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Stupidest Howell Alive

No, not Thurston Howell III, but Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Washington Post. Mark Thoma sends me the link to this in email:

A Matter of Mutual Misunderstanding: By Deborah Howell: Journalists love a good story, and in the hell-for-leather process of getting it they can forget what readers need to know or how the story or photo and its display or headline may irritate. Readers can be so wrapped up in a cause, a party or a candidate that they forget there are other viewpoints to consider. And there can be bias and self-righteousness on both sides.

But then along comes a financial crisis, and where besides major newspapers and their Web sites can readers get authoritative coverage of what is engulfing us? Readers wrote to me with suggestions for making the reporting more understandable; The Post moved quickly with a glossary of financial terms and sought feedback online in the new Economy Watch, a daily package of crisis coverage. That's the way it ought to be...

Ummm... Moved "quickly." The financial crisis has been ongoing for fourteen months. "Economy Watch" launched last Thursday. This is another Princess Bride moment--you remember: "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Look at how the Post describes the launch of "Economy Watch":

washingtonpost.com Launches Economy Watch: washingtonpost.com, an award-winning news and information Web site, today launches Economy Watch, a page that brings together the top news and resources to help readers better understand the impact of the unfolding financial crisison the U.S.and global economies. Economy Watch also gives readers the inside scoop on government decision-making and answers personal finance questions from readers. http://washingtonpost.com/economywatch

"Readers rely on The Post for insight into how decisions made on Capitol Hill shape our economy's future and impact their lives," said Jim Brady, Executive Editor of washingtonpost.com. "Economy Watch cuts through the clutter and provides one smart resource for thelatestnews, market informationand in-depth analysisof whatled to the crisis."

The top features include:

  • The Ticker: Frank Ahrens and other Post staff.... Economic analysts, The Post's financial team and other experts.... Experts include: Alex Blumberg of "Planet Money," Motley Fool's Tim Hanson, and the Post's Steven Pearlstein and Sebastian Mallaby.... Economy Watch will also feature the Post's in-depth look at the financial crisis, including this week's report, "What Went Wrong," which gets to the heart of the issues that have brought the world's markets to the brink of collapse. The story takes a deep look at government regulation and how Washington failed to catch up to Wall Street...

Frank Ahrens is described by the Post as "the Washington Post's business reporter for the media and entertainment industry." Not an "authoritative" voice on finance and central banking.

Neil Irwin's most recent story simply does not tell it the way it happened. Henry Paulson did not "change rescue tactics," he was forced by circumstances, facts on the ground, and pressure from Democrats and Europeans to adopt a very different (and, we hope, more effective) policy (that he regards as dangerous) than he had originally wanted to pursue. Irwin's lead:

Paulson's Change in Rescue Tactics: Even as President Bush signed the $700 billion rescue plan for the financial system two Fridays ago, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. was beginning to realize that the way he had planned to spend the money might not fix the meltdown in global markets. Treasury officials were probing deeper into the books of the nation's banks and concluding that there were so many troubled assets that simply using government cash to buy them up -- the strategy Paulson had pitched -- wouldn't be enough to jump-start the markets. The troubled bank Wachovia alone had $312 billion in such assets...

If you read further on in the story you can learn that Irwin knows full well what he is doing when you run into awkward sentences like: "That [alternative] strategy, which many independent economists had preferred, was also authorized under the new law." Note the passive voice. Note the absence of names.

Irwin is doing a standard Washington Post trick: Paulson and his people have been good sources for him, so he is going to write the story the way Treasury Public Affairs wants the story written. There are many words that might describe this kind of coverage. But "authoritative" is not one of them.

Of the other names the Post boasts of--Alex Blumberg Tim Hanson, Sebastian Mallaby, and Steven Pearlstein--Steven Pearlstein works very hard and has a very subtle and capable mind: he belongs in an "authoritative" look at the financial crisis. The others? I have no reason to think that they do. (And in my email box this morning is a joke about how Howell was supposed to write that Mallaby and the Post's Robert Samuelson provide "authoritarian" coverage but got confused...)

Deborah Howell closes with sonne words of head-banging stupidity:

[R]eaders [should] appreciate the work that journalists do, and journalists [should] think of readers first.... How best can we communicate the facts and make all opinions known? How can we be sure that this story is free of bias and taint? How can display and timing enhance or harm the credibility of the story? Can we be less defensive about criticism? If I'm a reader, can I approach this story with an open mind about what I might learn and not think The Post is in anyone's back pocket? If there's a mistake, can I believe it's human error and not a conspiracy? If I know facts that aren't in the story, can I send them to a reporter or editor?...

Deborah Howell, look: when an episode like the financial crisis hits, nobody even half-informed with even half a brain looks to the Post for "authoritative" coverage. To the Financial Times, the Economist, and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal; to Calculated Risk, Marginal Revolution, Econbrowser, Economists View, Naked Capitalism, and The Big Picture; to John Berry, Paul Krugman, and Larry Summers. But not to the Post. Not for "authoritative" coverage. The presumption has to be that the Post's reporters are--like Neil Irwin last Wednesday--warping the story to please their sources, or simply out of their depth. The Washington Post crashed and burned long ago.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

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