Ask The Post

Michael Abramowitz
National Editor
Wednesday, April 27, 2005; 12:00 PM

This Week: Michael Abramowitz, the number two National Editor of The Post was online to field your questions about coverage of national news, national security issues, and politics.

A transcript follows.

Michael Abramowitz: Hello everybody! Its good to be here. I see we already have a lot of questions, so let's get started.

Washington, D.C.: You chose a very badly worded poll question to highlight as a front page headline yesterday. Why in the world would you do this? Everyone makes mistakes in designing polls, but it should be your job as editor to ensure that polls are interpreted correctly. Giving so much play to an obviously misleading poll result suggests that you are more interested in creating catchy

Michael Abramowitz: I am getting a number of questions about our poll yesterday, which indicated substantial opposition to GOP efforts to end filibusters of judicial nominees in the Senate. Let me make a general point about our polling operation, which is run by Rich Morin, one of the best in the business. He is scrupulously fair, and he goes over these questions in depth with other editors and reporters.I thought the questions in this case were fine. We always get a lot of questions about our sampling. A few public polls regularly adjust their data to meet some fixed party ID targets, but most don't. Our pollsters believe the main problem with doing so: we just don't know what the "right" distribution is, as there is no official national count of Republicans and Democrats.Also I would like to quote Rich directly on the question of biased questions, which has come up a bit on blogs in the last day or two. Here is what he said:"The debate over judicial selection currently raging is political and it is deeply partisan. It is a fact that Republicans are trying to change the filibuster rule to make it easier to get a vote on the contested Bush nominees--that is the context of the current standoff. To omit that information about the partisan cast of the debate would bias the result by completely removing the issue from its context. Also, I believe the question does not plant biases that would unfairly favor Democrats or disadvantage Bush or the Republicans. Yes, the question does state the obvious by reminding Democrats about the partisan nature of the debate and what the immediately effect of making a change would be. But the language also would be expected, appropriately so, to cue Bush supporters, Republicans and religious conservatives in a positive way. The fact that the question attempts to sort out Democrats and Republicans, Bush supporters and Bush opponents, in a way consistent with their interests is an advantage, not a disadvantage."

Bethesda, Md.: I'm struck (as someone used to reading UK papers and currently posted by his employer in the U.S.) by the large number of corrections your paper carries every day. Today there are three. It is not unusual to see more. They sometimes run to double figures. Is there a problem with checking facts before printing the paper? Am I to believe the reports are accurate, or wait a few days for the correction to appear?

Michael Abramowitz: I think running corrections is a sign of health. We run an awful lot of articles every day, with headlines, cutlines and other supplementary material. Mistakes will happen, though we work hard to avoid them and minimize them.In fact, the paper taken steps in the last few months to encourage readers to call in or write in with corrections they see.

Washington, D.C.: Why hasn't The Post given more coverage to the Oil-For-Food Scandal, especially now that 2 of the investigators resigned citing problems with the overall report?

Michael Abramowitz: We're actually given a fair amount of coverage to this subject. Our U.N. correspondent Colum Lynch has written numerous articles and just had a good piece in Sunday's paper about the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and how he has handled this issue.

Denver, Colo.: In your newspaper's initial coverage of the Pope's death, an article with a byline of "... Smith" appeared. Subsequently, there were no articles attributed to this same person in The Washington Post's follow-up coverage.The article was thorough, well-researched and informative. It provided more information about the Pope's writings and philosophy than many articles appearing both in The Post and in other media. My question: Who is Smith? Is this a pseudonym? What is this person's background, identity?

Michael Abramowitz: You're an observant reader. J.Y Smith is our former chief obituary writer, who retired a few years ago. As we do with many prominent figures, the obituary of the Pope has been complete for some time, subject to updates. Since J.Y. was the principal author of the article, he had the byline.

Atlanta, Ga.: Why wasn't the CIA's final report issued yesterday saying that Iraq had no WMD's given bigger play? The notion that Iraq had them was President Bush's reason for invading that country. Why is this story basically a non-story now? It's your job as one of the most respected papers to inform people on this. It's frustrating, considering The Post's extraordinary resources, that this could not have been investigated further. This long-forgotten reason for going to war still matters to some readers and it should matter to you as an editor.

Michael Abramowitz: We actually put that story on bottom of the front page, which means we thought it was one of the five or six most interesting or important stories of the day. Everything is relative, and there were some other strong stories on the front as well. I think one factor in the editors' thinking about playing this story is that the basic results of this survey had been published a while back, so the story emphasized the new bits of information, such as the failure to find evidence of WMDs going to Syria before the invasion.

Monterey, Calif.: I do not mean this to be a flip question: How do you (the National Editors of The Post) stay sane in this time of unprecedented spin and willful ideological distortion of events? (Not to mention smear attacks by so called self anointed guardians of "the Truth" on the newspaper.)Have you at all established new procedures or meetings just designed to clear the air and/or keep you focused on what reporting the news objectively means?If you would, please provide both a "managerial" and a personal perspective.Thank you!

