Colbert King, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and former deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, recently expressed concerns about the Post‘s Fred Hiatt-led editorial page in a parting memo. The Post must “avoid resorting to sophomoric language when addressing serious matters…to preserve its unique standing in journalism,” said King, who left the newspaper in late 2006.
King is right to speak of the Post‘s unique standing in journalism. As one of the nation’s two establishment papers, the Washington Post and its editorial page serves, for better or worse, as an important player in American politics, with a unique responsibility to the public. As William Greider wrote in
when lamenting the Post‘s jingoistic tone prior to the Iraq invasion: “Whether the newspaper gets things right or wrong, its version of reality will inevitably color everyone’s political calculations.”
In the run-up to the Iraq War, the Post editorial page was wrong on just about everything and failed to ask the right questions. It called Secretary of State Colin Powell’s soon-to-be-discredited speech in front of the UN “irrefutable” and supported the Bush Administration’s unilateralist policies to bring down Saddam Hussein, who the editors were convinced possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Surely, the Post was not alone in failing the public in 2002 and 2003. The New York Times was widely criticized for its prewar coverage, and even issued an apology for it in 2004.
The Post editorial page, however, seems to have learned little from its past misadventures. As America struggles to deal with a reckless President with dangerous views on executive power, the newspaper’s editorials have taken oversimplified, often partisan positions on the most pressing issues of the day. The newspaper is failing to seriously inquire about the most important matters facing our democracy–issues that go well beyond the left-right paradigm.
Consider some Post editorials from the past year.
• The Post editorial page has consistently opposed efforts by Democrats to bring US troops home from Iraq and in doing so has made many baseless claims. An editorial on March 13, for example, addressed the House supplemental bill: “The only constituency House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ignored in her plan…are the people of the country that US troops are fighting to stabilize.” But the editorial willfully ignored that 71 percent of Iraqis want US troops to withdraw within a year, and 78 percent feel that the US presence is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing,” according to a 2006 World Public Opinion poll.
• When Pelosi traveled to Syria in April, the Post characterized it as Pelosi’s attempt to “establish a shadow presidency” that was “counterproductive” and “foolish.” But while the editorial challenged the actions of the speaker, it did not even address the consequences of the President’s refusals to speak with the nation’s perceived enemies. Nor did the editorial mention that the Iraq Study Group recommended engaging in diplomatic relations with Syria and Iran. Rather than ponder these complexities, the Post resorted to a knee-jerk retort, and in doing so failed to recognize that Congress is an equal branch in the government.
• In the face of the scandal surrounding Alberto Gonzales and the eight fired prosecutors, the Post editorial board was more eager to deflect critical inquiry than engage in it. In late March the editors wrote: “Mr. Gonzales finds himself in this mess because he and others in his shop appear to have tried to cover up something that, as far as we yet know, didn’t need covering.” In an April 23 editorial they would only criticize the Attorney General for being “scarcely aware of the major personnel moves his department was about to make in the president’s name.” At no point did they address the lack of historical precedent for replacing federal attorneys in the middle of a term without serious cause, or approach the possibility that the firings were politically motivated. Compare that with the March 11 New York Times editorial, which in reaction to the scandal called Gonzales a “failed attorney General” and “consigliere to Mr. Bush’s imperial presidency.”
• While the Post editorial page acknowledged that the conviction of I. Lewis Libby on perjury charges was “grounded in strong evidence and what appeared to be careful deliberation by a jury,” it also cast the affair as a “pointless Washington scandal” and refused to connect the dots regarding the war, saying that the conviction “tell[s] us nothing about the war in Iraq.” The “sophomoric language” that King warned against was employed as well when the editors said of Joe Wilson: “the former ambassador will be remembered as a blowhard.”
• In its 2006 endorsement of Joe Lieberman over the “neophyte primary opponent” Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Senate primary, the Post alleged that if the Democratic Party “hopes to accomplish anything” it would “need people such as Mr. Lieberman who bring some civility to an increasingly uncivil capital.” Yet the Post failed to mention that Lieberman is himself quite divisive and vindictive. In 2005 he (now infamously) attacked opponents of the war, saying, “We undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” He once also baselessly accused Lamont of being “surrounded by people who are either naive or are isolationists or, frankly, some more explicitly against Israel.” So it is fitting that Lieberman’s latest attack on Iraq War critics was given a platform on the Post‘s op-ed page.
Other media outlets have failed in their roles as government watchdogs. However, given the Post‘s role as “the house organ for America’s political class,” as journalist Michael Massing called it, the lack of probing questions coming from its editorial page is especially distressing.