WaPo Ombudsman Insists Conservative Palin E-mail Complaints Were 'Complete Balderdash'

June 19th, 2011 6:48 PM

One might expect the reader’s advocate at a major newspaper to have some respect for the readers. Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton thinks anyone who complains about “crowdsourcing” Sarah Palin’s e-mails is ridiculous. With copy as spiky as his white hair, he began his Sunday column with a swipe:

If you read the mail to the ombudsman last week, you would think The Post organized a vigilante mob to burn Sarah Palin at the stake. That interpretation is complete balderdash.

...The Post was not going through the former governor’s diaper bag, her trash or her private life. These were the official e-mail records from Palin’s time in office. They were sought in 2008, originally by voters in her state, and later by Mother Jones magazine, The Post and other news organizations.

It somehow did not occur to Pexton that being in a news scrum with a radical magazine like Mother Jones might make you look like a tie-dyed leftist.

Pexton might have started by responding to the Saturday letter to the editor Brent Baker cited that strongly made the conservative point: it wasn’t just the method of soliciting uncredentialed volunteers, it was the target. Proclaiming they were in too much of a hurry to get at Sarah Palin’s record at an opportune moment – at the same time that she's flirting with a run for president – displays political judgment. That appearance of bias is certainly anything but balderdash. It’s an image problem for the Post – unless they’re comfortable looking like liberal hacks.

Pexton’s written response wasn't satisfying to people complaining of bias. It's understood that congressional e-mails are protected from the Freedom of Information Act. It's also not helpful to explain that they’ve used this method to ask federal employees about a government shutdown, or to find babies born on 9/11, or to study American Muslims. That just elides rather than addresses the controversy. Pexton turns to “interactivity editor” Hal Straus to defend the method, and then to claim this Palin hunt didn’t turn out any way:

Straus also acknowledged that the Palin call-out didn’t work so well. It wasn’t a lack of reader interest — after its call-out  June 10, The Post was bombarded with requests to help go through the 24,000 pages of Palin e-mails. The downfall was that few of the responders had specific knowledge of Alaska, which is a far-away state with a small population and an even smaller pool of people familiar with Palin.

“Did we get a lot of new facts or tips? No,” Straus said. “There has to be an audience that has knowledge of the topic.” The Post’s political and investigative reporters, who also pored over the Palin e-mails, probably know more than most readers about the former governor.

I think requesting the correspondence of public officials is a crucial tool for journalists. Sure, go ahead and get Obama’s e-mails from when he was an Illinois state senator. Why not? And I think crowd-sourcing is here to stay as a regular part of the future of this publication and others.

This whole piece reads like snippy corporate self-defense, not an attempt to assess independently the complaints of readers. An ombudsman who cared about bias wouldn't breezily write "Sure, go get Obama's e-mails." He would ask the Post if anyone inside the building if they ever thought of digging them up, let along the thought of going through them with hundreds of volunteers. Pexton is not off to a good start in his new job.

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