“People can come up with statistics to prove anything,” Homer Simpson once said. “Forty percent of all people know that.” Cue the ombudsman at The Washington Post.
To review whether the paper’s coverage of the Democratic and Republic national conventions had been fair, “We counted every story, column, editorial, graphic and photo in all editions of the paper,” Patrick Pexton wrote on Sept. 16. “And at this newspaper, which conservative readers tell me every day is ‘in the tank’ for Barack Obama, guess who won? The Democrats by a nose, but in only one category.”
The statistic is meaningless, of course, because it measures only the number of stories, not the content of the stories. If the paper runs a story headlined “Romney is an idiot,” and one headlined “Obama is a saint,” they’d each count as one in Pexton’s survey.
What matters is the overall tone of the coverage. That’s more difficult to quantify, of course, which may explain why Pexton prefers to simply count the number of stories instead of exploring what they actually said.
Here, for example, is the way the paper covered Mitt Romney’s July speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The presumptive GOP nominee has spoken little about foreign policy recently, but on Tuesday he did so sharply on an issue generally considered a strength of President Obama’s,” reporters Nia-Malika Henderson and Scott Wilson wrote.
Wait: who considers foreign policy “a strength” for this administration? The reporters toss that in as if it’s a fact, but recent events show it’s open to question. In fact, that “generally” doesn’t even extend across the Post’s newsroom. In a January column titled “Obama’s foreign initiatives have been failures,” the paper’s deputy editorial page editor cites the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, global nuclear arms control, and Obama’s “determination to ‘engage’ with U.S. adversaries such as Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela” as foreign policy failures.