Sunday, February 11, 2007
Brand conflict: Does a blog post reflect on print newspaper's reporting?
ORIGINAL HEADLINE: A Blog's Blast Damage
PUBLISHED/POSTED: Sunday, February 11, 2007; B06
By Deborah Howell
Washington Post Omdusman
The fact that The Post and washingtonpost.com are interlocking yet
separate is lost on most readers, who do not care that the two are miles
apart physically and under different management.
A great example is the recent firestorm over a column that never appeared
in The Post -- but for which The Post was blamed. William M. Arkin, who
writes an online national security column and blog called "Early Warning,"
was critical of soldiers who, in an NBC-TV report, voiced their
frustration with opposition to the war. The report, he wrote, "is just an
ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer
He also wrote: "These soldiers should be grateful that the American
public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and
the President's handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and
their respect. Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape
and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting
that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some
administration or command order.
"I'm all for everyone expressing their opinion, even those who wear the
uniform of the United States Army. But I also hope that military
commanders took the soldiers aside after the story and explained to them
why it wasn't for them to disapprove of the American people."
Complaints were swift and angry and came by the thousands. D.J. Aland of
Springfield wrote: "Mr. Arkin's hateful and hate-filled tantrum on the
Washington Post Web site, in which he calls American soldiers 'mercenary'
and ridicules their opinions, is beyond definition. His column stains your
publication -- not as much for his opinion as for the vile way he has
expressed it. The credibility of the Washington Post national security
reporting is irreparably damaged by his ranting."
Did one online column irreparably damage Post national security
journalism? No. But it does show that an online column rubs off on the
newspaper. Opinions on Arkin vary among Post reporters who write about the
military and national security. Some respect him; others think he harms
The Post's reputation.
Arkin is no rookie. A national security and human rights fellow at Harvard
University's Kennedy School of Government, he has written books, spoken at
the armed services' war colleges, and been a consultant to the Air Force
and human rights and environmental groups. He is a military analyst for
NBC-TV and has broken national stories.
"What makes me successful is that . . . I write a blog, and a blog is a
highly personal venture," he said. "If I try to do it without a voice and
without my sarcasm and without my digs and without my crazy lens, then no
one would read it."
Bloggers thrive on their opinions. Many newspaper journalists, often
attacked by bloggers, think they are the "real" journalists, working in a
parallel and better journalistic universe.
I'm sure journalists at washingtonpost.com see their work as the
journalism of the future, while we of the dead-tree format can be seen as
the past. Arkin said that "newspaper reporters would try to wipe me off
the bottom of their shoes . . . if they acknowledge [bloggers']
Arkin apologized. He said he was "dead wrong" to use the word "mercenary,"
that it "is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe
the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to
anyone in the military who took my words literally."
Readers usually take things literally. And an editor should have told him
to take out the word. That's what editors are for: They keep opinion
writers from making fools of themselves.
Arkin is unrepentant about two things: He works for The Post. Period. And
he said he is "probably one of the best-known and respected anti-military
An editor read his column before it was posted but didn't see the problem.
Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com's executive editor, said that had he seen
it, he would have asked for changes. Arkin said he would have made them.
What's the difference between opinion writing for the newspaper and for
washingtonpost.com? The writing can be similar, but the editing is more
intense at the newspaper. More experienced eyes see a story or a column
before it goes into the paper; The Post has several levels of rigorous
editing. There is "less of an editing process" for blogs at the more
immediacy-oriented Web site, Brady said.
Several Post reporters also blog on washingtonpost.com. One is Joel
Achenbach, who said blogging is like dealing with "live ammo. The blog
software is a very powerful weapon. You can publish something very quickly
under the name of The Washington Post. You need a steady hand and good
Software allows writers to post with a delay for editors to raise
questions. Brady said: "We do edit almost all blogs. Usually, it's
pre-publication. Sometimes -- like when live-blogging a hearing or a
Redskins game -- we'll edit live." Blogs are held to the same standards as
any Post journalism, he said.
Arkin's column did not meet Post standards, but then, newspaper editing
isn't perfect, either. But "mercenary" surely is live ammo; such an
incendiary word should have popped out in flames to Post editors.
And it is good editing that should prevail when a report carries The
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company
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