former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Spotlight’s forgotten reporter

In Blog on February 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm

The two institutions that have most shaped my life – journalism and the Catholic Church – collide in the stunning film, Spotlight. It is the story of the investigative reporting team whose reporters uncovered the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests in the archdiocese of Boston. The film is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture.

The Globe’s exposé was published in early 2002. But nine months before, in March 2001, the Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly, published its story, “Cardinal sin,” which explored in depth allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law was complicit in the abuse cover-up. Kristen Lombardi wrote that first story, and continued her reporting, writing eight stories in all. The Globe’s reporting did not acknowledge her work.

Lombardi lacked the resources of The Globe and was largely working alone, although guided by her editors. But Lombardi, then a young and relatively green reporter, did her best. Her role was consigned to only a throw-away line in the film, when a reporter from The Globe describes the Phoenix as a weak and under-resourced rival that “nobody reads.”

Others have noted The Globe’s dismissal of Lombardi’s contribution. In 2012, media critic Jim Romenesko posted a letter from Susan Ryan-Vollmar on his popular website. Ryan-Vollmar, Lombardi’s editor at the Phoenix, chided The Globe for not acknowledging Lombardi’s ground-breaking work. Ryan-Vollmar praised The Globe’s “phenomenal” coverage, but wondered why the paper seemed determined to take “100 percent of the credit,” unwilling to concede even ten percent to the stories the Phoenix published.

Boston Magazine revisited the credit controversy last fall, when Spotlight premiered.

Despite not getting the credit she deserved, Lombardi went on to become an accomplished investigative reporter. She earned a Nieman journalism fellowship for study at Harvard University and several national journalism awards. She’s now a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.

I interviewed Lombardi for my forthcoming book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope. Like so many of the reporters in the film, Lombardi was born and raised Catholic. She went to Mass with her family, made her First Communion and was confirmed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Social Media Led the Way, Now Mainstream News Must Keep the Spotlight on Ferguson

In Blog on August 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

Guest post by my daughter, Valerie Wexler

Hands up. Don’t shoot. We all know that powerful refrain now. A community echoing what were possibly Michael Brown’s last words before being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

We know the chant now, but yet again it took the mainstream media a while to understand the full implications of a story that social media was on top of for days.

On August 9th and 10th I watched as news of yet another shooting of an unarmed black kid played out on Twitter. I posted this powerful piece by Roxane Gay, but even as I did I knew many people were still not paying attention. To those in the media or constantly on Twitter it seems like the world has become oversaturated with news, but many people outside that bubble still depend on mainstream media.

It was the arrests of the Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly on August 13th that finally propelled Ferguson into the spotlight. However even then the mainstream media was behind. Information from Ferguson came almost entirely in the form of tweets. During the night of the arrests, it appeared that the only news crews broadcasting from the area were a local station and one livestream (Al Jazeera America attempted to continue coverage but reporters were teargassed). In fact it’s quite likely that Lowery and Reilly would have stayed in jail overnight if their colleagues and followers hadn’t immediately noticed that they had stopped tweeting.

Though it appears to have been covered briefly, cable news did not stay with the story that night even as events continued to worsen, and many of those of us watching on social media seemed to be wondering the same thing, is anyone else seeing this?

The answer was too often, No, or only after the fact. The journalists who have been on the ground have done great work in conditions that at times closely resemble a war zone. Wesley Lowery’s account of his arrest was harrowing and he has clearly tried to continue reporting and not let himself become too much of the story. But too often the mainstream media- reporting the next day, after the police officers dressed in military gear with rifles pointed at a peaceful crowd had mostly dispersed- got it wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Media Coverage of the Israeli-Hamas Conflict Requires Empathy for both sides

In Blog on July 19, 2014 at 10:25 am

When I first wrote this blog, it seemed so easy to make a judgment about coverage of the the conflict between Israel and Hamas.  There is no doubt that Palestinian civilians have suffered the lion’s share of the casualties, and that fact must be a part of any coverage.  Reporters must take us into the hospitals, the makeshift morgues, and the homes of the grief-stricken.  

