Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Readers complain, but Wash. Post ombudsman mum on lack of coverage of U.K.-Iraq memo


Readers complain, but Wash. Post ombudsman mum on lack of coverage of U.K.-Iraq memo

In his weekly column, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler reported without comment that readers had criticized the newspaper for ignoring a leaked British memo on the Iraq war published in the British Sunday Times.

Getler's failure to offer a judgment about the Post's editorial decision is remarkable, not only because he regularly responds in his column to reader criticisms, but because of the explosive content of the memo. The memo indicates that Britain's intelligence minister reported after a trip to the United States that President Bush had decided to go to war in Iraq in the summer of 2002, and "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around" the decision that had already been made. In contrast to the U.S. media, U.K. news outlets devoted considerable coverage to the memo, and its disclosure reportedly had a significant impact on the Labour Party's loss of seats in the House of Commons.

Yet Getler simply reported that he had received reader complaints and moved on.

The Post referenced the memo only twice prior to Getler's column: in the May 5 edition of Tina Brown's syndicated column -- which appeared in the paper's Style section -- and in a May 6 article recapping Blair's re-election.

By the end of the week, readers had criticized the Post for this glaring lack of coverage. Perhaps Getler decided that because the Post's coverage was in line with much of the U.S. media, which largely ignored the memo, the Post's failure did not merit his comment. Here's Getler's minimalist treatment:

A handful of readers last week also faulted the paper for not following up on a London Sunday Times disclosure of a secret memo by a foreign policy aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair after a Bush-Blair meeting in July 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. It said, in part: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam [Hussein], through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Getler's handling of this issue contrasts with his usual approach. He typically notes readers' objections and then provides his own brief evaluation of the merits of their criticisms. In the same May 8 column, Getler mentioned three other instances in which readers took issue with the Post's reporting during the previous week. In each case, he commented on the merits:

Compared with most weeks, this past one was relatively quiet on the complaint front. There were challenges, as there are almost every week, about how the paper handles the Social Security debate. For example, are reporters allowing President Bush to get away with claiming that the system is "on the path to bankruptcy" by 2041, as he said at his April 28 news conference?

The next day's stories pointed out that critics say that claim is misleading. Readers say it isn't just critics. It's a fact that the Social Security board of trustees say that in 2041, tax income would still cover 74 percent of the costs of the system. Others say the truth depends on the definition of the word "bankrupt." Some companies continue to do business while in bankruptcy, but the White House points out that bankruptcy means "having insufficient assets to cover one's debts," which, they say, applies to the system in 2042. There is not room in every story to explain this dispute in full. But some effort to keep readers aware of it seems necessary every time.

Some readers also complained that the headline above the news conference story, "Bush Social Security Plan Would Cut Future Benefits," was unfair. They pointed out that the president said, "I propose a system where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off." That's true. But one could argue that it is also true, and more relevant to about 70 percent of wage earners, that, as the headline said in blunt terms and accompanying stories made clear in more detail, currently scheduled or promised benefits would be reduced for the great majority of recipients under such a proposal.

There were a handful of e-mails and calls last week about one phrase in a well-reported and documented front-page story last Sunday by Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi about Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a new federal investigation into whether a deal involving a fleet of gambling casino ships involved bank fraud. The phrase came 13 paragraphs into the story. It described Abramoff as, "A smooth-talking political power player who was an Orthodox Jew." There are many other important characters in the story, but Abramoff is the only one whose religion is referred to.

Editors say: "Jack Abramoff has made his religion a prominent part of his public profile, therefore we felt it was important to mention it when we were doing a quick summary of his biographical information. We meant in no way to slight Abramoff's religion or to connect it to any of the current controversies involving him. We noted in introducing this that he is 'a study in contradictions,' then lay out facts commonly presented when his bio is being summed up. We put these facts in contrast to each other, political power player vs. Orthodox Jew, Hollywood producer vs. top lobbyist, to show that he combines many traits that do not usually coexist in one individual. One of Abramoff's points is that he is living evidence that people with his religious beliefs can thrive and find common cause with conservatives in the Republican Party." That may be true, but it is not explained in this particular story. So I'm with the readers in that the relevance test didn't seem to be met.