Policy vs. Reality in Correcting Errors: Corrections also need to be published sooner. Usually, there's a backlog of corrections, as many as 20, waiting to get in. My own experience taught me that waiting to correct mistakes is, well, a mistake. I made an error in January. Because my column runs on the editorial page, I could not correct the error on Page A2. A correction ran the following Thursday on The Post's Web site and my next column acknowledged the mistake. I should have pushed for an A2 or editorial page correction the day after the original column...
An ordinary person, reading this, would believe that Deborah Howell waited a week to correct her "mistake" in January because of the Post's bureaucratic procedures--the bureaucracy wouldn't let her put the correction in on page 2 the following day, and the next opportunity she had to get something in the print paper was the following Sunday. But, an ordinary person would think, she worked hard, and even got a correction onto the http://www.washingtonpost.com/ website on Thursday. That's what the paragaph implies to an ordinary reader, no?
That's definitely not what happened. Howell did not wish or seek to get any form of correction onto page A2 on Monday.
Let's back up. Deborah Howell's mistake? It's about corrupt Republican fixer Jack Abramoff. Here's the relevant portion of her ombudsman column:
Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff: In the fall of 2003, a lobbyist called to tip [Susan] Schmidt that Abramoff was raking in millions of dollars from Indian tribes to lobby on gambling casinos. Schmidt started checking Federal Election Commission records for Abramoff's campaign contributions. Lobbyists also file forms with Congress that give information on clients and fees. Schmidt quickly found that Abramoff was getting 10 to 20 times as much from Indian tribes as they had paid other lobbyists. And he had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.
"It was enough to get me interested," Schmidt said. She also came across Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay who operated a public relations firm doing business with tribes. Schmidt called tribal leaders around the country, looking for Indians who had access to information and were suspicious of Abramoff. Her first big story, on Feb. 22, 2004, revealed that Abramoff and Scanlon had taken an eye-popping $45 million-plus in fees from the tribes.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began a congressional investigation, and the Justice Department started its own probe. Schmidt kept tabs on those, as she had done for six years as the lead reporter on investigations into the Clinton administration, including the Monica Lewinsky case...
Here we see two mistakes in her original column. The first--the one she focuses on--is the false statement that Jack Abramoff, Republican fixer, "had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties." Jack Abramoff's campaign contributions were all to Republicans. But this mistake is a minor one that stands in for a much bigger mistake, a much broader lie: a tapestry of mendacity to downplay Abramoff's Republican identity and corrupt Republican connections, which we can see above in the passage quoted and also see below in the close of her column:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: January 2006: Republicans... say The Post purposely hasn't nailed any Democrats [in the Abramoff scandal]. Several stories, including one on June 3 by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, a Post business reporter, have mentioned that a number of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), have gotten Abramoff campaign money. So far, Schmidt and Grimaldi say their reporting on the investigations hasn't put Democrats in the first tier of people being investigated. But stay tuned. This story is nowhere near over.
Here's the "correction" Howell offered four days later, the following Thursday:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: January 2006: I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties.... The Post has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with specific directions on what members of Congress were to receive specific amounts. One of those lists can be viewed in this online graphic...
As a correspondent pointed out then:
In the readable parts of the document to which she links, Abramoff appears to "direct" $220,000 of contributions to Republicans, and $4,000 of contributions to Democrats.
"'Directed' contributions to both parties" simply will not cut it.
Here's her "next column acknowledg[ing] the mistake":
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: January 2006: Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down.... I wrote that he gave campaign money to both parties and their members of Congress. He didn't. I should have said he directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.... I do know... I have a tough hide, and a few curse words (which I use frequently) are not going to hurt my feelings. But it is profoundly distressing if political discourse has sunk to a level where abusive name-calling and the crudest of sexual language are the norm, where facts have no place in an argument. This unbounded, unreasoning rage is not going to help this newspaper, this country or democracy.... To all of those who wanted me fired, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I have a contract. For the next two years, I will continue to speak my mind.
I do know one thing: no newspaper has any business employing an ombudsman who cannot accurately report her own actions of four months ago.