Washington Post Media Critic Gives Opinion Writers a Truthiness License

From yesterday’s Washington Post online chat featuring media critic Howard Kurtz:

Fairfax County, Va.: Hi Howard, This Sunday, I read the editorials in The Post and The New York Times about the surprise Peace Prize. I liked the NYT editorial (which was pro), but like most of us, including Obama, I could certainly have handled an editorial that was anti this choice.

When I read The Washington Post editorial, I felt so sad for what this paper has become. Their whole idea was that the prize should have gone to Neda, the woman who was murdered by the Iranian police. Nobel Peace Prizes can’t be given posthumously. It’s a basic, easy factcheck. There are other fact problems, too (the protests hadn’t happened by the nomination date, Neda may not have been a protester).

So the idea that the committee made a careless or inappropriate choice is refuted by a slapdash editorial “choice” that nobody bothered to check? It just screamed out to me “we laid off almost all the copy editors.” I feel so sad for The Post I grew up with. It’s great to have an opinion. It’s bad to look dumb.

Howard Kurtz: I take your point about no posthumous awards, though by that standard Martin Luther King couldn’t have won after being assassinated (yes, I know he won the prize earlier). My reading of the piece was that Neda was being used more as a symbol (though the rule should have been mentioned). But it’s an editorial. It is by definition opinion. Of course some readers are going to disagree.

Unpack Kurtz’s reply and your jaw will drop. He acknowledges the reader’s point but then and amplifies his newspaper’s negligence.

This isn’t a trivial point. As the Atlantic’s James Fallows has noted in painful detail (here, here), the Post editorial page made a rookie error. The Nobel Peace Prize rules are clear: The only time it can be awarded after death is when the honoree had already been named “but who had died before he/she could receive the Prize on December 10.”

As Jim Fallows noted, allowing posthumous awards could spark “a debate every year on whether Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi, or Gandhi was the most deserving choice.”

Kurtz, coming to his colleagues’ defense in a way that utterly dismisses the reader’s serious chiding of a paper he or she has long cared about, says Neda was a symbol, but that the rule “should have been mentioned” in the editorial. Come on. Had the Post editorial writer or his/her editors known of the rule, they would never have run that piece in the first place without a different spin.

The media critic runs totally off the rails when he says the editorial page gets a pass in any case. “It is by definition opinion,” he said, as if opinion journalists have less obligation to being factual than other journalists.

I infer from the still-uncorrected editorial (at least on the Post website) that the editorial page editors believe the same thing. In their world, and Kurtz’s, writing opinions means you have license to make it up as long as it has a certain truthiness.

Then again, this is the same media critic, after all, who had a glaring error in an online column last month that the paper didn’t budge on for several days despite having known about the mistake early on. When the paper did address it, the error was replaced with words that were only partially correct, and that half-truth remains intact almost a month later.

20 thoughts on “Washington Post Media Critic Gives Opinion Writers a Truthiness License”

  1. This is a common problem in journalism. I chide the editor of my local, small town newspaper over columnists and editorial writers using strawman facts (also known as falsehoods, rumors, etc.) on which to base an opinion column. My argument is that you have a right to your own opinion but not a right to your own facts. The editor tells me I don’t know the difference between news and opinion.

    WaPo is terrible about this and they always cover each other’s you-know-what when questioned about it.

    They should have just gone with William Kristol’s position that the prize should have gone to McCain for the surge. It makes about as much sense, and he’s actually eligible.

  2. As someone who writes a weekly column labeled as “opinion,” I devote a lot of effort to making sure I have my facts right. When I make a mistake, readers are very quick to point it out (yes, I read the comments). And they get corrected. At least in the online version, trivial errors such as misspellings simply get corrected in place, while anything substantive gets a correction or an update as appropriate. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

  3. Kurtz is a putz. He has massive conflict of interest issues working for both cnn and Kaplan industries (Wapo). He doesn’t actually call out media missteps. Jon Stewart does a much better job of pointing out when media isn’t doing its job. See the 10/12 show opening monologue for another great example.

    your website looks interesting but I get a 403 forbidden error when I try to access the home page or other diaries.

  4. I actually feel a little sorry for the corporate media…it must be hard work to try to keep the Kabuki (©Digby) going all these years. It’s not easy being this stoopid.

  5. “Opinions” based on things that are not true are not “opinions” one can disagree with or agree with – they are “worthless bullshit.”

    This is like saying “you can agree with me that invading Iraq was the right choice, or you can disagree with me, but I’m going to keep publishing editorials that say it was the right thing to do, since after all Saddam was behind 9/11.”

  6. “But it’s an editorial. It is by definition opinion. Of course some readers are going to disagree.”

    Following this logic, the Post may as well have someone assign a number to each editorial, throw the numbers into a hat and pick a few, then publish with no further vetting. My guess (not based on any apparent evidence) is that an editor at least glances at them before choosing. They need to either own up to it or get out of the business.

  7. Kurtz is correct. It was an editorial piece and expresses an opinion. Get over it, we are not going to agree on everything.

    1. It’s an opinion piece that shows the writer of said piece didn’t bother to factcheck the facts put forth in his/her argument. It’s worthless, IOW.

