Thursday, October 15, 2009

Washington Post Media Critic Gives Opinion Writers a Truthiness License

From yesterday's Washington Post online chat featuring media critic Howard Kurtz:

Fairfax County, Va.: Hi Howard, This Sunday, I read the editorials in The Post and The New York Times about the surprise Peace Prize. I liked the NYT editorial (which was pro), but like most of us, including Obama, I could certainly have handled an editorial that was anti this choice.

When I read The Washington Post editorial, I felt so sad for what this paper has become. Their whole idea was that the prize should have gone to Neda, the woman who was murdered by the Iranian police. Nobel Peace Prizes can't be given posthumously. It's a basic, easy factcheck. There are other fact problems, too (the protests hadn't happened by the nomination date, Neda may not have been a protester).

So the idea that the committee made a careless or inappropriate choice is refuted by a slapdash editorial "choice" that nobody bothered to check? It just screamed out to me "we laid off almost all the copy editors." I feel so sad for The Post I grew up with. It's great to have an opinion. It's bad to look dumb.

Howard Kurtz: I take your point about no posthumous awards, though by that standard Martin Luther King couldn't have won after being assassinated (yes, I know he won the prize earlier). My reading of the piece was that Neda was being used more as a symbol (though the rule should have been mentioned). But it's an editorial. It is by definition opinion. Of course some readers are going to disagree.

Unpack Kurtz's reply and your jaw will drop. He acknowledges the reader's point but then and amplifies his newspaper's negligence.

This isn't a trivial point. As the Atlantic's James Fallows has noted in painful detail (here, here), the Post editorial page made a rookie error. The Nobel Peace Prize rules are clear: The only time it can be awarded after death is when the honoree had already been named "but who had died before he/she could receive the Prize on December 10."

As Jim Fallows noted, allowing posthumous awards could spark "a debate every year on whether Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi, or Gandhi was the most deserving choice."

Kurtz, coming to his colleagues' defense in a way that utterly dismisses the reader's serious chiding of a paper he or she has long cared about, says Neda was a symbol, but that the rule "should have been mentioned" in the editorial. Come on. Had the Post editorial writer or his/her editors known of the rule, they would never have run that piece in the first place without a different spin.

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