Yesterday afternoon, much to my eternal humiliation, I fell foul of a parody account on Twitter. Responding with false outrage to a Washington Post story on a lunatic who managed to barge his way into the White House, the joke feed “@Salondotcom” took aim at the reporting of basic facts, contending in jest that the truth should be covered up lest it upset anyone sensitive. In the ostensibly offensive passage, the Post had recorded that “the female officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through.” “No, WaPo,” Salondotcom responded with mock indignation, “it doesn’t matter that the officer the White House intruder got past was a woman.” Accustomed as I am to precisely this sort of nonsense, I presumed the tweet was real and I linked to it earnestly. Congratulations to J. Arthur Bloom and his impressively fertile imagination. You got me.
And yet, as subsequent events have demonstrated, the joke was bang on. As a part of its gag, @Salondotcom took a screenshot of the post and highlighted the word “female” within the sentence, thereby establishing that, in an ideal world at least, newspapers would prefer androgyny to accuracy. Just a few hours later, fiction became fact, the description being removed entirely from the Post’s piece. Parody had outpaced reality.
Yesterday afternoon, the “offending” section read:
The female officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through.
Today, both online and in the print edition, it reads:
The officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through.
This adjustment is identical to the one that @Salondotcom facetiously demanded.
Oddly, the Post has offered no explanation of the excision. Nor, indeed, has it so much as acknowledged that the page has been changed. Were this a minor stylistic alteration, that would, of course, not matter. But it isn’t. Rather, it is a correction — or, perhaps, an amendment — of a factual claim. If the initial report was wrong, one would expect to see it noted, would one not? And if it was right . . . well, then one wouldn’t expect to see the word removed. What gives?
Over the weekend, Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey noted that American media is notoriously inconsistent when it comes to the description of criminal suspects. Sometimes, race is mentioned prominently; at other times it is omitted completely, even when the purpose of a story is to help the public identify an attacker. This issue, in my experience, is a touchy one for people on both the left and the right. I came in for some criticism from conservatives last month when, in the course of writing about the events in Ferguson, I recorded — accurately, I should note — that the man who had been shot dead was black and that the man who had pulled the trigger was white. This, some people told me, was “unnecessary information” and that publishing it was in some way “inflammatory” or “prejudicial.” This claim strikes me now as it struck me then: preposterous on its face. The sole reason that the shooting in Ferguson made national news was that, whether reasonably or not, many local citizens came to believe that the killing had been racially motivated — or, at least, that it was in some way reflective of broader racial inequalities. How, pray, could one discuss the topic without such acknowledgments?
Ferguson was a tricky case, and the temptation to walk on eggshells was understandable. But, even in less fractious times, I struggle to comprehend what can possibly be gained by omitting any details from news reports. If, as the Post initially announced, the officer posted on the White House’s front door was a woman, why would we refrain from saying so? Did something seismic change between the detail’s being included within the dispatch and its being removed? Did revealing the sex of the sentry endanger national security, perhaps? Is there something wrong with the Post’s printers?
One suspects not, no. Instead, one imagines that editors removed the word in order to cut off at the pass any of the criticism that Salondotcom so presciently foreshadowed. Or, to put it less kindly, the powers that be in the Post’s newsroom decided that the public could not be trusted with the truth lest they draw the wrong conclusions. Perhaps, upon learning what had happened, some readers might make hasty generalizations about the role of women in the Secret Service? Perhaps some might even start to joke about it? Would the Post be condemned in the pages of Jezebel as an enabler of the patriarchy? Whatever the proximate cause, if the word was removed for any of these reasons, the elimination serves to illustrate neatly how close the relationship is between craven self-censorship and a deep-seated mistrust of one’s audience. When I was at Oxford, the university’s debating society bowed to the considerable pressure that had been exerted upon it by the weak-minded and disinvited the British fascist leader, Nick Griffin. This decision amused me at the time and it amuses me even more now that I am a little older. What, one wonders, did nervous organizers think was going to happen if students were exposed to the man’s ugly little speech? Were they going to start goose-stepping on the instant?
The more self-important of our journalists like to quote E. K. Hornbeck’s character in Inherit the Wind, insisting smugly that “it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Pleasing as the axiom is to the ear, the injunction has always rubbed me the wrong way. In truth, the purpose of a free press is neither to irritate a particular group nor to side with another, but to tell the truth — whatever the truth may be. As does anybody of a conservative disposition, I have a number of suggestions as to how the Washington Post might improve its offering, but among them would not be to start taking the advice of social-media satirists. On Twitter yesterday, fact quickly became stranger than fiction. Would that the nation’s newspapers maintained a hard line between the two.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.