WaPo Ombud Frets Paper Produced Story Conservative Bloggers Liked

It's not every day that the ombudsman for one of the nation's elite newspapers puts, front and center, his publication's angst about publishing information counter to the Obama administration's spin, but there it is, today, in the Washington Post.

The Post's ombudsman, Patrick D. Pexton, frets that conservative bloggers overhyped a “modest” little story on a think tank's study that concludes that Obamacare will add at least $340 billion to the deficit over 10 years, not save $132 billion as promised by the Obama administration and backers of the law.


Pexton admits the Post tried to bury the story, putting it inside the A section rather than on the front page, but that old-media trick didn't work because the story was also on the paper's website so, “It immediately entered the partisan spin cycle of exaggeration, distortion and hyperbole.”

While conservative journalists and bloggers focused on the numbers – which echo the warnings made by Obamacare opponents like U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan before the legislation was passed by Congress – Pexton notes that liberal bloggers writing about the story tended to focus on a “guilt-by-association” line of attack on the author of the study and his supposed connections to the Left's favorite bogeymen the Koch brothers.

The result: the story got a lot of attention – and fueled a lot of worthwhile debate.

And while publishing news and being a catalyst for public debate on an important policy matter would seem to be something that the Washington Post should be proud of, Pexton expresses regret that it worked out that way in this case.

The paper, he implies, buried the story inside because it didn't deserve so much attention or discussion.

“We in the media like the Web traffic that a story like this attracts. It quickens the media pulse; we all get a frisson of pleasure from being viral on the Internet for a day,” he writes. “But I’m not sure the truth wins.”

The Washington Post's job isn't to decide what truth wins. It's job is to publish the facts and let the people discuss them and do with them what they will.

But Pexton doesn't even really understand what the real issue is. Although he explains early in his column that the crux of the debate is whether the Congressional Budget Office is double-counting savings from ObamaCare, Pexton ends his column with this misleading paragraph:

“The truth is that every complex law change, every annual federal budget, is a risk. They’re all based on assumptions and forecasts that may or may not come true. And when they don’t, Congress and the president have to adjust.”

While that is generally true, in this case the issue is not that certain “assumptions and forecasts” have or have not come true, it is this: If the savings are being double-counted, then the savings aren't real, no matter how accurate the assumptions and forecasts are.

That's a debate worth having, but Pexton doesn't want you to have it.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013