Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton recently defended the WaPo’s decision to run a major story on page A3, rather than the front page. The story — which revealed that Obamacare will actually add to the deficit rather than subtract from it, as the administration has claimed since before the passage of the massive health care takeover — quickly became a sensation nevertheless, as blog after blog picked up on the information and disseminated it rapidly. Pexton sounded at best ambivalent and at worst peeved that the story — despite WaPo’s best attempt to downplay it — attracted the volume of attention it did. Writes Pexton:
Putting the story on A3 was the right judgment for a print publication. Montgomery urged her editors, correctly, not to put it on the front page: it wasn’t worth that.
But that’s so old-media. On The Post’s Web site, the story took off, even though it was prominent on the home page for only a short time. It immediately entered the partisan spin cycle of exaggeration, distortion and hyperbole. …
But I’m not sure the truth wins. 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.
As the Medicare actuary wrote in his 2011 testimony: “The Affordable Care Act improves the financial outlook for Medicare substantially. However, the effects of some of the new law’s provisions on Medicare are not known at this time, with the result that the projections are much more uncertain than normal, especially in the longer-range future.”
Investor Business Daily’s Sean Higgins thinks the story should have run on the frontpage and I’m inclined to agree with him. A3 was OK, too, though. Kiosk passersby might not have seen it, but anyone who cracked the cover of the paper surely did. But Pexton’s all-but-admission that he thinks the subsequent back-and-forth discussion about the story was somehow destructive to the truth is a little insulting.
The role of Old Media has changed. Print reporters still provide important information, the original reporting without which no commentary enterprise could survive. But they’re not the moderators of all discussion, nor are they able or should they be able to to control the interpretations to which the information they provide is subject. Unless bloggers transmitted the information from the story incorrectly — and my guess is most blogs transmitted it with a link to the actual story, which means readers still received the pertinent factual information straight from The Washington Post — WaPo really has nothing about which to complain. Facts are not subject to debate — but the meaning of those facts is open to interpretation. The sooner Old Media accords New Media respect for its vital role in facilitating robust discussion, the sooner New Media will again appreciate the indispensable contributions of Old Media in both the past and the present.