Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s Ombudsman, pretended to share the readers’ concerns about the paper’s declining standards of quality and accuracy in his latest column. The subject was a “credibility gap” created by the proliferation of small, sloppy errors in the Post’s published stories. The ongoing poor quality, Alexander wrote, is “like a cancer.” The mistakes “erode confidence” and can be “embarrassing.” They are “inexcusable.”
Then Alexander excuses them:
But a prime cause of increased mistakes is The Post’s necessary cost-cutting that has resulted in far fewer people being pressed to do much more. The ranks of The Post’s full-time copy editors have been reduced by roughly half since 2005. Many who remain are among the best in the business. But even with the help of part-timers, their dramatically expanded online duties have stretched them thin.
As any good copy editor would recognize, this is begging the question—not in the popular, incorrect sense of the phrase, but in the correct sense: the ombudsman is assuming the truth of the proposition he’s supposed to be trying to prove. Those particular cuts were not “necessary.” The Post decided that the copy desk was the safe place to make crippling budget cuts, because copy editors’ quality-control work goes on in the background.
Given the paper’s budget crisis, there wasn’t a good solution. Wherever it cut back, it was going to shortchange the readers. But it’s useless for the ombudsman to denounce shoddy standards in one breath while endorsing the decision to have sacrificed those standards. The Post had a choice between amputation and cancer. It picked cancer, and it hoped nobody would notice.