I’d expect the Washington Post‘s ombudsman to write about the First Amendment with more precision than Deborah Howell did the other day. She was discussing a full-page ad in the Post that announced–screamed is more like it–the offer by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt of up to $1 million for “documented evidence of illicit sexual or intimate relations with a Congressperson, Senator or other prominent officeholder.” A hotline was prominently displayed. In her June 10 column, Howell offered Flynt’s explanation for the ad: “If someone takes a public position that is contrary to the way they live their private lives, they are fair game and the public should know about it. The hypocrisy in politics is overwhelming.”
Fer sure. But hypocrisy in journalism should be as rare as snow in December. (These days.) Howell wrote, “My reaction to the ad: Yuck! It made me cringe. But The Post has a First Amendment right to publish the ad, and what Flynt is doing is not illegal.”
Howell said readers had written in wondering “Are there no standards?” and “Does The Post need the income that badly?”
In other words, readers were accusing the Post of bad taste, not criminal behavior. They were questioning the Post‘s judgment, and the First Amendment has nothing to do with that. The Post was free to publish the ad and it was just as free not to. It was under no obligation–to either the Constitution or the canons of journalism–to do either.