Correction: An earlier version of this piece contained two errors: 1) The Presidential Records Act of 1978 was signed by President Jimmy Carter, not by Ronald Reagan; 2) Post senior editor Marc Fisher wrote and reported the first installment in The Post’s Muslims in America series, but he is not the series project leader. Post editor Lynda Robinson is the project leader.

June 17, 2011

If you read the mail to the ombudsman last week, you would think The Post organized a vigilante mob to burn Sarah Palin at the stake. That interpretation is complete balderdash.

But the way The Post handled the former Alaska governor’s e-mails was a departure from past practice.

Let’s get some facts down. First, requesting the correspondence of public officeholders is one of the oldest tools in a journalist’s toolbox. Reporters at The Post do this all the time, for stories big and small, from agencies federal, state and local, and from Democrats and Republicans.

The Post was not going through the former governor’s diaper bag, her trash or her private life. These were the official e-mail records from Palin’s time in office. They were sought in 2008, originally by voters in her state, and later by Mother Jones magazine, The Post and other news organizations.

These records were requested when this obscure governor was suddenly put into the national spotlight by Republican Sen. John McCain, who wanted her to be his vice presidential running mate. Few people knew much about her back then, but Alaska has a decent open-records law, and reporters and residents took advantage of it.

If the records seem a bit tardy, it’s because the Alaska state government took three years to gather, review and redact the e-mails. None of this is unusual. On the federal level, plenty of Freedom of Information Act requests take months and years to be fulfilled.

Nor was this a biased, one-sided effort to dig up dirt on Republicans and not Democrats. The Post does not request the e-mails of members of Congress — not Nancy Pelosi, not Harry Reid, not Anthony Weiner, not Michele Bachmann, not even those of former senator Barack Obama — because Congress is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Nor can the media get President Obama’s e-mails. The FOIA kicks in on records from the Office of the President only five years after a president leaves office, and most presidential communications are off limits until 12 years later. This is regulated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978, signed into law by Jimmy Carter. The National Archives has a documentary history of the Presidential Records Act for doubters.

What is genuinely new about The Post’s conduct with the Palin e-mails is its attempt at “crowd-sourcing” — finding readers who have expertise on a subject that a reporter might not.

It’s done through a “call-out”: a request in print, online or through social media for readers of The Post to come forward if they have special knowledge that they can contribute to a story. Crowd-sourcing didn’t work so well on the Palin e-mails (more on that in a minute), but The Post is using this kind of outreach frequently now.

The Post used crowd-sourcing in late February and early March during the threat of a government shutdown. When the Obama administration clamped down on all information about preparations for a shutdown, a series of Post call-outs elicited “hundreds” of responses from federal workers, according to reporter Lisa Rein. She and other reporters used those readers as sources, many of the workers bravely going on the record to complain about the lack of information and planning.

Just in the past few days, The Post has issued several call-outs. KidsPost is looking for children born on Sept. 11, 2001, for a story on 9/11 babies. Recent census statistics indicating that the Washington area’s neighborhoods are becoming more ethnically integrated prompted a call-out Tuesday asking for slice-of-life stories from these increasingly diverse neighborhoods. For The Post’s yearlong series on American Muslims, which started last Sunday, a call-out has already yielded more tips and leads, says senior editor Marc Fisher.

The Post’s interactivity editor, Hal Straus, and his staff are helping reporters use crowd-sourcing in many stories. “It’s an efficient way to gather information,” Straus said. “It’s using a mass technology to do work that ordinarily folks do phone call by phone call.”

He is careful to note that it is only a supplement. Reporters still have to check out the stories and the bona fides of these sources.

Straus also acknowledged that the Palin call-out didn’t work so well. It wasn’t a lack of reader interest — after its call-out June 10, The Post was bombarded with requests to help go through the 24,000 pages of Palin e-mails. The downfall was that few of the responders had specific knowledge of Alaska, which is a far-away state with a small population and an even smaller pool of people familiar with Palin.

“Did we get a lot of new facts or tips? No,” Straus said. “There has to be an audience that has knowledge of the topic.” The Post’s political and investigative reporters, who also pored over the Palin e-mails, probably know more than most readers about the former governor.

I think requesting the correspondence of public officials is a crucial tool for journalists. Sure, go ahead and get Obama’s e-mails from when he was an Illinois state senator. Why not? And I think crowd-sourcing is here to stay as a regular part of the future of this publication and others.

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