newsroom culture is angry with Woodward is that he is off message on the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame story. He thinks the disclosure made to him was not a big deal—an offhand thing—and he has said that his sources tell him that the danger to intelligence operations was minimal. The promoters of the Plame story have it as an article of faith that this was the most damaging disclosure of intelligence information since the Rosenbergs and that Bush administration officials are guilty of some heinous crime. Woodward doubts that, and so, evidently, does Fitzgerald: He didn't indict anyone under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and, in his press conference, was careful not to allege any violation of that act.