A Call That Should Have Been Made

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Good journalism, thankfully, does not have to have a seal of government approval in this country, but that doesn't mean Post reporting shouldn't include what officials say concerning actions by their agency. Talking to all sides is one of journalism's basic rules.

Marc Raimondi, chief spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security, called The Post's National desk several times after 11:30 p.m. a week ago Saturday to protest last Sunday's story on a March 6 raid of a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass.

Raimondi had read the story on washingtonpost.com and was angry that ICE had not been contacted; he felt the story was inaccurate and misleading. He asked that the story be held or official statements included. Raimondi said it was a "one-two punch," because there had been mistakes in a Saturday editorial and ICE had not been contacted by the editorial writer either.

The story was not held. It had already run in three editions, and the editor on duty could not immediately reach the story's author, Robin Shulman, an editorial aide in the New York bureau. Raimondi later talked to Shulman and called the ombudsman. He said ICE officials, concerned about misinformation about the raid in several news stories, had posted a document titled "Setting the Record Straight" several days before The Post's story and editorial appeared.

Shulman's story concentrated on the plight of single mother Marta Escoto, a Honduran with two small children who were born in the United States, one of whom was ill. She was arrested at the factory with her brother, two sisters and two older sons. Raimondi said that Escoto also had been apprehended by the Border Patrol in 2000. Shulman said Escoto did not tell her about that.

The raid on the Michael Bianco Inc. factory, which has $92 million in defense contracts, resulted in the arrest of 361 immigrants without legal papers, including about 80 with previous deportation orders, Raimondi said.

Shulman's story started with Escoto's arrest and raised questions about how officials deal with immigrants' children who are U.S. citizens by birth. It wasn't until near the end of the story that readers were told that Escoto was released for humanitarian reasons, though she will be monitored and must report for a court date with an immigration judge.

The raid caused an outcry from Massachusetts officials and members of Congress. Harry Spence, head of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), said that the provisions for workers' children were "totally inadequate" and that social service workers weren't allowed to question those arrested for 36 hours. Some had already been flown to Texas, and Spence sent DSS workers there. He said his department helped arrange Escoto's release.

Raimondi said that immigration officials had alerted state social service agencies and that immigration authorities interviewed detainees "multiple times" to be sure all children were safe; he said sole caregivers were released. Raimondi said they released 90 detainees for humanitarian reasons, including 35 detainees at the site of the raid and 25 within a day.

Corrections were run on both the story and the editorial. The story quoted Escoto (Shulman speaks Spanish) as saying she wasn't allowed to make a phone call for three days. A correction said Escoto did make a five-minute call the first day, according to immigration officials and her own later acknowledgment. The correction also noted that immigration officials should have been called for comment.

A correction was run on the editorial page about the number of detainees who were released and where they had been taken. Editorial writer Lee Hockstader, who talked to Raimondi afterward, said, "Obviously, I wish I'd gotten the number right, which changed in the days between the raid and when the editorial ran."

The main issue is that immigration officials should have been called. "In retrospect," Shulman said, "without question" the story should have had such comment. Her editor, Deputy National Editor Steve Holmes, said not calling officials was "a bad error on all our parts."

Holmes said Escoto's release wasn't mentioned until the end because the story was meant to hold readers in suspense. This reader would have appreciated knowing earlier. The story also should have mentioned that the owner of the factory and four others were charged with criminal violations of immigration laws. Company officials had no comment.

The Post has gotten complaints that its immigration coverage issues is biased toward immigrants, legal or not. This didn't help.


Comic strips are like old friends, so Post editors don't decide to get rid of them lightly. After notices to readers, three strips were dropped this week -- "Broom Hilda," "Mary Worth" and "Cathy" -- and several new ones were introduced. About a thousand readers called or e-mailed, the vast majority asking for the return of one or more, though some cheered their demise.

Exact figures aren't available, but early returns suggest "Mary Worth" was most popular, followed by "Cathy" and "Broom Hilda." Two panels, "The Flying McCoys" and "The Other Coast" didn't cause much anguish.

All will be available on washingtonpost.com, but that doesn't always cut it with longtime readers, one of whom said in a voice mail: "Older readers enjoy them [the comics] and don't have access to the Internet."

A Web site has already gone up to campaign for "Mary Worth." The Comics Curmudgeon, Josh Fruhlinger on wonkette.com, makes fun of and loves comics and is pushing for her return. "The weird old soap operas (including Mary Worth) are my favorite target."

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

© 2007 The Washington Post Company