When newspaperwoman Deborah Howell was killed last week after being struck by a car while on vacation in New Zealand, her colleagues were lavish in their praise.
The recently retired Howell, who served as Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service from 1990 to 2005 and then as ombudsman for The Washington Post, was described in an obituary at Politics Daily as cantankerous, funny, down-to-earth, and as a trailblazer and “a source of inspiration” for women reporters.
This same obituary, however, stirred up some very negative comments from both left and right. One of the few critical comments that remains after an apparent scrubbing is from the left. “She was ‘ombudsman’ for a paper that is as right wing as any of Murdoch’s rags,” that commenter wrote. “Yeah, that’s some journalist there.”
The obituary provoked far more venomous comments from the right, however, which can no longer be viewed but which elicited a horrified reaction from Politics Daily Editor in Chief Melinda Henneberger.
“There was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she’d been killed,” Henneberger wrote. “There was joshing speculation about whether she’d been driving a hybrid, a joke about how liberals walking in lockstep really ought to be more careful, and a couple of cracks about how Republicans were sure to be blamed. ‘One less of those anti-US types to deal with,’ said one of several celebratory rejoinders.”
“We can’t pretend this sort of thing is limited to one or other corner, either,” Henneberger continued. “Matt Lewis wrote here about how news of Rush Limbaugh’s chest pains had similarly gladdened some tiny liberal hearts, and our obit of Irving Kristol provoked disquieting comments, too.”
Limbaugh and Kristol, of course, were already known and widely disliked before those comments appeared, while those who were ready to rejoice at Howell’s death had apparently never heard of her before reading the obituary.
Howell did consider herself a liberal. She wrote after the 2008 election, “Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did.” Howell was married for a time to Nicholas D. Coleman, the Democratic majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, who died in 1981. In 1988, she married former University of Minnesota president C. Peter Magrath.
Ironically, however, the greatest controversy of her career came when some inaccurate comments about the Jack Abramoff scandal sparked a firestorm of condemnation from the left.
In a January 2006 column for the Washington Post, “Howell described her paper’s reporting as showing how Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist, had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties. She was then deluged with close to 1,000 comments, most critical of her suggestion that both parties were complicit in the scandal. … The washingtonpost.com then decided to shut down the comments section of a reader blog site temporarily, stating that contributors were violating prohibitions against personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech.”