But an email from our family in Israel made me realize that while unharmed for the most part, Israeli civilians are living in almost paralyzing fear.  As a family member noted, the country is the size of New Jersey.  So Israelis feel very vulnerable.  This isn’t a matter of bias.  But news outlets need to ensure that the coverage is as complete as possible.  That doesn’t mean censoring reporters.  Ayman Mohyeldin is doing a superb job in Gaza.  But we need reporters  to tell us the stories of average Israelis. We need to better understand the fear that is pushing these families, even those who have long worked for peace, to support the invasion.  

 

I am married to a Jewish man, and his uncle and aunt, both New Yorkers, made the astounding decision in the 1960s to pull up stakes and move to Israel. I am very fond of my extended Israeli family, living on two kibbutzim in the country. Whenever there is renewed conflict, I worry about their safety. But I found it disturbing when a Jewish colleague of mine recently commented that the media was terrifically biased in reporting on the current troubles between Israel and Hamas.

She thought the TV coverage was unbalanced and favored Hamas. I disagree. TV reporters were showing their viewers the facts as they experienced them. Their coverage was not about assessing blame. The media have reported on the impacts of the conflict in both countries.

As Hamas rockets landed deeper and deeper into Israeli territory, the networks have shown Israelis running for their lives as sirens went off, seeking shelter, visibly anxious and afraid. But the truth is far more Palestinian civilians have died in this war than Israelis. This is a tribute to the effectiveness of Israel’s defense system.

Read the rest of this entry »

VA Inspector General wrong to demand POGO records

In Blog on June 22, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Full disclosure first: I work for a nonprofit that often hears from federal agency whistleblowers.  I also have a very positive and longstanding relationship with the staff of the Project on Government Oversight, POGO for short.  (Heck, their executive director even publicly praised my book.)

POGO is a big-time advocate for and communicator with whistleblowers.  During its 33 years of existence, its work with whistleblowers has helped raise media visibility and Congressional attention to issues ranging from gross underpayment of royalties by oil companies drilling on federal lands to the Navy and Marine Corps’ refusal to disclose toxic water contamination at the U.S. Army base at Camp Lejeune, to the newest scandal plaguing Washington, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ cover-up of delays in treatment.

It is that latest scandal that has put POGO in the crosshairs of agency’s Acting Inspector General, Richard Griffin.  Griffin has subpoenaed all POGO records “from current of former employees” of the VA “relating in any way to wait-times, access to care and/or patient scheduling issues.”

Griffin’s request has major ramifications.  POGO has been soliciting VA employees to report on fraud and mismanagement at the agency, at a special website.  POGO promises that it “will work to protect your identity” while trying to “expose and remedy” the VA’s problems while “lowering the risk of jeopardizing your career.”   The website says the information submitted “will be encrypted and anonymous.”

Griffin wants the records to facilitate its investigation.  But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that his desire for more complete information is jeopardizing something much more important – the freedom of whistleblowers to find a safe harbor to report their concerns about government waste, fraud and abuse.

The IG’s quest is ironic for at least two reasons.  First, POGO’s work helped prompt the media and the Congress to take this scandal seriously and helped stir Congressional demands for accountability.  Secondly, POGO has been a great advocate for federal inspectors general.

POGO refuses to comply, defending itself in part by contending ”the First Amendment reporter’s privilege and legal precedents afforded to those who investigate and report the news apply to POGO. “ It has solid grounds for that assertion.  POGO has journalists on staff, does comprehensive investigative reports, and recently won accolades from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its work.

But there is a more fundamental reason for the Inspector General to lay off.  POGO, as many other nonprofits, is a safe harbor for whistleblowers.  They often trust the nonprofits they know more than the media outlets or reporters they may not.

And in this era of diminishing resources and time to do good journalism, when investigative reporters are an endangered species, nonprofits like POGO increasingly are the intermediaries between whistleblowers and the mainstream media.

Nonprofits not only are trusted by whistleblowers.  They also work hard to frame their stories in ways that will make them easier for reporters to use.  And they usually do the initial pass at verifying the information and filling in the gaps.  As a result, many media outlets rely on this pre-digested information for their stories.

Good reporters will always do their own fact-checking and enterprise reporting.  But it’s a heck of a lot easier because of the work POGO and other nonprofits do.

Whistleblowers need and deserve safe harbors.  They have to be willing to trust that when they supply sensitive information, their identities will be kept confidential.  If they can’t trust that confidentiality will be maintained, they will not share their stories.  While we have stronger whistleblower laws that offer federal workers legal rights to fight back if they suffer retaliation, those rights to due process are not foolproof.  And fighting retaliation may take months, if not years.

