March 16, 2012

Readers often write to me accusing Post columnists of getting their facts wrong. Most readers know that columnists are not reporters; opiners have a freer hand to pick and choose the evidence they like to make their points. They are, in fact, like lawyers who marshal certain facts to make an argument.

But readers say that journalistic ethics argue for columnists who don’t make up facts or so distort facts that their points become only distant cousins to the truth.

I agree, so I was glad to see that The Post’s humor columnist Alexandra Petri apologized to Rush Limbaugh after she made fun of the popular conservative commentator for supposedly taking on new, sexually oriented advertisers. Her comedic riff was that you could judge a man by the “companies” he keeps.

As it turns out, Limbaugh did not take advertising from AshleyMadison.com (“Life is short. Have an affair.”) and SeekingArrangement.com (“The Elite Sugar Daddy Dating Site”). Limbaugh said his show would refuse such advertisers, even though the two, as reported by Politico, said they would like to advertise with him.

Limbaugh, you’ll recall, was losing advertisers on his show in the wake of his calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” because she supported a federal rule that would require religious institutions — mainly schools, colleges and hospitals that usually have many employees who do not share the institution’s religion — to offer free contraceptive care. President Obama revised the rule to say that health insurers separately would offer the coverage.

Petri told me in an interview that she acted in haste, as do so many journalists today in the Web age, and she looked at the Politico stories and assumed that what they implied was true. It wasn’t.

“I always try to get my facts right,” Petri said. “Just because I’m trying to be funny, it doesn’t absolve me of the obligation to get the facts right.”

I agree. I think it is incumbent on every Post reporter and columnist not to use Limbaugh’s tactics.

In his condemnation of Petri, Limbaugh was rude, boorish, unkind and bombastic, nothing new there. And he also got his facts wrong. He called Petri’s column a “news story.” It wasn’t. He called her a “so-called reporter.” She isn’t; she is a columnist. And Limbaugh threw in a gender slur to make it clear how he really felt. “You’ve written something that’s patently false, it’s an out-and-out lie complete with your b-i-itchy opinion in it, and it is untrue,” according to a transcript on his Web site. Oh, did he tell you it was false, too?

Petri appropriately wrote an apology column a couple hours later, also retreating, a little, from saying that most of Limbaugh’s listeners are “jerks.” Now, she made her apology into a humor column as well. That is her right. I wouldn’t have done it that way — I think corrections and apologies should be sober and heartfelt. Some of Limbaugh’s fans felt Petri’s apology was half-hearted.

But Petri was also reacting to the vile tweets and e-mails she received from Limbaugh fans. Ugly stuff, I know — I got some of it, too.

And that’s the point of all of this. Journalists at The Post must be the un-Limbaugh. Because he blusters and insults is all the more reason for The Post not to follow suit. Because he broad-brushes people is all the more reason for Post journalists not to categorize and label.

Rush Limbaugh is many things — comic and entertainer, talk-show host and rabble-rouser, and a quasi-politician who never seeks office. But he is not a journalist.

He doesn’t cover city councils or planning boards, courthouses, cops or crime scenes. He doesn’t cover banks or businesses, nor a governor, a legislature, Congress or the White House. He doesn’t brave bullets or battlefields as a foreign correspondent. He doesn’t sift through reams of documents and testimony, or call dozens of sources, to try to find the truth. He has no written code of ethics.

Let us never be in a hurry to be like Rush.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.