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Books, Bias, Labels -- and @!#$%*#

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 6, 2006

My mailbag overfloweth:

Longtime Post subscriber Hill Vaden of Arlington asks: "I regularly commend your newspaper for its high standards in journalism, but was surprised . . . with the above-the-fold, front-page advertisement for Thomas E. Ricks's new book, 'Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,' and had a few questions: Did Ricks pay The Post for the premier placement? Does The Post receive any cut from profits?

"Would The Post sell such advertising space to any new book, or must the writer be employed by The Post? Iraq is newsworthy, and, yes, the articles are interesting and well-written; I seriously doubt, however, The Washington Post would give just anybody that kind of (free?) advertising."

Those were not ads in The Post on July 23 and 24; they were book excerpts. Ricks is The Post's senior military correspondent. The book grew out of his reporting for the paper, which included several trips to Iraq. Post editors decide on a book-by-book basis what is newsworthy and where an excerpt might appear. The Post receives no cut. On occasion, the paper publishes excerpts from books or articles by non-Post authors, most often in Outlook or the Magazine.

Ricks's book was worthy of Page 1 because it contained revelations about Iraq, especially behind-the-scenes accounts of the run-up to the war, the invasion, the spread of the insurgency, and how military and civilian leaders viewed their mission. Its thesis is that while many brave soldiers are fighting in Iraq, most of their leaders did not have a viable plan to help Iraq start a democracy and did not understand the nature of the insurgency.

Ricks said he received only one negative e-mail about the excerpts from anyone in the military in Iraq. The book debuted at No. 1 on The Washington Post and New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists.

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Sherm Platt of Arlington writes: "I continue to be disappointed that you do not devote some lines in your Sunday column to my complaint about the Post practice of not including a small photo of the writers of its columns as do . . . the Washington Times and other major newspapers. . . . The reader needs to know the race . . . in order to properly assess the objectivity and lack of bias of its contents."

Mr. Platt, if you want to see photos of columnists, you'll have to go to washingtonpost.com, which has them all. The race or ethnicity of columnists doesn't tell you what they're going to write. Columnists aren't supposed to be unbiased; they're paid to have opinions and to state them clearly.

The Post does not run columnists' photos because neither Executive Editor Len Downie, who is charge of the news pages, nor Fred Hiatt, editor of the editorial pages, cares for them. You'll see them occasionally, such as the introduction of Bob Thomson as the new Dr. Gridlock, or to tell you where to find Tony Kornheiser's occasional columns.

Downie said: "Generally, I feel it uses space that could be devoted to content, including photos of more value to readers than the same face of the same columnist every day. That makes for unattractive pages dotted with head shots."

Hiatt said: "It would take up precious space, and I've never seen a reason for it. It seems to me that what matters is the cogency of the commentary, not the appearance of the commentator."

Metro columnist Courtland Milloy doesn't care for photos; nor does Business columnist Steven Pearlstein. Metro columnist Marc Fisher comments: "They diminish my ability to be a neutral, unseen observer at news events, but as a reader and as part of a community institution, I think they are important. They personalize a faceless institution and make a connection with readers, and that is more essential than ever right now."

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June O'Connell of Arlington comments: "I would urge you to do a column on who decides and under what circumstance the 'Analysis' header is employed in The Washington Post so readers, such as myself, won't be misled into reading something only to discern that it is little more than a press release."

That decision is made by editors, often after a lot of discussion. Here's what "Best Practices," a Post policy guide, says: "A news analysis is a story that makes judgments or draws conclusions that readers might disagree with. When we are telling readers what to think about an event or telling them what we think about it or giving them guidance on how to think about it, we are committing news analysis." Let me know, Ms. O'Connell, if you see one that doesn't fit that category.

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Tori Daugherty of Fort Wayne, Ind., a 15-year-old high school sophomore, wrote: "Last year our journalism teacher showed us the movie 'All the President's Men.' This teacher states that journalists all speak with lots of profanities as shown in the movie. I would appreciate some insight into this scenario from your point of view. I have wondered if it was a guys-only thing or perhaps a decade in time when people spoke with more abandon and less courtesy. I hope that this is not some sort of a prerequisite for joining the journalism field."

Yes, Tori, many journalists curse. They curse when their computers break down, when people lie to them, when they make mistakes and when they're on deadline. But usually, they're nice to people and sometimes, but not always, to their editors. Please don't think that cursing is a prerequisite to be a journalist. A promising young journalist who does not curse would be a welcome addition to any newsroom.

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

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