When it comes to the truth of opinion columns, it’s reader beware

    Normally, there is at least the assumption, among professional journalists and readers alike, that the opinion pieces are held to some basic standard of factual accuracy.

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    Image Credit: Acadman

    It is quite normal for newspapers to run columns in their editorial pages written by people who don’t share the same editorial perspective of the publication’s editors. It’s why they call them “op-ed pages”—for “opposite the editorial page.”

    But normally, there is at least the assumption, among professional journalists and readers alike, that the opinion pieces are held to some basic standard of factual accuracy. One would not expect to see an article on the opinion page of a mainstream newspaper, for example, declaring that vaccines are a conspiracy to depopulate Africa, or that women or Black people are genetically less intelligent than men or whites.

    But when it comes to political columns, sometimes there seem to be different standards applied to right-wing and left-wing writers.

    WaPo: Democrats’ postal conspiracy is the biggest made-up controversy since Russiagate
    Washington Post‘s Marc Thiessen (8/18/20): “The narrative that Trump is manipulating the post office to steal the election is the new Russiagate — a conspiracy theory designed to delegitimize Trump’s victory if he wins.”

    Take an opinion piece published last week in the Washington Post (8/18/20) by Marc A. Thiessen, a former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who writes a syndicated column twice weekly for the Post.

    Headlined “Democrats’ Postal Conspiracy Is the Biggest Made-Up Controversy Since Russiagate,” Thiessen’s column declares that Democrats, by accusing President Trump of a “campaign to sabotage the election by manipulating the Postal Service to disenfranchise voters,” are engaging in “the biggest made-up controversy since Democrats accused Trump of conspiring with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election.”

    Putting aside the fact that, days later, the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee basically endorsed the Russia allegation, let’s parse his assertion that post office manipulation is a “made-up controversy.”

    It is Trump, as the Post itself ably reported as early as August 12, who said that he wouldn’t approve any stimulus plan that included increased funding for the US Postal Service, after which he pointed out gloatingly that without those funds, the USPS would not be able to deliver mail-in ballots. The stimulus bill, Trump said, would enable “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

    But it gets worse. Thiessen went on to say that Democrats are falsely claiming that the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who has given $2 million to Trump and the GOP since 2016, was appointed by Trump. In truth, Thiessen says, “He was appointed not by Trump but by the unanimous vote of the bipartisan Postal Service board of governors.”

    That might sound fair enough to a casual reader. But a quick check of the USPS website, which a Washington Post factchecker could have easily made in minutes, shows that the six sitting members of that board of governors were all picked by Trump. They did indeed all vote unanimously, as Thiessen reported in his column, to confirm Trump’s nominee for the postmaster general position, but they could hardly be called a bipartisan body.

    WaPo: Trump says Postal Service needs money for mail-in voting, but he’ll keep blocking funding
    The source for the “conspiracy theory” that Trump was blocking funding to the post office to prevent mail-in voting was…Donald Trump (Washington Post, 8/12/20).

    Actually, Trump curiously allowed the USPS to have no members on its board of governors for much of his first year as president, and by this point, with only five more months left in a four-year term, he has only filled six of the nine available seats. That’s significant, since under the USPS’s rules of operation, it takes the vote of seven governors to remove a postmaster general.

    These are all significant facts that give the lie to Thiessen’s assertions in his column.

    As Thiessen’s column was being edited (to the extent that it was edited), three of the Post’s reporters—Tony Romm, Lisa Rein and Jacob Bogage—were working on a piece to run the following day, August 19, under the headline “Democrats, Election Watchdogs See ‘Glaring Hole’ in Postal Service Pledge to Roll Back Recent Changes” (8/19/20).

    In that straight news article, the reporters report that cutbacks ordered by Postmaster General DeJoy eliminating overtime, removing blue mail drop boxes and removing sorting machines from mail sorting centers “have carried immediate, vast consequences, slowing down mail processing and delivery nationwide.” They add:

    The delays have raised the specter of major headaches entering the 2020 election, as millions of Americans opt for mail-in ballots over their local polling places at a time when the deadly coronavirus is sweeping the country.

    Thiessen’s column also ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer (8/20/20), under the headline “Democrats’ Postal Conspiracy Another Made-Up Controversy,” As an occasional opinion writer for the Inquirer myself, I note that my work there has always led to calls from a factchecker or editor at the paper. It would appear that no such effort is made with Thiessen, either at the Inquirer or at the Post, where he actually works.

    Is that because the Inquirer just trusts the syndicator of the column to do the factchecking? Or is there simply a pass given to regular columnists, as opposed to outside contributors? It’s hard to say, because the Inquirer editors of the opinion and editorial page have not responded to multiple calls, messages and emails sent to the addresses listed on the paper’s website asking for an explanation.

    The Washington Post also ignored calls and emails from FAIR seeking answers about its factual standards for columnists.

    The issue of columns and truthfulness has become an issue of late, with the New York Times recently letting go editorial page editor James Bennet for not checking out an incendiary column he ran from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) (FAIR.org, 7/11/20).

    Perhaps papers like the Post and Inquirer, which run columns that are fact-challenged, should include a box warning readers that the articles they are reading may not be reliable, much like the warnings on cigarette packages.

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