"At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship."
That sentence appeared on the front page of the Style section last Saturday in an article by Washington Post fashion reporter Robin Givhan about Florida's secretary of state, Katherine Harris.
I would paraphrase that sentence: "At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders" how the Washington Post could publish such a slashing attack on the personal appearance of a woman who has been an important figure in the electoral stalemate.
In case you missed it, here are excerpts from what Ms. Givhan told us about Ms. Harris: "Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls. . . . (S)he looked as if she were wearing a mask. . . . The American public doesn't like falsehoods, and Harris is clearly presenting herself in a fake manner. . . . Why should anyone trust her?"
Ms. Givhan's treatment of Ms. Harris, in the view of many Washington Post readers _ including the ombudsman _ was a classic example of the arrogance of journalists that undermines people's confidence in the media.
During this extraordinary period, the Washington Post has been bombarded by e-mails and phone calls about alleged bias. Mostly, callers express partisan opinions without citing specific stories. But the Harris article produced a different and, in my view, more serious, specific and useful reaction for the paper to ponder.
Mocking someone's appearance is not something that newspapers should do. "Ms. Harris is not a professional model or actress, whose appearance is an accepted job requirement," writes one reader. "What earthly relationship is there between the way a woman _ a public official _ makes herself up and how well she can do her job?" another message reads. "The implication that there is a serious connection between makeup and seriousness . . . is one that women have been struggling against for decades."
Ms. Givhan says she can understand why people were upset but points out that when the public first met a surprised, tired and T-shirt-garbed Ms. Harris on television in the early hours of Nov. 8, no one talked about her appearance. It was only afterward, when she chose to make herself up heavily, that her appearance became a matter of conversation on television and around water coolers. Then, her makeup became a legitimate subject, in Ms. Givhan's view: "On the one hand, women do get a lot of unfair scrutiny. But they also have . . . a lot of incredible tools that men really don't have. . . . She made a specific choice" about the way she would present herself, Ms. Givhan says.
Eugene Robinson, Style editor, says he had no idea the story would provoke the reaction it did. "Part of what a Style section ought to do is kick up a bunch of dust from time to time. But just because there is a big reaction to this story doesn't mean that we wanted this. . . . Maybe we were a little deaf to the tone in this case," he says.
The Washington Post's executive editor, Len Downie, says, "Robin is a well-established fashion critic who is known for her strong views. . . . The newspaper has printed many other strongly voiced views about the issues and participants in this national drama, and I believe that is a proper role for the newspaper, in addition to gathering and reporting all the facts."
The stakes for the Washington Post on a story such as this are high. Its reporting and analysis of the presidential standoff have lived up to the paper's well-earned reputation for top-notch coverage. Yet that reputation can get tarnished by such a high-readability story that can add fuel to those who believe, or suspect, that the paper is inherently biased.
+ Michael Getler is the Washington Post's ombudsman. +