Conservatives vs. Good Journalism: The Continued Contamination of The Washington Post

In last week’s column I examined the transparent attempt by conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin to try to exploit her own false assumptions about the alleged Islamic identity of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik to push a bigger budget for the Pentagon and The Post’s willingness to allow her ill-informed speculation/accusation to stand for a 24-hour period. The controversy has now expanded into Post Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton’s column.

In it, Pexton, while attempting to offer some context for the incident, ends up simply throwing up his hands and saying, in effect: “Conservative ‘opinion’ does not need to be true; it does not need to adhere to the traditional journalistic standards of this or any other conservative newspaper. It merely needs to keep conservatives happy.”

Pexton’s defense of Rubin represents yet another step in the inexorable decline of a no-longer-great newspaper, under pressure not only from the collapse of its business model and reliance on the shady business practices of its parent company, but also its inability to stand up to conservative pressure groups seeking to “work the refs” and, in the process, undermine careful, truthful journalism.

Pexton begins his defense of Rubin by noting that his “first thought” upon hearing of the killings “was that it was al-Qaeda,” and adds, “Many analysts and news organizations speculated similarly in the hours after the Norway attacks. So what,” he asks, “explains the vociferous and voluminous amounts of e-mail I received last week denouncing Post opinion blogger Jennifer Rubin for making similar points online immediately after the bombing?”

Before we examine Pexton’s reasons, let us note that in the above paragraph he not only does not distinguish between “al-Qaeda” (his words) and “Islamic extremists” (her words) but also, and far more seriously, between thinking a thought—I’m sure millions of people did—and rushing to publish it—unchecked—on the website of a major metropolitan newspaper. Rubin is not guilty, after all, of a thought-crime. She and The Post are guilty of a crime against truth.

Note also that though he credits “many analysts and news organizations” with “speculat[ing] similarly,” he does not mention a single one. That’s because, I’m guessing, none of them were in major newspapers analogous to The Washington Post. If they had been, you can bet Pexton would have mentioned it.

Pexton complains of “ugly, obscene, vile and, worst, containing threats of physical harm” toward Rubin—though again, he gives no examples and mentions no names before going on to blame the reaction to Rubin’s column on “[s]everal factors,” including her “faith”:

What compounded Rubin’s error is that she let her 5 p.m. Friday post remain uncorrected for more than 24 hours. She wrote four other unrelated blog posts that night, through about 9 p.m. Police officials in Norway at 8:33 p.m. Washington time had made their first statement that the suspect had no connection to international terrorism or Muslims. Rubin should have rechecked the facts before signing off, and Post editors should have thought about editing her post more that night. But Rubin has a good defense. She is Jewish. She generally observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; she doesn’t blog, doesn’t tweet, doesn’t respond to reader e-mails. When she went online at 8 p.m. Saturday, her mea culpa post on Norway was the first thing she posted.

Unfortunately for Mr. Pexton, the ombudsman’s attempt to check out the facts does not itself check out. Wired blogger Spencer Ackerman, who speculated similarly to Rubin, managed to correct his blog entry at 7:45 p.m. EST or 45 minutes before Pexton’s alleged exoneration of Rubin would have allowed. He wrote that the killer was apparently “a blond, blue-eyed, Norwegian, non-Muslim extremist. If true, it should teach all of us in the media—this blog included—a lesson about immediately jumping to “jihadi!” conclusions.”

Sunset—the moment that the Jewish Sabbath begins, moreover—occurred on Friday, July 22, 2011, at approximately 8:20 p.m. in Washington, D.C., and hence offered Rubin plenty of time to correct her mistake. I will not speculate as to why she did not take the opportunity to do so. (Rubin, Pexton notes, did manage to post four (four!) additional items to her blog between 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.)

But Rubin—who after all takes the far-right pro-Likud position on pretty much everything involving the Middle East and has even traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored by the right-wing American Israel Political Affairs Committee to blog for The Post on her trip—is hardly the point here. She was not, after all, posting on her personal blog for fellow Likudniks. She was posting on a blog sponsored by the once-great Washington Post. She may not have cared who she was smearing, but surely someone at the paper who does not claim to observe the Jewish Sabbath was in a position to remove her ignorant speculation from the paper’s website once it became clear just how false and misleading it was.

Pexton goes on to complain in his post that “Liberals and conservatives don’t talk to each other much anymore; they exist in parallel online universes, only crossing over to grab some explosive anti-matter from the other side to stoke the rage in their own blogosphere,” and so “If your politics are liberal and you don’t generally read Rubin, but you read her Norway posts, you probably would be pretty offended. But if you are a conservative, or someone who reads Rubin regularly, you’ll know that this is what she does and who she is.”

This is actually both funny and sad at the same time. Rubin’s post, even Pexton will agree, was informed only by her own prejudices. But only “liberals,” according to the Washington Post ombudsman, were likely to be offended by such shoddy journalistic practices appearing in The Post. Conservatives, on the other hand, “know that this is what she does and who she is.”

If in fact Pexton is right about Rubin—and I don’t read her frequently enough to say—then he has just issued a damning indictment both of Rubin and the paper that sponsors her. Do conservative readers of The Post not care about accuracy? Does The Post consider a conservative blogger off limits to traditional journalistic standards of care and truthfulness, particularly when trafficking in what could be such dangerous speculation? Is that the only kind of conservatives there are? The Post’s previous hiring of a right-wing blogger guilty of massive amounts of plagiarism and its decision to throw another one over the rails when it discovered that he was not, in fact, conservative might indicate as much.

The funniest part of Pexton’s complaint is about the political self-segregation of liberal and conservative websites. Hmm. I wonder if that’s why, in order to combat this disease, The Washington Post decided to segregate its own opinion section into left-leaning and right-leaning columnists and thereby prevent either side from ever experiencing the trauma of encountering a disagreeable opinion.

Like his predecessor Andy Alexander, Pexton had a decent journalistic reputation before taking this job but now finds himself forced to try to defend the journalistically indefensible. Alexander took a pass when it came to scrutinizing the climate denialism of star Post columnist George Will and the myriad conflicts of interest exhibited by then-star Post media writer (and recent Rupert Murdoch defender) Howard Kurtz, and he joined in the posse that ran Dave Weigel out of town despite what editor-in-chief Marcus Brauchli admitted was his “excellent” work.

Pexton is falling into the same trap. And the unhappy truth is that this episode adds to a virtual avalanche of evidence that pretty much no one is watching the shop anymore at many of our most important journalistic institutions. Not even the people who are hired to investigate the controversies are willing to delve too closely into the collapse of standards anymore.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.