Catching Up With the Complaints

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Does the ombudsman sometimes procrastinate on complaints? Sure. Here are a couple of examples:

Several Rush Limbaugh fans complained about an Oct. 20 Style story by Neely Tucker about a dust-up between conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that ended in a Reid letter being auctioned on eBay for $4.2 million. Conservative and liberal bloggers dined out on it for weeks.

It all started over what Limbaugh meant by referring to "phony soldiers" on his radio show. The complainers thought Tucker misinterpreted Limbaugh's reference. Tucker's story was the first The Post ran about the controversy. Tucker did not want to comment on the complaints.

Limbaugh used the phrase "phony soldiers" during a Sept. 26 show in a conversation about soldiers and the war in Iraq. A caller said, "And what's really funny is they [the news media] never talk to real soldiers. They pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and spout to the media."

Limbaugh replied: "The phony soldiers." Then the caller said: "If you talk to any real soldier and they're proud to serve, they want to be over in Iraq, they understand their sacrifice and they're willing to sacrifice for the country." Limbaugh replied: "They joined to be in Iraq."

That led Reid, in remarks on the floor of the Senate, to accuse Limbaugh of "calling our men and women in uniform who oppose the war in Iraq 'phony soldiers.' " Reid initiated, and other Democratic senators signed, a fiery letter to Mark Mays, the chief executive of Limbaugh's radio network, Clear Channel, lambasting Limbaugh and calling on him to apologize.

Limbaugh, saying he had been smeared, auctioned the letter on eBay; the money will go to veterans' causes. Limbaugh fans said there was a missing element in the Post's story. Limbaugh had talked earlier on a "morning update" -- not available on Limbaugh's Web site without paying -- about Jesse MacBeth, a Tacoma man who had appeared at antiwar rallies and falsely claimed to be a decorated Army Ranger and Iraq veteran. MacBeth, who had washed out of Army basic training, was outed by conservative bloggers.

Limbaugh said he was referring to Macbeth and others who have falsely claimed Iraq experience when he said "phony soldiers." He also came back to the subject of MacBeth shortly after the "phony soldiers" comment on the same show. But Reid did not buy that explanation.

Gene Cantor of Bethesda said, "To report it as a fact that Limbaugh ridiculed soldiers who oppose the Iraq war is beyond despicable. What, do you think we're idiots out here?" John Yost of Arlington wrote: "I think the story should have fairly explained the story rather than reporting one side as the truth."

I procrastinated on this one because I saw it as a tempest in a $4.2 million teapot, and bombastic radio and TV talk show hosts aren't my cup of tea. When I called Limbaugh's public relations staff, I felt rudely treated. Two recent calls and two e-mails were not answered.

All that aside, The Post should have noted Limbaugh's explanation in the story. It had been out there for several days and needed to be acknowledged.

I've also been procrastinating in answering complaints that a story about Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co., separating from his wife, Mary, was buried in the Business section on Saturday, Nov. 10.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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