Press Box

The Post’s “Weird and Appalling” Ombudsman

Writing his weekly column for the editorial page, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler throws elbows and kisses at the paper’s staff. But his sharpest work appears in an end-of-the-week internal e-mail memo that goes to all of the paper’s reporters and editors. Getler almost always confines his internal comments to the Post itself, but last Friday he went off the reservation to fuss about a free-lance book review in the April 9 New Republic by Post national reporter Michael Grunwald.

According to Getler, Grunwald committed the unpardonable journalistic crime of writing his own mind in his review of Michael Tomasky’s campaign book, Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign. That Grunwald was qualified to write the review cannot be doubted: He covered the Hillary Clinton for Senate campaign for the Post. That Grunwald is a most excellent reporter and writer cannot be denied either. Even Getler concedes as much. What puts the starch in Getler’s too-tight thong undershorts is the “prose and commentary” found in Grunwald’s review.

From Getler’s internal memo:

Prize-winning National reporter Michael Grunwald sure can write, and he can report, as well. But his prose and commentary raised the omb’s eyebrows–and those of some staffers this week–when we saw his name paired on the cover of The New Republic with the headline “The Banality of Senator Clinton.” Inside was a Grunwald review of a book by Michael Tomasky about the Clinton Senate campaign. Grunwald’s piece goes beyond a review and is quite hostile in attitude toward Sen. Clinton. It starts: “My favorite weird and appalling moment of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s weird and appalling campaign …” Grunwald covered part of the campaign for The Post, and his name on the review describes him as a national reporter for TWP. Michael is a talented person, no doubt. But the credibility of the previous reporting, and the paper’s guidelines for reporters which don’t permit this kind of commentary in the paper, are put in question in a situation like this.

Getler subscribes to the old-school view that journalistic credibility rises whenever a writer suppresses what he thinks about the subject at hand and falls whenever he abandons the pure stenography of who, what, why, where, and when. The old-school fealty to journalistic “objectivity” helps explain why all too often Page One of the Washington Post reads as if somebody has unfurled a sheet of gauze over it, muffling the sights and sounds of the world. Reading the Post many mornings is enough to convince you that you’ve developed cataracts.

The perverse thing about Getler’s old-schoolism is that neither he nor anybody at the Post would have looked askance if Grunwald had attributed the “weird and appalling” observation in his book review to somebody else on the campaign trail, somebody less knowledgeable or perceptive than Grunwald. The paper’s ethical guardians wouldn’t have flinched, either, if Grunwald had sourced the observation to a “highly placed Clinton campaign official.” They wouldn’t have taken him to task if he had successfully prompted one of his campaign sources with a leading question such as, “So, Bob, have you found the Clinton campaign to be weird and appalling?” Old-schoolism also prevents Getler from investigating Grunwald’s weird and appalling claim, for which there is ample evidence in the review.

Having found Grunwald guilty of writing his mind for a journal of opinion, Judge Getler hands down this sentence: The review “put[s] in question” the credibility of Grunwald’s previous reporting. Now, which reporting might that be? Grunwald’s coverage of the Clinton campaign for the Post? If so, which stories? Or perhaps Grunwald’s prize-winning (the David R. Bower Prize and the Edward J. Meeman Award) series on the Army Corps of Engineers? Is Grunwald’s crime that he has an opinion, or that he expressed it? If it’s the latter, Getler has his police work cut out for him. I’ve yet to meet a Washington Post reporter or editor–with the notable exception of Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.–who didn’t decorate his sleeves with his opinions. If it’s the former, then Getler should advise Downie to fire the whole newsroom and bring in industrial robots. No real journalism can be done until a reporter forms a hunch or two–opinions about how the world works, if you will–and tests them against the evidence. What journalistic cops like Getler should be on the prowl for is not Posties who hold opinions, but Posties who don’t test those opinions.

If Getler still thinks that the publication of any commentary automatically nullifies a reporter’s credibility, I await similar chastisement of the Washington Post’s legendary double threat: twice-weekly pundit and political reporter David Broder.