December 21, 2012

I understand that Post readers are angry at sports columnist Sally Jenkins’s long-standing defense of cyclist Lance Armstrong. I get that.

If you read the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigative report on Armstrong, it is persuasive. Armstrong looks like a cheat, a liar and a ringleader for doping. He elected not to dispute the August report, and as a result he was stripped of his record-breaking seven Tour de France titles.

But as to whether Jenkins violated Post ethics rules or some unstated journalistic principles, I’m less convinced.

Let’s look at Jenkins’s career at The Post. She has been primarily a sports columnist, writing the occasional feature story on everything from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to Joe Paterno and the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

Jenkins returned here in 2000, following an earlier stint on the Sports staff, from 1984 to 1990, and a decade of freelance writing, which included a best-selling 1999 book co-authored with Armstrong about his battle with cancer and his first Tour de France victory. Before that, she had never covered cycling or Armstrong as a Post reporter; nor has she since she returned.

Freelancers or the Associated Press cover the annual Tours for The Post, and stories specifically about doping and Lance Armstrong have been written by sports reporters Liz Clarke and Amy Shipley.

Jenkins has, however, written occasional columns about cycling and Armstrong. In the past 12 years, she has written 13 such columns, most of them in July every year, when the Tour de France takes place.

In every one, she either explained in the text or added in a note at the end that she wrote books with Armstrong, that she profited from them, that they are close friends and that, when it comes to Armstrong, she isn’t objective. As she wrote in a July 2003 column, “So you can’t say anything bad about him to me, I won’t hear it.”

Journalists should always disclose a possible conflict to their readers. Jenkins did every time.

Except for two columns this year about the Anti-Doping Agency’s report, her other 11 columns about cycling or Armstrong were about not drugs but the unique challenges of the grueling, three-week Tour de France, in which cyclists power 3,000 miles through difficult conditions, overcoming pain, unyielding fatigue and disappointment. Jenkins said that Post editors encouraged her to write every one because her potential insight into Armstrong and cycling outweighed any possible conflict.

In other columns about doping, separate from Armstrong, whether about drugs in baseball or in the Olympics, she has been consistent. She thinks that doping investigations are unfairly prosecutorial, that performance-enhancing drugs aren’t as cut and dried an issue as is typically portrayed, and that the punishments are less about the athletes and more about politics.

Now, some readers say that she shouldn’t write about Armstrong or cycling at all, even in her columns, because it promotes her two Armstrong books (they combined on a second one in 2003). I disagree.

When Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Post and written books about them, writes a front-page article about those countries today, does that promote his books? Perhaps indirectly, but he also has a depth of knowledge about those subjects that other reporters don’t, just as Jenkins has about cycling. And that makes for better, more insightful stories that serve readers.

Can you say that Jenkins was naive about Armstrong, loyal to a fault and part of the sometimes-worshipful industry that grew around his success? Perhaps. But here is her response to my question:

“I don’t think I’m naive about doping, quite the opposite. I simply don’t feel about it the way some people want me to, and I think that’s the source of their rage. I don’t see doping as a black and white issue; I see it as an extremely complicated moral, judicial, and philosophical one. And I arrived at those conclusions quite independent of Lance.

“I don’t condone what Lance did — I simply forgive it.”

Armstrong was not a “source” in the traditional sense of reporter and source. He was a sports star who hired Jenkins to do his memoir. They were collaborators and became friends. She explained that repeatedly to readers when she wrote about him in her columns on cycling and on sports writ large.

I may disagree with Jenkins on the damage Armstrong has done, but she has violated none of The Post’s ethics guidelines.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.