Rich Cooper

Jan 4, 2010

Amidst all of the layoffs, reorganizations and personnel moves at the Washington Post, one can only hope someone there has left a dictionary for the reporters and editorial staff to consult. That’s what I thought after I read the Post’s January 1 front-page story, TSA nominee misled Congress about accessing confidential records.

In the article, Post reporter Robert O’Harrow chronicles TSA Administrator-nominee Erroll Southers’ clarification of testimony he presented during his confirmation hearings before two Senate Committees last year. During the confirmation process, he shared that he had accessed a database to gain information on his estranged wife’s new boyfriend over twenty years ago when he was with the FBI – an action for which he was reprimanded and disclosed to the Senate.

If all you read was the headline, you may think Erroll Southers was some rogue who knowingly went out and lied to Congress for some nefarious purpose.

If you read the whole story though, the Post’s use of the word “misled” is a real stretch.

Either the author and his editors were trying to compete with the Washington Examiner for incendiary headlines so as to grab the attention of readers for its print and on-line editions, or they didn’t know the meaning of the word “misled.”

The fact is that the headline did not match the story, but in an era of “jingo-istic journalism,” where hype and attention grabbing words matter more than the presented facts, the Post’s choice of headline was really poor and misrepresented the facts.

Unlike many current and former Members of Congress, as well as previous and current Administration leaders, when confronted with facts to correct the record, Southers didn’t look to split hairs on his testimony or try and misconstrue facts to tell us the meaning of the word “is.”

Relying on his memory of a circumstance that occurred more than twenty-years ago, he presented the facts as he knew them. When he acquired other information he didn’t have available when he made his first statement, he stepped forward to correct the record. He didn’t engage in some sort of cover-up or orchestrate some type of Washington “spin” about what he said. He just corrected the record. Period.

If that’s what he did, how could he have “misled Congress?”

I thought if you “misled” someone, you purposely went out of your way to do something to deceive them. Based on O’Harrow’s own article, what he describes is a man correcting the record based upon new details and information. Where’s the deception in that?

Maybe in the midst of the holidays, the Post found a new definition for “misled.” Web-savvy as I am, I went to to see what the word means. Here is what I found:


–verb (used with object)
1. to lead or guide wrongly; lead astray.
2. to lead into error of conduct, thought, or judgment.
-verb (used without object)
3. to be misleading; tend to deceive: vague directions that often mislead.

I can only hope that as Washington really becomes a one-newspaper town (since the Washington Times is nearing extinction and the Washington Examiner is… well that’s another topic), the Post will think about improving their ability to better match its headlines with its stories.

Misconstrued and attention grabbing headlines can often lend themselves to character assassination, and this is one case where the facts about Erroll Southers don’t bear his being misrepresented to the Post’s readers or to the American public.

To do so would be “misleading,” and good journalistic practice shouldn’t do that.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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