Press Box

The Scoopless Washington Post

The Washington Post got its fanny whacked by the New York Times in the post-election Florida news shootout. That’s not me talking, it’s new Post ombudsman Michael Getler (former Post deputy managing editor and most recently the editor of the International Herald Tribune).

In an internal critique sent Friday, Dec. 15, via e-mail to the Post staff, Getler describes Post coverage as “excellent” before confessing his “slight, troubling sense that the paper was not as aggressive as it has been in the past in actually breaking stories.” Getler continues:

This was a tough story in which to do that and nobody was breaking the big one that changed the direction of events or even the story line. Yet there were a couple of stories–and this is where the water gets dangerous–that our rivals up the road did this time that were very much in keeping with what one might have expected TWP [the Washington Post] to have produced. It seems to me that what must have been a big and well-organized commitment of resources to Florida by the NYT paid-off in some important and enterprising stories and in raising the profile of the paper’s on the ground reporting. The ones that stick in my head involve front page pieces about the role of the Miami mayor in the recount issue, the Duval county analysis of a major foul up that also was telling about the black vote, and the piece about the controversial judicial history of Judge Sauls of Leon County.The Post, of course, can’t break them all. But one of my increasingly famous (or heard only by me) alarm bells is ringing.

Did the Times maul the Post in Florida? Not by my recollection, although it did run three times as many stories as the Post. The peculiar thing about Getler’s memo is he wants to have it both ways–he calls the Post’s coverage “excellent” and cites enterprising pieces by John Mintz and Dan Keating on absentee ballots and undervotes, but he also wants to say that the paper was “not as aggressive as it has been.” Such kiss-and-slap criticism leaves Posties with at least three ways to interpret the Getler memo: 1) that he was hugely disappointed by the paper’s performance but wanted to take the edge off his criticism; 2) that as the new ombudsman he wants to establish a reputation as a bear-baiter not a cheerleader; or 3) that the new ombudsman has some SM kinks that he will work out over the next two years of his tenure.