Players: Edwin Chen, federal communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former White House correspondent for Bloomberg; The Washington Post's Ombudsman Patrick Pexton and the paper's editors who have been writing about the National Resources Defense Council.
The Opening Serve: After the Washington Post published "Companies strive to build a better (more expensive) light bulb" mistating the name of his organization as the National Resources Defense Council, Edwin Chen had enough. "Over the years, almost every big and small publication has mis-named us; so, way too many to tally here," Chen, a former White House correspondent for Bloomberg, told FishbowlDC. He added that some in the NRDC media department amended their email signatures to say: "The word 'National' does not appear in Natural Resources Defense Council." He wrote The Washington Post's executive editor Marcus Brauchli, business editor Kelly Johnson and Ombudsman Patrick Pexton: "Your fine article today in the Sunday business section on light bulbs (by freelancer Paul Glader) gets our name wrong — sadly an all too common occurrence. We are the NATURAL (not 'National,' as in your story, twice) Resources Defense Council ... If the NATURAL Resources Defense Council had a nickel for every such mistake, we’d be able to match — ad for TV ad — those put up by the dirty, fossil fuel industry designed to mislead the public." It took 48 hours for WaPo to correct the post.
The Return Volley: Pexton responded on his Omblog. "What’s the difference between natural and national? A lot, actually," wrote Pexton. "This mistake may seem minor in the grand scheme of things. But in the context of this town, it is almost unforgivable ... Its name should be on a basic copy editing test for anyone working at The Post." Pexton details that the error was in the original and passed through both the business desk editor and a copy editor. He also quotes a letter he received from an anonymous former staffer at WaPo: "I have been reluctant to write this e-mail. But I can no longer hold my tongue. The quality of copy editing at the paper is abysmal." Adding, "Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence — countless stories and blogs with words left out or misspellings or grammatical errors. Is anybody reading what goes on up on the Web site or in the paper?" Pexton himself wrote:
It’s maddening, and these kinds of mistakes happen all too often in The Post. And it’s more maddening when Edwin Chen, federal communications director for NRDC, a former White House reporter for Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times, has to e-mail on a Sunday and tell you about it, which he did to me and other Post editors ...
I concur with the former staffer. Something has to be done to shake up the copy editing system at The Post so it doesn’t let mistakes like this weekend’s get published. It’s too important to the credibility of The Post.
FishbowlDC reports that Pexton is the only editor who's responded to Chen's letter.
What They Say They're Fighting About: Getting the Natural Resources Defense Council's name right. It's "natural" not "national" and adding one or the other completely changes the meaning of the organization. Chen, Pexton and WaPo's 48-hour correction are all on the same page here, but getting it right the first time is Chen's bigger complaint. Also, the rigors of copy-editing as America's newsrooms and their copy desks shrink while the volume of copy (online, video, blogs, etc.) grows.
What They're Really Fighting About: There's a little bit of a "do you know who I am?" to this spat. Chen, an habitué of the D.C. media scene for years (as well as his stints with Bloomberg and the L.A. Times, he was also the president of the White House Correspondents Association until 2010) raised this issue to the forefront of The Post's ombudsman in part because he knows so many of the editors involved. If he wasn't so well-known among The Post's higher-ups, it's doubtful his complaint would have attracted the attention of FishbowlDC (and for that matter us).
Who's Winning Now: Chen. Paul Glader, who wrote the article, will probably remember that Chen heads up the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the huge difference between the two. Pexton's right, the errors damage the credibility of the one of America's best papers, but figuring out what exactly has to be done "shake up the copy editing at The Post" in spite of journalism's tight budget is a lot more difficult than pointing out an wayward error.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.