This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran a front-page story by reporter Michael Powell on a controversy that had split the school board in Dover, Pa. The Board had adopted a resolution on how evolutionary theory was to be taught that included a mandate that the gaps in the theory be taught as well as plausible explanations for those gaps, including “intelligent design” theory.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that the Powell article was horribly reported and written. Basic facts – such as the size of the school board in question, and how many members had actually resigned from it – were omitted from the narrative. The individuals selected for quotation provided edgy, colorful stuff, and no mention of the board’s formal statement on the matter was made at all.
So, I blogged extensively about the article’s shortcomings, and then began a hunt for background on the reporter. Did he have an ax to grind, I wondered?
I have a new book out and available from Amazon: “Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation and How It Is Changing Your World.” My hunt for background on Powell was one aspect of the new world we are living in. Journalists can no longer stage hit-and-run attacks and expect to leave the scene quietly with no accountability. I suspected Powell of lousy reporting, and I wanted to know where he was coming from.
What I discovered wasn’t much. There’s very little bio on the Web about Powell, but I did find one thing that led me to another, the combination of which raises a huge red flag.
Michael Powell, before he became a reporter, had been a “tenants advocate.” He discussed this background in an e-mail exchange that was available through Google.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about being a “tenants advocate,” though it suggests a left-of-center political ideology, and it might even be good training for journalism.
But I also found a July 2004 article in the Washington Post by Mr. Powell on the subject of immigrant tenants’ battles with landlords in post-9/11 New York City. Nowhere did the article disclose Mr. Powell’s past advocacy on behalf of tenants in similar situations.
And that struck me as wrong. No lawyer or government official could advocate on a particular issue in which he or she had been intimately involved without disclosing that past association. The disclosure allows the audience to understand that the advocate-reporter might be bringing considerable bias to the table.
This discovery, coupled with the lousy reporting on the intelligent-design piece, confirmed to me that Michael Powell and the Washington Post are not to be trusted on matters in which ideology have a large role. They don’t show their cards – they don’t tell the readers everything the readers deserve to know.
This is all of the Big Media’s problem as 2005 opens: They aren’t trusted. And with good reason. It will take a long time for them to get that trust back.