      This isn’t the kind of thing a publication like the Washington Post should put on its pages if it wishes to continue to be taken seriously.

    2. An opinion not at least based on facts isn’t opinion so much as delusion, in this case intentional delusion.

  8. Thank you for this column. I am so fed up with fake news and the news that can’t stop showing the greed and violence all societies have succumbed to that now I only surf a few blogs. More to the point: why should newspapers check facts when textbook publishers don’t, in every field, nor even bother to check spelling or proofread grammar? We are a culture with more information to be had than any before us that delights in mental laziness, the proud propagation of error down the generations, and now, the rewarding of outright lies. Thank goodness some intellectuals in some countries have the courage to honor decency and the hard work of the mind.

  9. It’s an error that’s just so stupid it’s fatal to the argument. It’s really hard to credibly criticize the nobel committee when your suggestion is to give the award to someone who, by definition, could not receive it.

    It’s like me being upset that Troy Smith got the 2006 Heisman trophy and suggesting it should have gone to Michael Jordan instead. I might be right about Troy Smith not deserving the award, but I really should not expect anyone who knows a lick about sports to take my opinion very seriously.

    And Howie should have made that point, instead of creating a new “facts don’t matter on the op-ed page” rule in order to pretend that the WaPo ed page didn’t actually make ninnies of themselves as they went after Obama.

    (not to mention, what’s with I take your point about no posthumous awards, though by that standard Martin Luther King couldn’t have won after being assassinated?

    Uh, that’s exactly right. If MLK hadn’t won the Nobel Prize before being assassinated, he could never have won it. What’s with the dismissive “though by that standard…” when, in fact, it’s EXACTLY under the “you can’t get it if you’re dead” standard that MLK actually won the prize?

    I mean, it’s like saying “I take your point about needing to hit the ball in every game, though by that standard Joe Dimaggio couldn’t have set the record for a 56 game hitting streak if he’d failed to hit in one of those games.”)

  10. “But it’s an editorial. It is by definition opinion.”

    Maybe I’m in the minority but when I was in high school my teachers insisted that opinions be reinforced by facts. “So, you think this poem is about X? Which lines make you think that?” or “You say X was a better president than people say–what events support your claim?” An opinion with no basis in reality is worthless. Might as well say “the Peace Prize should be given to Mickey Mouse, or my houseplant”. Hey, that’s an opinion, so why not print it?

  11. Nearly went to war over this issue with the editor of my college newspaper at a major institution known for journalism. He asserted that anything you publish in an editorial did not have to be factually accurate.

  12. Our society does seem to have decided that opinions don’t just not need factual basis, but are actually allowed to fly in the face of facts to the contrary. That is how our current politics works and it’s how our news works. Facts have been relegated to the status of things everyone can agree on, not because they are true, but because they are benign so that no one minds whether they are true. Actual facts, and actual evidence are not a part of most public discourse. I wonder if they ever were or ever will be.

  13. Not surprised in the slightest that “no-brain,” corporate lap-dog, GOP water-carrier, Kurtz wrote this piece of drivel, nor that the WaPo is the choice of media. Katherine Graham must spin like a top in her grave, poor woman, to know that such junk get passed off as the “whatever” of the day. I was also taught that Editorial “Opinions” or the OpEd pages should be backed by FACTS, and not be just the viscious rumor du jour.

    Like someone else here commented, Kurtz might as well have said that the Nobel Comm. should have awarded the prize to their neighbor’s dog. The stupidity of this junk is galling but is meant as a sop to teabaggers to make them feel, uh, I dunno, like their blighted “opinions” make sense, too.

    The whole argument that BHO should just toss the &*^% award back in the Nobel Comm. faces because “how dare they give me this award” reflects jealousy, unfounded rage and pandering to bottom-feeding stupidity.

    If we weren’t at war in two nations (brought about by lying republicans putting US citizens and other nations into harms way in order to make a buck), I wouldn’t care so much. But such deliberate strawman “arguments” are a slap in the face to anyone who gives a darn about our nation and the rest of the world.

    I’ll get off the soapbox now, but it’s tiresome to be fed b.s in the name of justifying different b.s. It all stinks to high heaven.

  14. When Jack Kelly published an error-ridden column about Katrina (in the blame-the-victim vein) in the Toledo Blade, I wrote to the paper’s omsbudsman with a sourced rebuttal. Eventually Kelly had to put in a watered-down correction.

    Some papers still get it, but you have to push for the recognition.

  15. The questioner’s points are spot-on – what a completely stupid editorial – suggesting that the prize should have been given to an ineligible person that noone had ever heard of until 5 months after the nomination deadline, as the figurehead of a movement that didn’t form until 4 months after the deadline. And Kurtz’s reply (especially the nonsensical non-example of King) was bad.

    A small word in his defense, however: this was an online chat. He had to respond on the fly to an issue that he hadn’t had time to really think about. He’s not on the WaPo editorial board, and so had no hand in the piece. His authority on the matter derives from his position as a news media critic. While it would have been refreshing to see him type “Yeah, my buddies on the Editorial Board really laid an egg on that one,” that’s not a realistic expectation. Unless he takes the questioner’s assertions at face value, his position is difficult. He didn’t find the graceful exit to an unenviable position, but the original sin is the stupid editorial.

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