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How Seeds of Truth Can Sometimes Take Root

By Andy Alexander

Many newspapers, including The Post, profiled Mark Sanford last week after the married South Carolina Republican governor revealed that he had been having an affair with a woman in Argentina.

The Post’s story said that during his six years in Congress during the 1990s, Sanford had “turned down his housing allowance and slept on a cot in his Capitol Hill office” as a symbolic way of showing his commitment to frugality with tax dollars. Many other news organizations reported the same thing, and have been doing so for years.

But James Currie, a professor at the National Defense University who has taught a course on Congress for 18 years, wasn’t aware of lawmakers being entitled to a housing allowance. When he read this in The Post, he checked with the House Administration committee, which oversees member benefits, and was told it doesn’t exist. I also checked with the committee and was told by press director Kyle Anderson: “There is not a separate housing allowance” and one did not exist during Sanford’s three terms in the House.

The question of the housing allowance is a mere footnote when compared to the blockbuster disclosure that has thrown Sanford’s political future into question. But it’s a good example of how the seeds of truth can sometimes take root and grow into firmly established “facts.” In this case, Sanford’s refusal to accept a “housing allowance” has become folklore and often has been cited to support his image of a tight-fisted fiscal conservative.

“I think the guy shouldn’t be allowed to make such a claim without being challenged,” Currie told me in an e-mail, and he chastised The Post for not checking its facts. “How hard would it have been, I ask, to have called the House of Representatives and asked whether this was true?”

Philip Rucker, who co-authored The Post story with Manuel Roig-Franzia, said they were on deadline and added the housing allowance reference to “fill out the profile” after spotting it in previous stories supplied by the research department.

It’s not uncommon for reporters to repeat information from other news organizations. When it appears frequently, by reputable reporters in trusted publications, there is less inclination to make independent verification – especially under intense deadline pressure.

In this case, it appears that Sanford may have started the “housing allowance” characterization with a letter to The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., during his first term in Congress. “I have refused to take the typical $3,000 housing allowance and instead sleep on the floor in my office,” he said, making the point that he had gone to “extreme lengths to avoid the trappings of the office” of a member of Congress.

Soon, stories began repeating the “housing allowance” reference.

It may be that Sanford was referring to a $3,000 tax deduction that members of Congress could apply for as a way of mitigating the cost of maintaining a home away from home while the House was in session. Unlike a $3,000 grant -- much like a per diem -- a deduction would reduce overall tax liability. The true savings to taxpayers would depend on whether Sanford actually claimed it on a tax return. And the actual benefit to Sanford would have depended on his overall tax burden.

By Andy Alexander  | June 29, 2009; 4:53 PM ET
 
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Next: Jackson, Sanford Coverage: Enough Already?

Comments

You have to be kidding.

You follow up a post about being stonewalled on Froomkin by Hyatt and the clowns, leak his pay without leaking the traffic stats you hide behind with this trivial bit of nothing?

This is our "Ombudsman's" hard effort on behalf of the readers?

Seriously, man. If this is what you consider doing your job, do the honorable thing and resign.

Posted by: janowicki | June 29, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

I second the above post.

Posted by: egb3 | June 29, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I applaud the ombudsman's work in not becoming captive to the increasingly shrill partisanship of Mr.Froomkin's followers. He did his duty in covering that affair, and now he is moving on to more recent matters.

Posted by: J_Holtzman | June 29, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

This is beyond embarrassing. Where's the follow-up on Hiatt's stonewalling last week?

Posted by: whatmeregister | June 29, 2009 11:35 PM | Report abuse

The cover up is worse than the crime. These chuckleheads quote that constantly with schmucks like Sanford, but then do it themselves when it's on them.

And you folks wonder why people hold journalists in such low regard?

Posted by: janowicki | June 30, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Well, I know it's true. I read it in the WaPo.

NOT!!

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | June 30, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

And BTW, what exactly about this $3,000 housing allowance has a "seed of truth"?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | June 30, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

The truth doesn't fit the narrative, so the Post opts for the truthiness.

Posted by: TeddySanFran | June 30, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like someone is in serious love with some dude named Froomkin. Maybe with his Nobel and/or Pulitzer Prize (doesn't he have one?) he can get a blog somewhere else.

Seriously, businesses, including the Post, can hire and fire pretty much who they want. It's not exactly Watergate, folks.

Posted by: capsfan77 | June 30, 2009 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Lots of censoring recently. The number of comments here has significantly declined in the last hours...

Posted by: Gray62 | July 1, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Oops, sry, my mistake! I mistook this with the newer thread about Sanford. My apologies.

Posted by: Gray62 | July 1, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

There's a simpler answer to this ... the Post guys got it wrong. Considering this very issue has been in the news lately because of the scandal in the British Parliament and comparative comments that our Congressmen and Senators do not get a housing allowance, alert reporters should know this. They didn't and they didn't do the research. It's not a big issue, but the failure to admit their culpability is disturbing. And please, let's not hear "they were on "deadline" as an acceptable excuse for poor journalism.

I'm a little confused. Is the job of an ombudsman to present the Post's side or to evaluate where the Post went wrong and point that out to the public and management? The far better answer here is that we got it wrong and we'll try to do better in the future.

Posted by: jacobson98 | July 2, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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