Michael Abramowitz: I think this is a very good question. We do live in a time of intense partisanship; what I find interesting is that many times people of good will on both sides of an issue can't even agree on a common set of facts. We pay a lot of attention to trying to go beyond the spin; for instance, in the presidential campaign, we did a lot of independent reporting on the Bush administration's record on issues like gas and oil, missile defense and other "non-sexy' subjects. We did the same for Kerry's record in the Senate

Fairfax, Va.: It seems as though media coverage of the Bush administration's policies ignores the fact that they will continue to contribute to the massive national debt. Why do you think this is? And why aren't more Republicans concerned about the rising debt? This used to be a signature issue for them.

Michael Abramowitz: I don't think the media has ignored this issue, though I admit that it's hard sometimes to get people to focus on an issue that may have its biggest impact 20 or 30 years in the future. I also think there are some Republicans in Congress who worry about this, like Sen. Voinovich of Ohio. But others basically believe there are other priorities and that we have had deficits in the past, like during the 80s, and it hasn't really impacted the economy in any great way.

Washington, D.C. (Post Alum) : Mike, former colleagues tell me that Don's editorial proclivities are sufficiently Republican that reporters are afraid to write stories critical of the administration. I heard that from several people. I believe it to be true. And I am convinced that it is a profound shame.

Michael Abramowitz: I have been on the National Desk for seven years, and I have seen no evidence of this.

Washington, D.C.: Howie Kurtz, on his chat yesterday, fielded some questions from anxious readers wanting to know "why do you insist on referring to the filibuster-buster proposal as 'the nuclear option?' It's more properly 'the constitutional option.'" What's your view? (How about calling it "the Nuke option"?)

Michael Abramowitz: Well, this is a good question. Labels are often dangerous. What I believe we normally say is that senators refer to the filibuster-busting option as the "nuclear option." I know some supporters of the administration refer to it as the "constitutional option," and their views have been well represented in our pages.

Houston, Mo.: I am looking to obtain proper authorized permission to reprint the article "Why I Choose To Serve. The Challenge for Arab-Americans in the U.S. Military" It was written by Lyric Wallwork Winik. It was published in the 17 April 05 Parade. Where can I obtain permission?

Michael Abramowitz: You probably need to check the Parade website.

Corrections: Isn't it about time to adopt the "equal or greater placement" standard for these? It seems more than a bit disingenuous to "be proud" of corrections, when they in fact get buried in a tiny space inside under the fold...even for front page above the fold headlines. Not much of a practical correction...the damage has been done and no one is going to see the "correction".Corrections should be placed equally or more prominently than the original story, with full context to the correction given.

Michael Abramowitz: The feeling at the newspaper has always been that page two of the front section is pretty prominent play for corrections. Plus, readers always know where to look for them.

Oxon Hill, Md.: I would like to bring to light the harassment that the Postal Service puts its employees through.

Michael Abramowitz: You should contact Chris Lee or Steve Barr, who cover the federal civil service for us.

Hennepin, Ill.: Hey Michael: Now that the Republicans are reversing themselves on the ethic's rule that was designed to protect DeLay,do you think that now they're trying to drop him like a hot potato?

Michael Abramowitz: I think this is an open question. The president had DeLay on his plane yesterday, so there certainly does not seem to be distancing from the White House. I also think that many Republicans in Congress remain very loyal to DeLay, both because of his help in getting them elected and his effectiveness as a leader. (Like getting the Medicare bill passed by one vote.) So far, I haven't seen substantial eroding, though that could certainly change if the Ethics Committee finds violations.

Baltimore, Md.: The day after Pope Benedict was elected, The Post gave it 4-1/2 pages, including all the A section above the fold. Car bombings in Iraq got about 3 grafs in the World in Brief section. Does this make sense? What is the infatuation with the papacy?Michael Abramowitz: I think it's a mistake to look at these kinds of comparisons in isolation. On any given day, you can find something that should have been given better play or had more coverage. The story about the new Pope was a huge deal. I think in general there are few stories in which we have given more resources to than the war in Iraq. Just today we ran two pages of pictures of soldiers who have died in Iraq.

Washington, D.C.: There has been much media coverage about declining hard-copy subscriptions for newspapers due to a variety of factors. At some point in the future, will the free content currently available on become a paid subscription?

Michael Abramowitz: This is a question above my pay grade, though I have not heard of any plans to do this in the near term.Time is now up. I wanted to thank everybody for their questions. I got dozens of question, many more than I could answer in an hour. I tried to address some of the subjects that came up in multiple questions, and I hope people find them responsive. This was very enjoyable. Have a good afternoon.

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