W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo, Bezos, and owning up to errors ‘quickly and completely’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 6, 2013 at 7:02 am

Yesterday’s stunning news that billionaire Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post for $250 million came with a sidebar of sorts — his smoothly written and reassuring letter to the newspaper’s employees.


Jeff Bezos, buying WaPo

Among other sentiments, Bezos, who has never been a journalist, wrote:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

In seeking to fulfill the objective of owning up to errors, the Post can make a start by correcting, or clarifying, a suspect claim embedded in its obituary last month about longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas.

The Post said in the obituary that Thomas had once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

No sourcing was given for that assertion, which was intended to suggest how Thomas and her “pointed queries often agitated the powerful.”

In fact, there appears to be no evidence that Thomas ever asked Nixon about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

The nearest approximation to Thomas’s having posed such a question came on January 27, 1969, when she asked Nixon at a White House news conference:

“Mr. President, what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” She did not ask about a secret plan.

This is more than hair-splitting. It matters because a fairly tenacious media myth has grown up around the notion that Nixon in 1968 campaigned for the presidency while touting a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War.

That claim is made rather often, despite its being historically inaccurate.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, leading newspapers in 1968 made almost no reference at all to Nixon and a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late March 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for ending the war.

The article further quoted Nixon as saying:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments came a few days before Johnson’s surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection.)

I’ve pointed all this out to the author of the obituary, Patricia Sullivan, and to the newspaper’s “reader’s representative,” Doug Feaver, but neither correction nor clarification has been forthcoming.

In fact, Feaver has made no reply to separate email I sent to him on July 24 and July 31.

As I told Feaver, if the Post can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon “point-blank” about having a “secret plan” on Vietnam, then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. More specifically, it would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

But if, on the other hand, the Post cannot identify such an occasion, then a correction seems in order.

Instead of responding, or writing a correction, the Post has been stonewalling.

That’s not at all the sort of response that Bezos has encouraged at Amazon.com, the online retailer he founded in the mid-1990s. Bezos has long sought to position Amazon as “the world’s most consumer-centric company.”

Bezos’ letter to Post employees hinted at the importance he attaches to customer-centrism. The letter said in part that the newspaper’s “touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about … and working backwards from there.”

I’d be surprised if Bezos, who as owner will not run the paper, did not seek to instill a greater sense of customer service at the Post. I’d be even more surprised if the Post’s famously arrogant newsroom eagerly embraced such an objective.


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