Even if a whistleblower ultimately wins his or her case, speaking truth to power can often be tantamount to career suicide.  Just ask Franz Gayl, whose efforts to protect soldiers in Iraq by pressing for better armored vehicles led to his being reprimanded and denied a security clearance,  or Bunnatine Greenhouse, a senior federal contracting official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who blew the whistle on waste and fraud and was demoted. Being vindicated does not restore years of struggle and exile from the federal workforce.

Journalism, the public and whistleblowers will benefit if the VA drops its demand for POGO’s records.  Let’s hope that the agency’s Inspector General gets the message.

 

 

 

Abramson’s tenure at The Times: Baquet’s Comments Speak Volumes

In Blog on May 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

I have no inside knowledge of the workings of The New York Times. My husband was in the same high school class as ousted executive editor Jill Abramson at- the toney Fieldston School in Riverdale, a wealthy section of New York City. But he didn’t know her well.  And neither of us is chummy with folks at the newspaper who will give us the inside dope on what really happened, and whether Abramson was treated fairly or not. Lord knows, there’s been a lot of media ink spilled speculating about the reasons – including Abramson’s concerns that she was being paid less than her predecessors, and allegations that she was about to bring another editor on board equal in rank to her deputy, Dean Baquet, without making that clear to him.  But no account really has captured the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed Abramson out the door.

What we do know is that throughout her tenure, Abramson’s people skills have been assessed and critiqued.  While I don’t have the inside skinny on this firing, I do know what it’s like to work in a newsroom, and how crucial management style can be to newsroom productivity and morale.  I thought many of the feelings I had about my former profession were unique to me, but when I wrote Out of the News, I discovered even journalism’s heavy hitters experienced the same lack of confidence about their work that I often felt.

For all their outward boldness, journalists, by and large, are very insecure.  That insecurity stems from a couple of factors.  The act of reporting and writing never gets easy.   In almost every other job, you achieve mastery with repetition.  An open-heart surgeon who does 200 surgeries a year is going to be much better than a surgeon who does ten. But that doesn’t hold true for journalism.  Yes, time and practice gives reporters a certain level of competency.  But every story offers a new challenge.  To write well, to avoid clichés and formulas, to be accurate and fair and understandable is difficult and the difficulty really doesn’t ease up when you get into the big leagues.

And reporters don’t measure success by a “satisfied” public or an achieved result.   How do you know when you write a good story?  In part, you know when you receive an award, but awards happen long after your work has been published.  Certainly, journalists can measure their effectiveness by the number of page views, or tweets their work inspires.

But those numbers are more about popularity than quality, and often have more to do with the subject matter than the reporter’s talent.   Beyonce’s domestic travails are going to beat out the problems in the Ukraine every time.

And while occasionally news stories will have a lot of impact, typically they don’t.  Lawyers can measure their success by the “wins” in court, or the size of the settlements their clients receive.  Health care workers can be judged by the lives they save or health they improve.

The public determines whether your lasagna or shoes or software are worth buying.  Public acclaim keeps the lights on in theaters and stadiums alike, sustaining actors, dancers, and athletes.

But journalism is different.

Reporters generally are not happy when the subjects of their work are extremely pleased, particularly if the subjects are politicians or executives or celebrities.  Praise makes them worry that they’ve been too easy on the people they’ve written about, or failed to present them honestly, or were deceived by their “spin.”

Reporters primarily look to their editors to assess their work.  But this craving for attention and praise from the folks in charge can be quite destabilizing when reporters feel they can’t “read” what the people in charge want, and when they get the sense that they aren’t measuring up.

I have no idea whether Abramson was a destabilizing editor, one who was quick to fault work, and slow to praise, who seemed to want more but wasn’t clear in what, exactly, the “more” was.

However, I was intrigued by a Politico story written more than a year ago. The story reportedly was based on conversations with about a dozen, mostly unnamed, former and current Times news staffers, who raised concerns about the management style of The Times’ first female executive editor. Reporter Dylan Byers made clear that staff acknowledged that Abramson was an extremely competent and talented professional.  But the story also cited complaints about Abramson not being exactly warm and fuzzy in the newsroom, and described one incident when she strongly rebuked a staffer in public.

