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FAIR or Unfair Game?

By Michael Getler
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B06

I was inundated with e-mails and phone messages last week from 700 or so faithful followers of FAIR, short for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. One of several self-described media watchdog operations on both sides of the political divide, FAIR labels itself "progressive" and comes at things from a liberal position. Its targets are usually on the right.

The target this time was a front-page story April 14 by reporter Shailagh Murray headlined, "Lott Puts 'Little Bump' Behind Him; Ex-Senate Leader Rebuilds Power Base." The story was about Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who resigned as Senate majority leader-designate in December 2002 after saying, at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, that had Thurmond's 1948 run for the presidency as a "Dixiecrat" been successful, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

FAIR sent out an "Action Alert" to its subscribers, claiming that "Lott's efforts to rehabilitate his public image were given a valuable boost by the Washington Post, which ran an uncritical profile in its April 14 edition." The alert told people to write to me and "ask the Post why their profile of Trent Lott glossed over Lott's racism -- ignoring the paper's own coverage of Lott's racist past." And so they did.

I don't like write-in campaigns. I don't like my e-mail queue, and the e-mail of others writing in about other things, overwhelmed by hundreds of people saying essentially the same thing, in large part because somebody alerted them to something and suggested what to say. For that comment, I will now get 700 more e-mails asking how dare I impugn their assessment. I much prefer original commentary from readers, or one letter directly from FAIR laying out its critique. On the other hand, even though such campaigns are annoying, and frequently partisan, it doesn't mean that the points raised are not legitimate challenges.

Aside from the criticism that the article -- which was about Lott's efforts to rebuild his power base -- was itself helping in the political rehabilitation, FAIR said that "if Lott has detractors, readers of the Post certainly aren't aware of them, since none are quoted" and "while Lott's many critics go unmentioned, so does Lott's long history of racist affiliation." I thought those were, so to speak, fair criticisms, worthy of consideration by editors here.

Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd countered that "the intent of the piece was not to reexamine Senator Lott's controversial comments about segregation. In fact, The Post led in bringing attention to Lott's remarks when he originally made them. Shailagh's story was an intelligent, fresh look at what Lott's been up to since then and his ability to survive what appeared at the time to be a knockout punch."

I also thought it was a smart piece to do and helpful to me as a reader. I did think it was strange to place the article in such a prominent position, and I thought the headline was potentially misleading because it made it seem as though The Post was saying that Lott had put his "little bump" behind him. And the article was long enough to have dealt with some of the omissions FAIR points out.

But I read the piece as, generally, what The Post says it intended it to be -- a pretty detailed political story focusing on the early stages of Lott engineering a potential comeback, with a sufficient reminder of what got him into trouble. On the other hand, this story and the way it was presented could wind up giving a boost to Lott's rehabilitation efforts, as FAIR claims. So there's no clear guilty or innocent verdict here, as I see it, but a healthy exchange between the paper and its critics.

There were some things The Post did in the past 10 days or so that I clearly didn't agree with. One was the placement -- on Page A4 -- of an April 13 story about a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. It was at this hearing that the former chief of the State Department's intelligence bureau -- a bureau that did much better in assessing the weaponry of prewar Iraq than did the White House and CIA -- assailed Bolton for allegedly abusing his authority, intimidating intelligence analysts and damaging the integrity of the agency. This was a dramatic confrontation of the type rarely heard these days in Congress over a crucial issue of our time that was certain to have repercussions well beyond the hearing room. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times put it on their front pages. Several readers also wrote to complain.

Similarly, I thought The Post missed an opportunity to put a powerful and tragic human-interest story on the front page last Monday after news broke that 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka, by all accounts a tireless and imaginative battler for civilian victims of the war in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber. The Los Angeles Times made a terrific front-page story out if it. The Post had a fine story by Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer, pointing out that two years earlier, Ruzicka founded the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, but it appeared on Page A13, with only a tiny reference to the story at the bottom of the front page. Scores of editorials, columns and articles have since been written about her in this country and abroad.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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