When I log on to my Post computer, it's like opening a porthole on a ship in a stormy sea. I'm drowning in your comments -- but I'm getting a good idea of what I'll be dealing with in the next few months.
In my third week on the job, I have found that readers are passionate about The Post -- and, no surprise, they often contradict each other. Here is a sampling of the humongous amount of e-mails and telephone calls I have received and what I did with just a few of them. And then let me give you a few tips on how best to use the good offices of the ombudsman.
In no particular order of importance:
One reader, in law enforcement, objected to my use of the word "cops" in explaining what beats I covered as a reporter. He believes it is "flippant" and "disrespectful" and wants me to use police officer, state trooper or the specific title. Good point. I'll do that.
The Post is either giving too much coverage to Maryland gubernatorial candidate Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive. Or it's giving too little. Duncan got a lot of ink because of his announcement this week. But one reader still thought we underplayed his endorsements. Election coverage is cyclical, and announcements are a point in journalistic time when a candidate tends to get more display.
One reader wrote after seeing national security reporter Walter Pincus on C-SPAN: "There aren't enough positive adjectives to describe the incredible job he did . . . explaining the CIA investigation. He is a credit to the news business." Another reader asked why he is covering the CIA leak case if he testified before the grand jury investigating it. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said that Pincus is not allowed to cover that part of the investigation involving reporters (including Judith Miller of the New York Times) and their grand jury testimony.
But I got lots of mail -- mostly negative -- about a profile in Tuesday's Post, by Pincus and Dana Milbank, of Joseph C. Wilson IV, whose wife, Valerie Plame, was the CIA operative at the center of a grand jury investigation into who leaked her name to the media. Much of the mail was obviously from readers who dislike President Bush and his administration. I thought the story was a good one. The story did generate one correction, on Thursday, saying: "An Oct. 25 article incorrectly said President Bush asserted during his January 2003 State of the Union message that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger. The president said that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa."
A number of readers were upset that The Post put the passage of Iraq's constitution on Page A13 Wednesday and not on the front page, which had the news of U.S. military deaths in Iraq passing the 2,000 mark. None remarked that a "key" on A1 plugged the constitution story. They felt, as did other readers, including a Marine colonel in Iraq, that The Post passes up chances to write of reconstruction and a budding democracy in favor of suicide bombings and insurgent attacks. I passed these remarks on to editors and will write about this in a future column.
I got a number of phone calls and letters from readers distressed over The Post's use Thursday of a small picture of the grieving mother of the suicide bomber who killed at least five people and himself in Hadera, Israel. They were incensed that the Post would highlight her grief and not the sorrow of those who lost loved ones in the bombing. The paper's Middle East coverage often draws criticism, most of which I don't agree with, but in this case I side with the readers. And so does Downie.
A suburban reader pointed out that a Metro in Brief item Monday about a boat fire in Maryland had the fire beginning in the "gallery." Oops, that should have been galley. And that it's KPMG LLP (not LLC, as cited in a story Monday about BearingPoint Inc.'s accounting problems). Good catches.
I talked to a reader in Montgomery County at some length about his feeling that The Post has paid too much attention to the issue of what opponents call "McMansions," He feared that the builders would stop replacing "distressed" homes if they couldn't make a decent profit on larger homes. I passed this on to the Maryland editor.
One reader decried the use of labels in an Oct. 11 story about San Diego's city administration -- "union bosses" and "city fathers." There are a lot of city mothers, too.
An Illinois reader (I get lots of comments from washingtonpost.com's audience) questioned a statement in an Oct. 15 Page 1 story on "Punkin Chunkin" -- that Ray Tolson of Culpeper held the world record of 4,434.28 feet. The reader said the Guinness Book of World Records cites 4,491 feet by a Morton, Ill., chunker as the record. A thorough investigation by Virginia Editor Mike Semel shows The Post and the Illinois reader are both correct. The official Punkin Chunkin organization recognizes only records set within its system and rules. The Illinois chunk was longer, but it was not "official." It takes all kinds.
Some of these may not seem all that significant to some readers, but they were significant to the readers who contacted me.
Let me give you a couple of tips on how best to use your ombudsman. First, be specific. Don't just tell me that The Post is mistaken or biased. Tell me how and where and when. Second, be civil. I didn't bother to open the e-mail that bore this subject line: "Gutless, slime-sucking bottom feeders." On that note, I must say thank you to Charnya Fisher, a Bethesda reader, who called me during my first week to say that she knew I was going to be bombarded by negative comments and she wanted to say something nice. She loves The Post's coverage of the baby panda.
Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.