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Ombudsman

In the Eye of the Beholder

By Michael Getler
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B06

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes it is worth 600 words. That was the case when the Style section published, at the top of its front page Jan. 28, an Associated Press photo of a row of dignitaries, including Vice President Cheney, at ceremonies at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of that camp during the final months of World War II. Along with the photo went a critique of Cheney's outfit by The Post's fashion columnist, Robin Givhan.

Let me clear away a few things. First, the picture was unmistakably eye-catching, even without Givhan's commentary. The vice president's outfit stood out markedly from the others. Second, I don't deal with opinions lodged by columnists but am writing about this because of a journalistic issue. Third, The Post did a solid front-page news story, with photographs, from the scene capturing the solemnity of the memorial.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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Givhan, however, is a critic, and she wrote: "The ceremony at the Nazi death camp was outdoors, so those in attendance, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were wearing dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots. Because it was cold and snowing, they were also wearing gentlemen's hats. In short, they were dressed for the inclement weather as well as the sobriety and dignity of the event.

"The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower. Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults."

There was a lot more, and it brought dozens of angry complaints from readers. "Mean, petty, irrelevant and ignorant," one said. Givhan "had no idea what the actual situation was with a man with heart trouble," he added. Several readers, including some who said they are no fans of Cheney's and one or two who said they had relatives who died in the Holocaust, described it as a "cheap shot" and "inappropriate" and "diminishing the power and solemnity of the occasion." Several readers noted that Cheney has had multiple heart attacks, that perhaps he was under doctor's orders, or that perhaps the parka was needed to fit over a bulletproof vest. And, a few asked, why not at least call the vice president's office and ask whether there was some special reason he dressed the way he did? That's where I come in.

Here's what Givhan says to that question: "As a general rule, whenever I write a column based on the way in which a public person's attire is perceived, I don't call the person in question to inquire about their intent. My goal is to read the image -- whether it is a still photograph or video footage or an arm's length glimpse. When an individual dresses, I think they make their choices for a host of conscious and subconscious reasons. Their reasons are legitimate and to write about them is reasonable, but that's a different kind of story. That's a story about a person's style, about their aesthetic sensibility. It is a story that looks at how they perceive themselves. But ultimately, the message that matters most is not the one the wearer intended to send but the one that the viewer perceives. To be honest, I considered calling the vice president's office. But I decided to read the image the same way that I've read others. What does this attire say?"

My view is that the image was fair game for a fashion columnist and that Givhan's explanation provides a look at how critics bring their critical eye to all kinds of situations in ways that often look harsh to those who disagree or disapprove. I would, however, have voted for a call to the veep's office to see if there was some special reason for that outfit. When I tried, officials would talk only off the record. My best guess is simply that it was very cold.

On Feb. 1, a new free-of-charge newspaper made its debut in Washington, a six-day-a-week tabloid called the Examiner. The next day, The Post wrote a straightforward story about the new paper, reporting that, according to the Examiner, an estimated 260,000 copies were distributed through news racks, hawkers at Metro stations and carriers who delivered it to homes in targeted, upscale neighborhoods in the District, Maryland and Virginia. The Examiner's owner, Clarity Media Inc., is, in turn, owned by billionaire investor Philip F. Anschutz. The Post, amazingly, got the name of the new paper wrong in a photo caption, calling it the Express, the name of The Post's free tabloid.

The first edition featured, among other things, a front-page picture of Canadian singer Celine Dion, plus an inside interview with Dion and a review of a new CD of music from the film "Ray." Post reporter Annys Shin, in her story about the debut, noted that the interview was about Dion's new show, "A New Day," but that the Examiner story didn't mention that the show was produced by a division of another company owned by Anschutz and that the CD was produced by another company co-owned by Anschutz.

On the second day, I noticed a story and picture on Page 4 of the Examiner that I didn't see in The Post or the Washington Times. It was about the D.C. Council honoring the local professional soccer team, D.C. United, which is also owned by Anschutz, although the connection was mentioned in that story. Well, enough of that. The Post keeps me plenty busy.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


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