One other detail stuck out in my memory.  Abramson, according to Byers’ sources, had met with her deputy Baquet and critiqued the paper for not being “buzzy” enough.  The meeting ended with Baquet storming out of the office, and slamming his hand against the wall in frustration.  “Buzzy” doesn’t give you a lot to work with.

When reporters don’t know how to please editors, they can get into terrible funks, overthinking pieces, unable to do their best work.  I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms. Heck, I’ve seen it happen to me.

Baquet last week was named to replace his boss.  His comments to the assembled Times staff are about the most telling remarks I’ve read that suggest some of the key factors that might have led to Abramson’s firing.

“Let’s take risks, let’s not beat each other up when we fail, let’s work together,” Baquet told his staff.  “Let’s not get paralyzed by guessing what Dean or anybody else wants.  Give it a shot.”

That doesn’t mean that Abramson was not the victim of sexism.  Editors typically don’t lose their jobs for their management style.  A “prominent reporter” who spoke to Ben McGrath of The New Yorker contended that “tough and abrasive” editors at The Times have been pretty common over the years:

“Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. … Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Was Abramson was held to a different standard because she’s a woman?  Probably.  Sexism may have made it easier for The Times to cite management style as a major factor in her dismissal, but if it means that all editors in the future – male and female — have to think about how they treat their staffs, that’s not a bad thing.

I don’t know if Abramson deserved to be shown the door.  But if his comments are any indication, Baquet – the paper’s first African-American executive editor — deserved to replace her.

Grantland’s Insensitivity is a Cautionary Tale for Reporters

In Blog on January 25, 2014 at 1:21 pm

All journalists hope that their work will have an impact.  But we don’t want that impact to be suicide.  I realize that journalist Caleb Hannan did not want his subject — the inventor of a new golf putter who had hidden her identity and misstated her qualifications – to take her own life. It is not fair to say that Hannan’s reporting caused a suicide, but it’s pretty clear that his digging alarmed and upset a very vulnerable individual.

In pursuing his story, which contributes nothing to the welfare of mankind – it’s about the invention of a new putter for goodness sake – Hannan certainly displayed a lack of awareness of the potential consequences of his reporting.

Hannan’s story was published on the ESPN-owned website Grantland.com on January 15.  He recounts his reportorial odyssey in trying to discover the truth about the elusive Dr. Anne Essay Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V, the inventor of what she touted as a revolutionary new putter. I am not linking to the story because I don’t want to add to its page views.

I know nothing about golf, but I think most of us will agree that it is a game, and whether or not a putter is revolutionary is relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things.

But Grantland being about sports, this long-form story seemed appropriate to its editors.  However, the writer of the piece and those who permitted it to be posted forgot that not all stories have to be published.

Hannan discovered that Dr. V had lied about her credentials – she was not an MIT-trained physicist, or many of the other things she claimed to be.  He ultimately discovered that Dr. V was a transgender woman. What he did not uncover was any proof that the putter she invented did not work, or that she had attempted to bilk any investors out of their money. (In the course of his reporting, Hannan told one of Dr. V’s investors that Dr. V once had been a man, an inexcusable invasion of Dr. V’s privacy. The investor wasn’t nearly as shocked by this revelation as Hannan apparently was.)

Oh yes, he’d also that learned Dr. V had attempted suicide in 2008, after a fight with her girlfriend.

Read the rest of this entry »

When Did Contraception Become Controversial?

In Blog on January 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Tell me, when did the media decide that contraception was controversial?  When I did a search on Google News, I found that the words contraception and controversy occurred together more than 4,000 times, often in broadcast and print news accounts.

Contraception is not some bizarre practice that most Americans avoid.  Yet, ideologues and the Catholic hierarchy have managed to brainwash reporters, most of whom I’ll wager practiced birth control at some point in their lives, and persuaded them to treat the term gingerly.  Contraception used to be called family planning. That term better reflects the well-established concept that people have the right to determine how many children they can love, raise and financially support.

Most sexually experienced  Catholic women of child-bearing age – an estimated 98 percent — have practiced contraception at some point in their lives.  As a reporter colleague of mine once put it, “We’re Catholics, but we’re not idiots.”  The statistics are pretty clear that most Catholics don’t see anything wrong with contraception.  Only 15 percent find it morally wrong.  Even among Catholics who attend weekly mass, two-thirds don’t find contraception objectionable.  Count me among that group.  Heck, I even sing in the choir at my church.

