A Blog's Blast Damage

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 11, 2007

The fact that The Post and washingtonpost.com are interlocking yet separate is lost on most readers, who do not care that the two are miles apart physically and under different management.

A great example is the recent firestorm over a column that never appeared in The Post -- but for which The Post was blamed. William M. Arkin, who writes an online national security column and blog called "Early Warning," was critical of soldiers who, in an NBC-TV report, voiced their frustration with opposition to the war. The report, he wrote, "is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer -- force."

He also wrote: "These soldiers should be grateful that the American public, which by all polls overwhelmingly disapproves of the Iraq war and the President's handling of it, do still offer their support to them, and their respect. Through every Abu Ghraib and Haditha, through every rape and murder, the American public has indulged those in uniform, accepting that the incidents were the product of bad apples or even of some administration or command order.

"I'm all for everyone expressing their opinion, even those who wear the uniform of the United States Army. But I also hope that military commanders took the soldiers aside after the story and explained to them why it wasn't for them to disapprove of the American people."

Complaints were swift and angry and came by the thousands. D.J. Aland of Springfield wrote: "Mr. Arkin's hateful and hate-filled tantrum on the Washington Post Web site, in which he calls American soldiers 'mercenary' and ridicules their opinions, is beyond definition. His column stains your publication -- not as much for his opinion as for the vile way he has expressed it. The credibility of the Washington Post national security reporting is irreparably damaged by his ranting."

Did one online column irreparably damage Post national security journalism? No. But it does show that an online column rubs off on the newspaper. Opinions on Arkin vary among Post reporters who write about the military and national security. Some respect him; others think he harms The Post's reputation.

Arkin is no rookie. A national security and human rights fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, he has written books, spoken at the armed services' war colleges, and been a consultant to the Air Force and human rights and environmental groups. He is a military analyst for NBC-TV and has broken national stories.

"What makes me successful is that . . . I write a blog, and a blog is a highly personal venture," he said. "If I try to do it without a voice and without my sarcasm and without my digs and without my crazy lens, then no one would read it."

Bloggers thrive on their opinions. Many newspaper journalists, often attacked by bloggers, think they are the "real" journalists, working in a parallel and better journalistic universe.

I'm sure journalists at washingtonpost.com see their work as the journalism of the future, while we of the dead-tree format can be seen as the past. Arkin said that "newspaper reporters would try to wipe me off the bottom of their shoes . . . if they acknowledge [bloggers'] existence."

Arkin apologized. He said he was "dead wrong" to use the word "mercenary," that it "is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally."

Readers usually take things literally. And an editor should have told him to take out the word. That's what editors are for: They keep opinion writers from making fools of themselves.

Arkin is unrepentant about two things: He works for The Post. Period. And he said he is "probably one of the best-known and respected anti-military military bloggers."

An editor read his column before it was posted but didn't see the problem. Jim Brady, washingtonpost.com's executive editor, said that had he seen it, he would have asked for changes. Arkin said he would have made them.

What's the difference between opinion writing for the newspaper and for washingtonpost.com? The writing can be similar, but the editing is more intense at the newspaper. More experienced eyes see a story or a column before it goes into the paper; The Post has several levels of rigorous editing. There is "less of an editing process" for blogs at the more immediacy-oriented Web site, Brady said.

Several Post reporters also blog on washingtonpost.com. One is Joel Achenbach, who said blogging is like dealing with "live ammo. The blog software is a very powerful weapon. You can publish something very quickly under the name of The Washington Post. You need a steady hand and good judgment."

Software allows writers to post with a delay for editors to raise questions. Brady said: "We do edit almost all blogs. Usually, it's pre-publication. Sometimes -- like when live-blogging a hearing or a Redskins game -- we'll edit live." Blogs are held to the same standards as any Post journalism, he said.

Arkin's column did not meet Post standards, but then, newspaper editing isn't perfect, either. But "mercenary" surely is live ammo; such an incendiary word should have popped out in flames to Post editors.

And it is good editing that should prevail when a report carries The Post's banner.

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

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