A Balanced WashPost Story About Military Recruiting -- By The Ombudsman

Ombudsman Deborah Howell put more work into her column about a Nov. 4 military recruiting story than the reporter did in the story itself, Youths in Rural U.S. Drawn To Military by Ann Scott Tyson. But first, some background.

The subhed of that story is closer to its spirit, Recruits' Job Worries Outweigh War Fears; basically the military is exploiting poor rural youth by disproportionately recruiting them. This is the spin you'd expect from the National Priorities Project, which has been campaigning against the war for a long time and is anything but how Tyson described it: "a nonpartisan research group that analyzed 2004 recruiting data by Zip code." In fact, it analyzed data in a joint project with Peacework Magazine, which filed a FOIA request for the data and handed over analysis and distribution to NPP, whose Cost of War Clock ticks merrily along. Oddly enough, Tyson did not include these and many other items about the nonpartisan National Priorites Project. I blogged about it on Nov. 4 when Tyson's story came out, and on Dec. 5 when Howell agreed, in a column, that NPP could have been described as "liberal leaning."

At the time, I described that effort as "weak tea" because I and reader Chris Alleva had raised many issues about the story, and Howell's Dec. 5 mention was only one brief item in a wide-ranging column. What I didn't realize was how much more work Howell was going to follow through on. As described in her latest column on Dec. 25, The Whole Story:

In looking at the story, I talked to Curt Gilroy, who, as director of accession policy for the secretary of defense, has oversight of all active-duty recruiting; Tim Kane, a Heritage researcher; Betty Maxfield, demographer of the Army; Bruce Orvis, director of the Manpower and Training Program at the Rand Corp.'s Arroyo Center, and Robert Brandewei, director of the Defense Manpower Data Center in Monterey, Calif.

All said the story and NPP analysis lacked context because they did not report trends over the past several years and did not look at "nationally representative data" or the entire recruit population....

Howell also notes a Heritage Foundation study that came to a different conclusion than NPP. She continues:

A statement from Gilroy and Maxfield said that "incomes and socioeconomic status of recruits' families closely mirror the U.S. population. These findings are contrary to those" in Tyson's article.

Kane agreed that a higher proportion of recruits come from rural areas and the South, which is historically true. "But the key word is proportion. The data in the Post article are accurate, but the inferences are not," he said. "The percentage of recruits coming from poorer areas has declined every year since 2001 and the percentage coming from richer areas has increased."...

This is the kind of analysis you just might not get from nonpartisan research groups like the National Priorities Project.

There's a wide variety of data and interpretations in this column, but here's one item I want to emphasize:

Brandewei took the NPP analysis off the group's Web site and tried to match it with the same data from his agency. He said he could duplicate only two counties, and in the other 18, his numbers and the NPP's diverged by as much as 20 percent.

But there's something else that distinguishes this file from Tyson's: Thorough reporting. The National Priorities Project gets to respond. A variety of recruiting trends are noted. A third-party analyst, Bruce Orvis of Rand, is quoted in apposition to both NPP and the Pentagon & Heritage. In short, this is the story Tyson should have written.

I would have liked to know why Tyson thinks NPP is a nonpartisan group, a problem not mentioned in this column. I also wish I knew why Tyson ran with NPP's version of recruiting and not the Heritage Foundation's--if you don't read the ombudsman's column, I still don't think you can find it in the Post. It's also a little puzzling that Tyson's editor defends the story rather than Tyson herself, though her recent trip to Iraq may account for that.

But Howell provided a real service with this effort. It acknowledges the existence of reputable rebuttals to what I see as an inexcusably one-sided story based on a press release. Partisanship aside, you're simply much better informed about military recruiting in this 950-word column than in Tyson's 1,890-word story. It's disservice to the public that Howell's work, published on a Christmas Sunday, will reach fewer people than Tyson's front-page story that ran above the fold on a Friday and which still runs in the archives uncorrected.

I'm doubly thankful that Howell didn't drop this, as she must have been tempted to do, after two straight Sundays of Bob Woodward columns and the outraged reaction on the left to her unremakable observations about His Royal Highness Dan Froomkin.

So--thanks.

Cross-posted at PostWatch