And as a few media outlets have tried to point out, federal regulations long on the books already had made the availability of birth control pills a requirement for most employers that provide health insurance.  Many state laws had imposed similar requirements on Catholic institutions. Catholic institutions that fought these rules were often blocked by the courts.

But by and large  journalists have done a terrible job of making the point that contraceptive use is the norm in this country, and that federal regulations and state laws have been quietly requiring that it be a part of employer-provided health insurance for years.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spare Us From Reporters With Agendas

In Blog on October 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

I wrote this blog before the shutdown.   During the crisis, David Farhenthold did solid reporting.  But now that it is over for the time being, I fear he’s repeating the same troubling pattern.  His October 20 front-page story focuses on the strategic errors House Republicans made in trying to achieve their budget goals.  But he neglects to mention one crucial fact.  There was an election in 2012, and the election was a referendum on spending priorities.  Many of the priorities that certain Republicans espouse were soundly rejected by the voters.

On September 27, as much  of Washington was consumed by doubts about a government shutdown, the front page of The Washington Post was consumed by something else – the story of one Mike Marsh, a federal worker urging Congress to defund his agency.  The headline “Fire Me,” was the size that newspapers usually reserve for declarations of war or presidential election results.

But this story, at best, should have been treated as a feature story, not a news story.  Lord knows, it contained very little news.

I’m not saying the Post should not have run  it.  It was a typical “man bites dog” news event.  But here’s the problem.  The reporter did little to enlighten readers, about whether there was any truth to Marsh’s claim that the agency in question, The Denali Commission, is useless.

What makes this front-page story all the more curious is that Marsh declined to be interviewed for it.  Yes, that’s right.  He sent his complaints about the commission to the Post and Congress, and responded to some emails, but that’s it.

What do we find out from this story?  How much The Denali Commission currently receives in federal funds,- $10.6 million annually –  and that the entire Alaska congressional delegation supports it.  Marsh claims that its purpose  – to help get federal assistance to communities in Alaska that need it – isn’t necessary.  He also contends that the commission builds projects in tiny Alaska settlements – power plants or health clinics – that the citizens can’t afford to maintain.

These are criticisms worth investigating.  But reporter David A. Fahrenthold never bothers to do any actual reporting. He never tries to  get to the truth.  Does Marsh – who is Inspector General for the Commission and commutes to his job from his home in Phoenix  when needed – have a point, or is he simply a loose cannon?

What has the Denali Commission accomplished or failed to accomplish?  Fahrenthold quotes the Commission’s top federal official, Joel Neimeyer, but it is difficult to know what he asked him.  All the story focuses on is Neimeyer’s views on Marsh.  At the very least, you would have wanted someone at the Commission to respond directly to Marsh’s charges.

Fahrenthold seeks out a labor representative on the commission, Vince Beltrami. But again, Fahrenthold  focuses on Beltrami’s reaction to Marsh’s attempt to defund the agency, not the work of the agency itself.

If this were a real news story, you might even get a list of what the commission cites as its accomplishments and try to contact people in the communities that the commission claims to have helped.

You might call mayors and community development specialists in the state to see if the Commission was doing a good job.  Even if they didn’t feel free to speak on the record, you’d get a better understanding of what this tiny federal agency was doing or failing to do.

I rarely say a reporter has an agenda.  But a spate of recent stories under Fahrenthold’s byline makes me think he’s angling for a position at the libertarian Cato Institute.  (One pleasant and recent exception: his September 29 story on agency waste that results from “use or lose it” policies for spending at the end of the fiscal year.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Journalists Should Live Up to Journalism

In Blog on September 24, 2013 at 8:00 am

The most recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review asks the question, What is journalism for?  

I get tired of people telling me that because of the Internet and social media, journalists’ jobs are changing.  People don’t say that about doctors or lawyers or teachers, even though the technological revolution may be affecting how they do their jobs.  No one is challenging the underlying value of those jobs.

Journalism should be the profession that people rely on to receive the facts about what happened in their word.  Journalism can have a point of view, but that point of view should be separate from its straight reporting, and a media outlet’s slant on the news should not distort its coverage of the news itself.

