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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Why Did The Washington Post Allow Itself to be Suckered by Waxman?

Being a long-time newspaper journalist, I know a lot of folks at The Washington Post and believe it contains great journalism every day. Yes, it often has a distinct liberal bias; even so, lots of solid journalism appears on its pages.
That is why it was so disheartening to find a front page story by Ceci Connolly in Thursday's Post that reported the "findings" of a report by Rep. Henry Waxman and the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee as fact, without apparently making any attempt to check easily verifiable claims that are central to the debate about federal funding of Abstinence-Only sex education programs.
The bad new is that in the process the Post provides a vivid illustration of how the MSM hurts itself whenever it fails for whatever reason to perform even the most basic fact-checking of a government official or report.
The good news is that this episode also provides a great example of how the Blogosphere could be used to enhance and strengthen the quality of MSM reporting on a significant public policy issue.
To cite just one example of the Post's uncritical acceptance of the Waxman Report's claims, the story reports that "nonpartisan researchers have been unable to document measurable benefits of the abstinence-only model."
In fact, there are at least four peer-reviewed data-driven studies that have appeared in recent years in respected academic and professional journals that document the effectiveness of Abstinence-Only sex education programs. Descriptions and links to each of the studies can be found here in a lengthy analysis of claims for and against Abstinence-Only sex education by The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector.
Additional examples of the Waxman Report's flaws can be found here in a web memo by another Heritage analyst, Melissa Pardue.
What is especially puzzling about Connolly's story is that she is among the top reporters in the shark tank that is the Post newsroom, yet her story uncritically accepts as gospel the assertions of a report by a congressman and committee staff known for being among the most partisan on Capitol Hill.
Waxman's self-serving claim that no data exists to verify a basic argument of Abstinence-Only proponents should have raised a red flag for Connolly and her editors at the Post. The bad news, of course, is that it didn't.
Here's the good news: Connolly could have run Waxman's claims by any number of bloggers on the Left and Right who would have gladly given the Report a quick fisking (i.e. fact-checking) before the story was published. The bloggers would have provided Connolly a variety of contrary sources and facts that would have enriched her ultimate reporting on the Waxman Report. Post readers would have been given a more comprehensive and accurate report on the claims pro and con regarding Abstinence-Only sex education, thus advancing the public's understanding of an important issue.
Instead, the Post now has egg on its face because it allowed its front page to be used by an advocate for one side of a major public policy debate to discredit the other side on the basis of patently false and misleading claims. This is the kind of thing that is destroying the MSM's credibility and thus its economics. How long until the leadership of the Post and other major MSM organs wake up to this fact?