“It Doesn’t Mean The Outrage Wasn’t Genuine”

Jennifer Rubin usually raises hackles with her blogging at the Washington Post. Now, her latest controversy about a Gilad Shalit-related tweet is raising questions about how journalists on Twitter reflect on the papers they work for. But more importantly, the ombudsman’s response raises a happy precedent for HonestReporting and web activists.

It started with the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap and this tweet by blogger Rachel Abrams. Rubin then retweeted this to her 7,000+ followers.

The link takes you to a graphically tasteless screed on Abrams’ blog about what she’d like to see happen to the terrorists released that day. WashPo readers were more offended by the article than the tweet, and let the ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, know as much. The ombud weighed in, agreeing that Rubin should not have retweeted it. (I’m with Pexton.)

However, Pexton adds:

But how responsible is Rubin for it? She didn’t write it. It did not appear anywhere in The Washington Post — online or in print. It appeared on Abrams’s independent “Bad Rachel” blog, and then Abrams broadcast it on Twitter.

Some readers suggested that because an employee retweeted this link, The Post somehow condones genocide against Palestinians. That’s nonsense. The Post’s journalism and its editorials show a deep commitment to human rights around the globe, from Russia to China, to North Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and beyond.

It’s also worth noting that the rules of objectivity that apply to editors, reporters and bloggers in The Post newsroom do not apply to Post opinion bloggers and columnists. Post opinion writers are given greater leeway to say what they want. That’s how it should be. If the opinion section were too politically correct, it’d be dull . . .

When I spoke with her, Rubin made several points in her defense. “First, a retweet is not an expression of agreement . . . .  A retweet does not suggest one agrees with everything in that tweet,” she said. Technically she is correct. You might retweet something for the same reason you might follow someone on Twitter — not because you agree but because you disagree, or because it’s provocative.

There’s a lot more to be said about journos and pundits on Twitter, and how their tweets reflect on the paper they work for.

But the ombudsman touches on another point that’s especially relevant for HonestReporting and web activists.

Pexton said a lot of the emails demanding Rubin be fired appeared to be driven by two specific groups that made online calls for action: Al-Akhbar English (Max Blumenthal) and a J Street blog post. (J Street, in fact, didn’t address Rubin; it only called on the Emergency Campaign for Israel to cut ties with Abrams, who is a board member).

Editors are often dismissive of emails when they appear to be facilitated by online activists — including HonestReporting. But here’s Pexton’s take:

But even if some e-mails were motivated by those groups, it doesn’t mean the outrage wasn’t genuine. And I heard from people all over the country, and abroad, who thought Abrams’s post was over-the-top and that Rubin was wrong to seemingly endorse it with her retweet.

I agree with the critics.

I can’t tell you how many times editors have brushed off complaints from HonestReporting readers simply because they were “part of an orchestrated email campaign by HonestReporting, a pro-Israel web site.” Is that an excuse to not address the substance of our criticism?

Abrams can deal with the headaches she brought upon herself. And Rubin will carry on.

But as post script, I say Thank you, Max Blumenthal and J Street for setting a precedent.

The ombudsman of the Washington Post (the Post!) is on record saying that reader outrage isn’t necessarily less genuine just because an article was brought to their attention by web activists crying foul.