WaPo's Ombudsman Makes Excuses for Very Anonymously-Sourced 'N-head' Scoop on Rick Perry

What a change The Washington Post wrought by bringing in Patrick Pexton as the ombudsman. The last ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, was a stickler about the Post’s overuse of anonymous sources. But in a Sunday column on Rick Perry and the Post's “N-head” painted-rock “investigative” hullaballoo, Pexton just circled his wagon and made excuses for the newspaper.

“If the seven sources The Post relied on for this article are truthful, then Perry is lying or is badly misinformed about when the rock was painted,” insisted Pexton. But what if the seven anonymous sources are lying or badly misinformed? What if some are Obama voters or financial backers? The Post is throwing the biggest rock they can at a Republican – racism, as in casual acquiescence to the N-word – without telling the public who’s behind it. "Trust us," says the newspaper of the 2006 Excessive 'Macaca' Pile-on.


It was a little more than a year ago, on June 13, 2010, when Alexander, the last ombudsman, lined up just how deep an addiction the Post had to sleazy, undescriptive anonymous sourcing:

For decades, ombudsmen have complained about The Post's unwillingness to follow its own lofty standards on anonymous sources. Readers, who care about the quality of The Post's journalism, persistently object to anonymity they see as excessive and incessant. The problem is endemic. Reporters should be blamed. But the solution must come in the form of unrelenting enforcement by editors, starting with those at the top.

There's evidence The Post's use of anonymous sources is growing. The phrase "spoke on condition of anonymity" has appeared in an average of 71 stories a month through May -- slightly higher than in the same period a year ago. This year, it has appeared more than 450 times (stories often include multiple anonymous sources). And that doesn't include all of the anonymous sources described in other ways. For example, those ubiquitous unnamed "senior administration officials" have been quoted more than 130 times this year. Post rules urge that when sources are granted anonymity, readers be told why. But in more than 85 stories this year where sources "spoke on condition of anonymity," there was no explanation.

Pexton, by contrast, could only muster gee-willikers sadness and excuses – not skepticism – about anonymous sources:

I wish more of the seven people upon whom The Post relied were named; only one is. But these are memories going back 20-plus years. Perry’s family still lives there, and he is still the governor; you can see why people might not want to put their names to those recollections. Post editors say they have the names and backgrounds of the sources, and they judge them to be credible.

Would the Post use that to push an anonymously-sourced story trashing Barack Obama? "Well, he's still president, so you can see why people wouldn't want to put their names to this." That's an excuse to smear any prominent government official. Pexton also tried to claim that reporter Stephanie McCrummen wasn’t sent to Texas to chase “N-head” rumors, but just happened upon them, like tripping over a pebble:

The article does not declare Perry a racist or present the Texans interviewed as ignorant rubes. McCrummen was originally assigned to write a profile of Paint Creek, Perry’s home town. She learned of the name of the camp and the rock only after spending considerable time there. In one long interview with a local, the hunting camp and its name came up.

She then interviewed more people to corroborate that resident’s recollection. Of the seven who confirmed the rock and the time period, some were Perry fans and some were detractors, as the story makes clear.

Pexton doesn’t find it relevant that one of McCrummen’s supervisors could have a bias on this subject.  Kevin Merida, named the Post's national editor during the Obama transition, is a black journalist who wrote captions for the book Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs. (Merida told Scott Whitlock of NewsBusters he couldn't locate any anti-Palin bias back in 2008.)  Is it possible that Merida was ecstastic to pull this N-head thread on a political threat to the Historic First Black President?

After all, in May of 2008, Merida pushed the story he was "hearing things kind of over the transom about some of the difficulties campaign volunteers of Obama were having in the field. And I went and kind of explored that, confirmed some of those incidents, things like signs being burned along a parade route during a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Scranton, phone bankers hearing caustic responses like, you know, 'hang that darky from a tree,' when they're making calls. And so I thought that it was worth doing a larger story, and I just gathered more material....There were just so many of them, I mean from so many different places. I mean high school students being called the common racial slur for African-Americans holding signs, people getting doors slammed in their faces. There were expressions of the kind of raw racism that many of them had not confronted before and I think they wanted to talk about it."

Speaking of wanting to hang blacks from a tree, how many stories did national editor Kevin Merida assign when Rep. Andre Carson said at the end of August that the Tea Party protesters wanted to see blacks lynched? Guess what? The Post published no story. It vanished down the Post memory hole. Does that build trust that the Post publishes every story on the race beat?

Instead, Pexton implied Perry’s lack of ferocity in attacking the story means it must have truth in it:

I think it’s also important to note how the Perry campaign handled this article. Before it was published, McCrummen and Post editors traded two rounds of questions and answers with the Perry campaign. As Post National Editor Kevin Merida put it, “We submitted detailed written questions to the Perry campaign and included in our story all of the points Governor Perry wished to make.”

After the article was published, the Perry camp put out a carefully worded statement reiterating its point that the rock was painted over in the early 1980s and stating: “A number of claims made in the story are incorrect, inconsistent, and anonymous.” Anonymous, yes, but incorrect how and inconsistent how?

Since the article ran, no one from the Perry camp has contacted The Post to request a correction or dispute specific points made in the article. Politico also asked the Perry camp to detail its objections to The Post article. Perry officials said no.

It makes you wonder.

He doesn’t consider the idea that a ferocious attack on the Post’s accuracy or anonymous sourcing might just lead to another 100 or 200 stories with Perry and “N-head” in the same sentence.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis