One of the ironies of Hurricane Katrina is that while the storm and its watery aftermath swept away com- munications and information from hundreds of thousands of trapped, desperate people, the dimensions of this tragedy were communicated to the rest of the world with stunning speed, power and professionalism by the U.S. media -- by reporters and camera crews who got there, stayed there, recorded what was happening and, frequently, challenged official explanations.
I was impressed especially by the work of the television networks, whose correspondents and crews not only captured this terrible human drama visually but whose reporting and commentary often found the words for scenes that seemed indescribable.
The Post, and the other major newspapers that I look at daily, also have produced excellent and powerful journalism. The staff of the Times-Picayune continued to produce a vital online version of their newspaper throughout what was also a personal catastrophe for many of them, who are now homeless. The Wall Street Journal, early in the disaster, put a strong story and headline at the top of its Sept. 1 paper highlighting the flaws in preparation and execution by relief agencies.
The Post poured more than two dozen reporters and photographers into the region, producing scores of compelling stories and images, many of them gathered under hazardous conditions.
Alas, it is not compliments that flow toward an ombudsman. What I hear about are the stumbles, and, amid all the good stuff, The Post committed a bad one last Sunday in its lead, Page One story headlined "Many Evacuated, but Thousands Still Waiting," by Manuel Roig-Franzia and Spencer S. Hsu. The problem came in the continuation of the story on Page A24, when it was reported that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, "still had not declared a state of emergency," according to an anonymous "senior Bush official."
This one-liner, within an otherwise well-done story, turned out to be a classic error, encapsulating almost all of the hot-button issues that produce so much of the criticism aimed at the media these days by all kinds of people. Some of them seem genuinely dissatisfied with journalistic procedures -- especially the proliferation of anonymous sources in situations that don't seem to merit such protection -- and some are on all sides of the political divide who use such moments to bash the media for alleged bias.
As it turned out, the information was wrong. Blanco had declared a state of emergency on Aug. 26, before the hurricane made landfall. That was easily checkable, but it wasn't checked. The source of the statement was a single anonymous Bush administration official. The story did not explain why this official had been granted anonymity to take a potshot at the governor or whether reporters had pressed on this issue. And editors allowed it into the paper that way.
The Post moved quickly to correct this. The paper's Web site, washingtonpost.com, posted a correction that same day in red letters at the top of the news story, which was quite visible and effective. The newspaper ran a correction the following day, a two-sentence item that was not even the lead in the daily correction box on Page A2 and, oddly, did not mention that the source of the information was "a senior Bush official."
The incident produced hundreds of critical e-mails, many of them undoubtedly provoked by a critique by Media Matters for America, an online group dedicated to "documenting conservative misinformation throughout the media." In an e-mail to me and his subscribers, the site's president, David Brock, said the paper's reliance on an anonymous source in this case "defies reason" because it was an assertion of fact that was easily checkable, and allowing the paper to be used to deliver a political attack by an anonymous official "is unconscionable." Furthermore, he said that a source who lies to a reporter forfeits the right to anonymity, and that the situation deserved a follow-up story.
Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd, who oversees national coverage, said: "We were given incorrect information by a senior official in position to know and who is normally reliable. In the rush of the day, we failed to take the steps we should have to verify whether the information was correct. It obviously was not, and when we found out we moved quickly to correct it. We don't identify sources whose identity we've agreed not to reveal. And we have no way of determining whether the person was intentionally misleading us. In this case, we went to the person after the fact, and that person said the mistake was not purposeful. We tried to make clear in the story that the official was pushing blame toward local officials and perhaps had a political motive in doing so."
The Post clearly knows that it made a mistake in this case, and, as Spayd says, "It's impossible for us to read the person's mind to really know" if someone intentionally lied. The Post doesn't have a written policy on what to do if a source lies, and it treats such instances on a case-by-case basis. The reporters did get an explanation from the source about what he meant to say, but I'm not going to repeat it and provide another free, anonymous shot.
This was an important and instructive moment. The outlines of the criticism were valid and the response by Spayd was candid. Where I fault The Post, beyond the initial failure -- which came in the midst of a huge story with reporters and editors under lots of pressure -- is in the inadequacy of the correction. Given the focus on media accountability these days, I thought the paper, in its own interest as well as that of its readers, owed the public something more than a tiny, bare-bones item. A follow-up story probing the episode, or an editor's note or some more prominent, timely attention was warranted.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.