Hunting Camp watch: Post ombudsman fails!


He didn’t ask basic questions: Is Governor Perry telling the truth about the Hunting Camp matter? We don’t know—and neither does Patrick Pexton, the Washington Post ombudsman.

On Sunday, Pexton discussed this matter, poorly. This is the way he began:
PEXTON (10/9/11): In the matter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and his hunting camp with the racial slur in its name, The Post’s exclusive Oct. 2 article, written by Stephanie McCrummen, makes several points clear.

In the early part of Perry’s political career, certainly from 1985 to 1990 or 1991, and perhaps later, people saw the name “Niggerhead” painted in block letters on a big upright rock marking the entrance to the leased camp. It’s also clear that locals knew the camp by this name going way back.

Perry was a young state lawmaker in the late 1980s, and he took colleagues there to hunt on several occasions. Perry insists that the name on the rock was painted over in 1983 or 1984, before he was elected and before the hunting excursions.

If the seven sources The Post relied on for this article are truthful, then Perry is lying or is badly misinformed about when the rock was painted.
Gack! In our view, McCrummen’s report doesn’t make those basic points “clear” at all! Pexton refers to seven sources. But how many of the Hunting Camp 7 said they saw the sign in an unpainted state after 1984? How many said they saw the unpainted name with the rock still “upright?” You really can’t tell from McCrummen’s report. Her writing is very un-clear.

Presumably, Pexton could have clarified these points. But he doesn’t seem to have noticed the fact that McCrummen’s writing is often very murky.

Let’s review a few other points from Pexton’s unhelpful report:

Who are the Hunting Camp 7: Pexton refers, several times, to seven sources. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the fact that McCrummen’s report, as written, doesn’t quote or cite all seven. In fact, Pexton says that only one of the sources is named; this means that he isn’t counting Bill Reed, whose testimony we discussed last Friday. If Pexton isn’t including Reed as a witness, that means that only four or five of the alleged seven witnesses are actually quoted in the report—and one of the five says nothing that even seems to contradict Perry.

McCrummen didn’t have to quote all seven. But since several witnesses weren’t quoted, Pexton could have provided a service. He could have asked McCrummen to answer some specific questions:

How many witnesses say they saw the name in an unpainted state after 1984? How many say they saw it in an unpainted state in recent years? Was the rock still upright when they say they saw the unpainted name? The editors of the New York Times seem to think that two people saw the name “clearly visible” in recent years. Is that an accurate reading?

Because McCrummen’s writing is so unclear, Pexton should have asked these questions.

How did this story get started: At the end of her report, McCrummen refers to some photographs from this summer. This is some of the clearest writing in her report, although even this is unhelpfully murky:
MCCRUMMEN (10/2/11): The rock remained by the gate, the name brushed with a thin coat of white paint. The paint was slightly faded, according to the person who saw it recently.

"That's something that sticks in my memory," this person said. "It was kind of a sloppy job. It wasn't doing what it was intended to do."

As recently as this summer, the rock was still there, according to photographs viewed by The Washington Post.

In the photos, it was to the left of the gate. It was laid down flat. The exposed face was brushed clean of dirt. White paint, dried drippings visible, covered a word across the surface. An N and two G's were faintly visible.
McCrummen doesn’t say where these photographs came from. But it sounds like the name was very hard to see as of this summer. In fact, only three letters could be seen, and they were only "faintly visible"—and only after the exposed face had been "brushed clean of dirt,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

We would have guessed that someone sent these photos to the Post, thus touching off the investigation. But that isn’t what happened, according to Pexton’s report. “McCrummen was originally assigned to write a profile of Paint Creek, Perry's home town,” Pexton writes. “She learned of the name of the camp and the rock only after spending considerable time there.”

Someone took those photos last summer, but he didn't send them around until McCrummen got there? In any case, we’d be curious to know where the photographs came from. Pexton didn’t ask.

How has Perry reacted: In our view, the dumbest part of Pexton’s report deals with Perry’s reaction. This strikes us as very dumb, and very unfair. It’s how Pexton ends his report:
PEXTON: I think it's also important to note how the Perry campaign handled this article. Before it was published, McCrummen and Post editors traded two rounds of questions and answers with the Perry campaign. As Post National Editor Kevin Merida put it, "We submitted detailed written questions to the Perry campaign and included in our story all of the points Governor Perry wished to make."

After the article was published, the Perry camp put out a carefully worded statement reiterating its point that the rock was painted over in the early 1980s and stating: "A number of claims made in the story are incorrect, inconsistent, and anonymous." Anonymous, yes, but incorrect how and inconsistent how?

Since the article ran, no one from the Perry camp has contacted The Post to request a correction or dispute specific points made in the article. Politico also asked the Perry camp to detail its objections to The Post article. Perry officials said no.

It makes you wonder.
Pexton gets a bit slimy here. He says Perry’s statement was “carefully worded,” thus advancing an insinuation. In our view, McCrummen’s report seems to be “carefully worded” too, though that may just be the way it seems. For that reason, we didn’t say it was “carefully worded,” which advances an insinuation.

Meanwhile, it’s obvious that many of the apparent statements in McCrummen’s report would have to be “incorrect” if what Perry has said is accurate. And it’s obvious that some of the apparent statements seem “inconsistent” with other apparent statements. Pexton can’t see which they are?

“No one from the Perry camp has contacted The Post to…dispute specific points made in the article?” Of course they haven’t! Candidates want stories like this to die. Even if such candidates know they are right on the merits, they don’t want to encourage endless discussion of specific points.

You’d think that everyone would know that. Pexton doesn’t, or he won’t let on. (For ourselves, we have no way of knowing if Perry’s account is accurate.)

A note about Kevin Merida (see above): McCrummen’s prose is so weirdly unclear that we wondered if Ceci Connolly might be her editor. As it turns out, Connolly has left the Post. But Merida was part of this newspaper’s war against Candidate Gore back in the bad old days too.

In the past, the Post has gone after disfavored hopefuls in very slippery ways. Seeing Merida’s name in this stew doesn’t seem reassuring.

How many people actually contradicted Perry’s account of this matter? Pexton could have asked, but he didn’t. Tomorrow, we’ll run through McCrummen’s reporting on the last three of the Hunting Camp 7.

It sounds like some of these people contradict Perry’s account. It sounds that way—but we can’t say we’re sure. And alas! Pexton doesn’t seem to have noticed the murk in McCrummen’s report. He could have clarified basic points.

But he didn't ask.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The lengths and keystrokes devoted to avoiding the obvious....

  3. I sent this to Pexton on Saturday. I imagine it went straight to the spam bucket.

    "Nowhere in her article does McCrummen state that the name was not painted over in 1984. Likewise, nowhere does she provide a direct quote from any of the seven to that effect. Sure, she insinuates it and she couches their quotes to insinuate that’s what they mean, but, sorry, nobody said they saw it unpainted
    after 1984. The Weiner article was useless because it did nothing more than bless McCrummen’s nonsense.
    Now here you come trying for the third time to get your readers to swallow this twaddle. If those folks really said they had seen the sign unobscured after 1984 , then why didn’t you clear the issue up once and for all by providing those direct quotes. I don’t doubt Rick Perry will lie at the drop of a hat, but I want to read journalists who will prove it, not sling around insinuations. As far as I’m concerned your response is the third turd on a steaming pile. What an ombudsman!