The Limits of E-Mails En Masse

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Since I came to The Post a month ago, the ombudsman in-box has been jammed with e-mail campaigns. This is not unusual; e-mail campaigns have become a staple of special-interest groups seeking to influence Post reporting and commentary.

It's a free country and anyone can e-mail me anything they want. But I must warn that heavy amounts of e-mail do not equal impact. As a discipline, and because I'm new, I decided to open every single one of these campaign e-mails to see how many were local, how many were just dashed off and how many were thought-provoking. I answered many -- primarily those readers writing from our circulation area and e-mails that I felt were thoughtful. Most of the thousands of comments were from e-mails directed by one lobby group or another.

First, there was a swarm to me and to Post Polling Editor Richard Morin asking that The Post do a poll on whether President Bush should be impeached. Whoa. Since we get mail all the time saying that we are biased against Bush or are in his back pocket, why would The Post want to do that? The question many demanded that The Post ask is biased and would produce a misleading result, Morin said; he added that the campaign was started by Democrats.com.

A ton of e-mail was prompted by a photo of the grieving mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber with a story about a bombing that killed several people in Israel. I thought the picture was inappropriate and said so in my second column, on Oct. 23. This did not stop the mail, which led me to believe that it didn't matter that I had dealt with it; people were e-mailing on the basis of a lobby's request.

Most of the letters I have received refer to the story on Nov. 2 by Dana Priest, a Post national security reporter who revealed that the CIA has covert prisons for al Qaeda suspects in Eastern Europe. The story also revealed that The Post wasn't naming the countries because disclosure "might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."

Senior government officials asked Executive Editor Len Downie not to name the countries. Downie met and talked with Priest and editors for several days before making the decision, which drew much criticism. Downie has had to make a number of these calls as editor. "All such decisions are hard because you're balancing expressed national security concerns and the need for citizens to know what the government is doing in their name," he said.

Priest has received many e-mails saying that she should not have written about classified matters at all. Some labeled it treasonous. Priest said that she doesn't mind getting reader feedback. "It might cause me to rethink what I'm reporting. I consider it all input." What she doesn't like is when the e-mailer has not bothered to read the story and assigns motives to her reporting.

Most of the e-mails I got were prompted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal-leaning media watchdog organization that criticized The Post for agreeing to withhold the names. The organization put my name and e-mail address on its Web site and the flood began.

A Barton Gellman story on Oct. 30 about the Valerie Plame leak case prompted a lot of mail asking why The Post, between editions, dropped a reference to Vice President Cheney, whose chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, resigned after being indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The reference that was dropped said that Cheney instructed an aide to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on Wilson's credibility by Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary.

I looked into this and found that the motive had to do with more reporting. National Editor Mike Abramowitz said: "Bart's piece gathered and synthesized a lot of information on deadline, with contributions from many Post reporters. Adding, cutting and moving that information around is a normal part of the editing process. This time it was more visible than usual because it happened late and between editions. We decided . . . that it warranted more time and space than we had available that night. Readers should stay tuned."

The campaigns irritate many at The Post and lead some editors and reporters to skip some of their e-mail. That's a shame, because we need feedback.

David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, gets a lot of e-mail about Middle East coverage and looks at it all. "The most effective . . . feedback we get is from readers who offer their own views. We also appreciate input from readers about what we've actually published. Many campaigns fail on both counts -- the letters are mass produced and fail to account for our coverage, past and present. If a reader feels strongly about something, an original letter has far more value than a rubber-stamped one."

I pay attention to well-thought-out e-mails from local readers -- and from readers of washingtonpost.com. I will go to bat for a reader with a legitimate beef and I will let reporters and editors here know what they're saying. But I can see how e-mail campaigns dilute the influence of those who write. As for me, I must say that e-mail campaigns give me a pain in my right index finger -- the one that hits the delete button.

Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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