In my book, I cite a 1947 report of a blue ribbon commission on freedom of the press.  That report observed that it was a reporter’s job to “prefer firsthand observation to hearsay.  He must know what questions to ask, what things to ask, what items to report.” Aside from the sexist assumption that all reporters were “he,” that’s a pretty solid definition of what journalism is for.

The reason that journalism’s very raison d’être is questioned so often is that many journalists fail to live up to their calling.  They get lazy about reporting the facts,  sometimes not bothering to separate the true from the untrue for their audience.

Some journalists even declare that helping readers and views discern what is true is not  their job.  I was dismayed when I read Chuck Todd opine about the media’s role in coverage of Obamacare, and widespread lack of public support or understanding of the new law. “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”  He clarified in a later tweet that people shouldn’t expect the media to do the White House’s job of “selling” Obamacare to the American public. But even with his clarification, to me that comment means that Todd is absolving the media of any responsibility to actually do the hard work of reporting the facts on what the law actually will do. According to Todd, it is not his or the rest of the media’s job to challenge either the Administration’s claims of benefits or the Republicans’ charges of harms.

If that’s not Chuck Todd’s job, then why the heck do the networks pay him such a large salary?  Why do we, his audience, bother to listen to him at all?

If journalists aren’t willing to be a trusted source of unbiased information about issues that must inform our democratic discourse, then what is journalism for?  I certainly don’t benefit from the insights of a bunch of wisecracking pundits to chat about the prospects for the next election, although I might sometimes find it entertaining.

Even breaking news, where journalism used to excel, merely demonstrates the failings of many of those in the profession.  On September 16, when the Navy Yard shootings in DC were playing out in real time, we all would watch our smart phones relay different narratives from print and broadcast news outlets.  Yes, news was fluid, and unclear. That’s why you’d like news outlets to say just that: “There are reports that four people have been killed but we can’t confirm that number. We will continue to update you as we confirm.”   But that’s not what these outlets did.  They kept reporting what they heard as facts, and then let time sort things out.

Of course, cable news coverage of the shootings was often much more egregious. Jon Stewart’s commentary best points out the problem of stream of consciousness reporting.  It’s no better than your great-aunt Betty telling you what she sees.  It lacks any judgment, any perspective.  It doesn’t help anyone arrive at the truth.

We don’t need a new definition of journalism.  We need more journalists who actually live up to the definition we have.

 

Post Op-ed Gained Attention but Not Respect

In Blog on September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

I guess if The Washington Post was attempting to provoke strong reader reaction to an op-ed questioning whether sexual relations between teachers and minor students should be criminalized, the paper got when it sought. My daughter brought my attention to the opinion piece, published August 30th, and by the time I looked at it on September 1st, it had more than 3,000 reader comments.

But surely attention shouldn’t be the only goal for the opinion pages of what is still considered one of the nation’s most prestigious papers.  I often read Post op-eds and disagree with them, but this op-ed was written by someone who seemed to have no actual data or expertise around which to marshal her pretty outrageous arguments.

The news peg of the op-ed was the very light sentence a Montana teacher, who pleaded guilty to non-consensual sex with a 14-year-old student- or what many would call a rape- received in August.  Two years after the assault that student committed suicide, an event her mother felt was brought on by the trauma of the rape.  The teacher, who had failed to follow through on a plea deal that included mandatory treatment for sex abusers, was hauled back into court and the Montana judge gave him a 30-day sentence.  The judge averred that since the sex didn’t involve extreme violence or a stranger, it really didn’t count as a “forcible beat-up rape,” and implied that the 14-year-old in question may have been  more Lolita  than an innocent victim. (The judge did apologize for some of his remarks, but stood by his sentence.)

The judge received much criticism, including a very good editorial from the Washington Post, calling for the judge’s resignation.  For reasons I can’t fathom, The Post then decided to give very valuable column inches to a non-expert, described as a “writer and former lawyer” to rebut its editorial position. She opined that she had lots of friends in the sixties and seventies who had sex with teachers in high school, college and law school, and they’re in her estimation, just fine. To be a law student and have sex with a professor is unwise, but surely it can’t be compared to being a 14-year-old having sex with a teacher.

Read the rest of this entry »