Deborah Howell, Washington Post Ombudsman, returned from her vacation to discover The Post’s readers had the temerity to write to her while she was on vacation! Even after the paper posted an online notice, set up an email bounceback for online correspondents, and printed a formal announcement in the dead-tree edition:

The Ombudsman is away. Her column will resume upon her return.

Pesky readers, do you need a ‘GONE FISHING’ sign atop Deb’s desk? — oh, wait, there probably was just such a sign atop her vintage Remington. And what did readers write to Mrs Howell about, while she was away?

Coming back from vacation to a pile of mail reminds me of readers’ abiding interest in terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Quite put out, while reaching for her smelling salts, Deborah characterized those offending letters:

“Readers complained….”

“Some readers were disturbed….”

Complain-y and disturbed. That’s us! Thankfully, though, Mrs. Howell has reasonable responses to these disturbed readers’ complaints.

“Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor for weekends, made that call. Her reasoning was….”

“Dutt’s reasoning makes sense, but the readers were right.”

Reasonable editor Fred Hiatt gets a mention, as well, for publishing an opinion piece from a senior political adviser to the dismissed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. I wonder, though, whether this is an actual response from Fred Hiatt or simply the Fred Hiatt Boilerplate Response Deb keeps handy:

“We frequently run op-eds from people with whom we disagree, sometimes vehemently. Sometimes we even run op-eds that express views we find repugnant. I think it can be useful for readers to get a sense of how people in the news think — or how people in the news want to be perceived. I think our readers are smart enough to evaluate a Hamas piece in that light.”

In her research for today’s column on three different “issues,” Mrs Howell had conversations with four Washington Post editors and three outsiders: one editor at the New York Times, one bureau chief at AP, and one press secretary in Senator Richard Lugar’s office. At no time does she do any independent reporting or sourcing, except to grill Lugar’s press secretary to find out the time an email was sent. Whew!

Please contrast her contacts with those made by Clark Hoyt, Public Editor at the New York Times, in his column today:

Anthony H. Cordesman of the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland

Dean Baquet, NYT Washington bureau chief

Susan Chira, NYT foreign editor

Mr Hoyt’s entire column is worth reading. You may wistfully wonder, as I did, why the New York Times deserves such accomplished writing and research in the Public Editing Department when the WaPo Ombuds Wing is so, well, dreary and unaccomplished.

What struck me, in addition to the first-hand sourcing about his single topic that Mr Hoyt undertakes so well, is that he reports. Not simply The New York Times’ coverage of the issue, and how complain-y and disturbed readers view the Times’ coverage, but the issue itself:

AS domestic support for the war in Iraq continues to melt away, President Bush and the United States military in Baghdad are increasingly pointing to a single villain on the battlefield: Al Qaeda.

Bush mentioned the terrorist group 27 times in a recent speech on Iraq at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. In West Virginia on the Fourth of July, he declared, “We must defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq.” The Associated Press reported last month that although some 30 groups have claimed credit for attacks on United States and Iraqi government targets, press releases from the American military focus overwhelmingly on Al Qaeda.

Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story. So is the question of how well their version of events squares with the facts of a murky and rapidly changing situation on the ground

While not crediting those in the blogosphere who’ve made exactly this point about NYT reporting, Clark Hoyt does cut directly to the chase:

And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.

Not content simply to call editors to comment about their work, Mr Hoyt undertakes research about the paper’s coverage of the issue at hand:

I went back and read war coverage for much of the month of June and found many stories that conveyed the complexity and chaos of today’s Iraq. Times reporters wrote that Iraq’s political leaders were failing to meet benchmarks that would show satisfactory progress to the American government, that a formerly peaceful Shiite city in southern Iraq was convulsed by violence as rival groups fought for control, and that Sunnis feared their own country’s army because it is dominated by Shiites.

But those references to Al Qaeda began creeping in with greater frequency.

But what’s the risk, the reader might wonder? Surely this shorthand can’t do any harm? Why wouldn’t the paper of record characterize the enemy in Iraq exactly the way the Bush regime characterizes it? Clark Hoyt tells us why:

For the president, an emphasis on Al Qaeda has political advantages at a time when powerful former allies, like Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are starting to back away from his war policy.

The paper of record, in other words, needs to take care not to adopt Administration talking points or war-sloganeering, especially at a time of great debate within the President’s own party about his failing policy. Wow.

And finally, real Public Editing has positive results for the entire enterprise, and thus its readers:

On Thursday, [Susan Chira, the foreign editor] and her deputy, Ethan Bronner, circulated a memo with guidelines on how to distinguish Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

It’s a good move. I’d have been happier still if The Times had helped its readers by doing a deeper job of reporting on the administration’s drive to make Al Qaeda the singular enemy in Iraq.

Military experts will tell you that failing to understand your enemy is a prescription for broader failure.

Contrast that, if you can stand it, with Mrs. Howell’s “opinion” about the controversy she “covered:”

My view is that we need to know what a group labeled as terrorist is thinking.

(Special P.S. for Deb):

Mrs. Howell!! There are powerful forces afoot in the world capital where your paper is published every day. These forces seek to take our nation to war — again! — against another sovereign country that is no imminent threat to our lives, our fortunes, or our sacred honor. The Federal Government’s hometown paper, having cheerled these forces into our current quagmire, must not mimeograph The Regime’s illogic to the nation again without challenge.

You, madame, are at a critical point in your Ombudshood. Wake up! You must — starting today! — challenge The Washington Post at every level to do better than it has done in the past. You must stop seeing readers as complaining and disturbed. You must recognize that The Regime your newspaper has enabled is utterly corrupt and has bankrupted our national reputation. And you must acknowledge your newspaper’s role in that. You must begin editing your newspaper for the public who reads it. You must watch Keith Olbermann — every evening! You must read Glenn Greenwald — every day! You must read Marcy Wheeler’s Anatomy of Deceit — immediately!

Or you must get out of the way. The Regime’s hometown paper must not continue its sycophancy and stenography unchallenged while you make a half-dozen phone calls and type a weekly column.

Please choose wisely — many, many lives as well as the future of the American republic may weigh in the balance. Thank you.