Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton cried foul in Sunday’s paper over something the Post republished: a Bloomberg hatchet job on the Tea Party-backing Koch brothers on a day it looked like it had a Sunday Anti-Business section.
Pexton said the Kochs are certainly newsworthy in the size of the global business concerns, "But I think The Post erred in republishing this story, or at least in the way it did. And when the Kochs complained to The Post after publication, The Post’s response wasn’t handled well." The Post didn’t feel it was necessary to call the Kochs and then stiff-armed them when they asked for the Post to publish a one-paragraph rebuttal:
The Post could have included a sidebar summarizing and linking to the rebuttals that ran between Oct. 3 and 9. It could have called Koch directly - it didn't - and put its comments in the sidebar.
After publication, the Kochs requested that The Post put online a one-paragraph statement from its general counsel, along with a link to KochFacts.com. I thought the statement was too strong; I might have negotiated over the wording of that statement, but the request does not seem unreasonable after a 3,000-word critical story is published. The Post did not publish the statement.
The Post editors told Pexton they wanted to be "provocative." (That's fine, but it's often code language for "wanting to throw the kitchen sink.") Does that have to include refusing to publish any rebuttal? Pexton described the shape of the controversy:
Now, I couldn’t find any outright falsehoods in the story that would warrant corrections. Bloomberg, too, has published no corrections. But I think the story lacked context, was tendentious and was unfair in not reporting some of the exculpatory and contextual information Koch provided to Bloomberg.
In the days immediately after Bloomberg published its story but before The Post republished it, Koch swung its PR machine into action and put up a point-by-point rebuttal on KochFacts.com. The Powerline blog, written by lawyers who defend conservative causes and who have ties to the Kochs, did a deep-dive legal rebuttal of the story. Jennifer Rubin, The Post’s conservative opinion blogger, did a post that quoted Koch General Counsel Mark Holden extensively.
So did The Atlantic’s opinion blogger on business and politics, Daniel Indiviglio, who noted the major fines and settlements that General Electric has paid in recent years. ProPublica, the nonpartisan investigative journalism outfit, also weighed in, evaluating the Bloomberg story with more context.
Indeed, Lois Beckett of ProPublica made the point (in the comments section) that "Putting Koch’s entire legal and environmental record in the context of what other, less politically contentious companies have done would be an important service to readers."
And that’s what The Post should have done.
While it’s not unfair to point out Powerline’s donors, it’s important that if Pexton is going to provide that context for conservative bloggers, he should do the same for potential conflicts for ProPublica, and in a different context, causes backed by the Washington Post Company or the company-related Philip L. Graham Fund.