washingtonpost.com
The Firestorm Over My Column

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 22, 2006

Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down.

That column praised The Post for breaking the story on lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings, for which he has pleaded guilty to several felony counts. The column clearly pointed out that Abramoff is a Republican and dealt mainly with Republicans, most prominently former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

I wrote that he gave campaign money to both parties and their members of Congress. He didn't. I should have said he directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

My mistake set off a firestorm. I heard that I was lying, that Democrats never got a penny of Abramoff-tainted money, that I was trying to say it was a bipartisan scandal, as some Republicans claim. I didn't say that. It's not a bipartisan scandal; it's a Republican scandal, and that's why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms.

But there is no doubt about the campaign contributions that were directed to lawmakers of both parties. Records from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff's Indian clients contributed money to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats between 1999 and 2004. The Post also has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with his personal directions on which members were to receive what amounts.

Michael Crowley of the New Republic said in his blog that "while for all practical purposes this is indisputably a Republican scandal, the narrow liberal-blogger definition of whether any Democrats took money 'from Abramoff' -- which neatly excludes contributions he directed his clients to make -- amounts to foolish semantics.''

These facts have been reported many times in The Post and elsewhere. So why would it cause me to be called a "right-wing whore" and much worse?

Witness three printable examples:

"Yes, the WAPO needs an enema, and Howell should be the first thing that gets medicinally removed."

"You Deborah Howell, stop lying about Democrats getting money from Abramoff. Democrats do not control anything in Washington, so why would he waste money bribing them. Think and do your research, and stop being an idiot."

"This rag must be something that I pulled off a barscreen at a sewage treatment plant. Howell is simply a paid liar. How this creature endures itself is something I don't understand. What a piece of flotsam."

There is no more fervent believer in the First Amendment than I am, and I will fight for those e-mailers' right to call me a liar and Republican shill with salt for brains. But I am none of those.

My career has been a public one in journalism. You can find my biography and much of what I stand for on the Internet. You can ask anyone who worked with me in Minnesota and at Newhouse News Service what kind of journalist I am. I have spent my life working for rational reporting and passionate and reasonable opinion.

So is it the relative anonymity of the Internet that emboldens e-mailers to conduct a public stoning? Is this the increasing political polarization of our country? I don't know.

What I do know is that I have a tough hide, and a few curse words (which I use frequently) are not going to hurt my feelings.

But it is profoundly distressing if political discourse has sunk to a level where abusive name-calling and the crudest of sexual language are the norm, where facts have no place in an argument. This unbounded, unreasoning rage is not going to help this newspaper, this country or democracy.

I didn't ask washingtonpost.com to shut down an area reserved for comments about me, as it did on Thursday night. And I know the decision is being greeted with great disdain.

Jim Brady, editor of the Web site, said that when the site was set up, "there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we've decided not to allow comments for the time being. It's a shame that it's come to this."

But I'm not totally pessimistic. I am grateful for an e-mail I got from San Antonio. Mark Kelch's first e-mail said: "I'm sure you are making your conservative handlers happy but journalistically it makes you look like a fool. In the end it shows you have a lack of integrity. Does that mean nothing to you?"

I wrote him back. Kelch answered: "I took some time and read an interview (online) with you, among other things. When I finished, I shuddered a little bit because it made me think I may be exhibiting an attribute that in others I despise. My e-mail to you was a cheap shot at your integrity and for that I am sorry. I sincerely hope part two of your article knocks them dead."

Going forward, here's my plan. I'll watch every word. I'll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can. The vast majority of my work takes place outside this column. But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for.

To all of those who wanted me fired, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I have a contract. For the next two years, I will continue to speak my mind.

Keep smiling. I will.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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