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Black Eyes and a Lot of Good Work

By Michael Getler
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page B06

This has not been a great week or so for the news business. Last Monday CBS News got clobbered, properly so, by an independent panel of investigators for "considerable and fundamental deficiencies" in its reporting of a story last September about President Bush's National Guard service. A couple of days earlier we learned that radio and television commentator Armstrong Williams accepted $241,000 from the Education Department to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law on the air.

On the other hand, it was USA Today that revealed the government's payment to Williams for favorable coverage. And one day after the CBS disaster was front-page news, a smaller story on The Post's front page disclosed that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had come to a close, that the top CIA weapons hunter and analysts had folded up their effort shortly before Christmas and come home, something the government had neglected to tell us.

A week earlier, the Baltimore Sun led its front page with a story, quoting an internal memo by the chief of the U.S. Army Reserve, that the Reserve "is rapidly degenerating into a broken force." Two days later the New York Times disclosed that an internal investigation by the CIA's inspector general concluded that officials at the highest levels of the agency should be held accountable for failing to allocate adequate resources to combating terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times broke the story of the FBI's faulty $580 million computer system.

My point here is that, despite some high-profile stumbles in the past year or so, the so-called mainstream media continue to routinely do their job of uncovering what others would prefer be kept quiet. That they keep doing so, that they not become intimidated by political pressure, remains crucial to an informed citizenry and our democracy. The country's major newspapers, in particular, are uniquely equipped for this work and, whatever one thinks of any of them, we will all pay an incalculable price if they falter.

A news analysis in The Post accompanying the story about CBS reported that "conservatives hailed the panel's findings as a watershed event that would go well beyond a single flawed report by a lone network, asserting that the matter would tarnish the media broadly and would convince Americans that Bush had served honorably . . . and received no special treatment."

Much of the so-called mainstream media have indeed come under attack in recent years, and high-profile fabrication scandals at the New York Times and USA Today, plus the CBS foul-up, have been serious self-inflicted wounds that left them, and the media generally, vulnerable. The top editors paid the price at the newspapers, although they were spared at CBS. It is the editors who are the gatekeepers, and they need to demand journalism that is beyond reproach. Their organizations, and public confidence in what they print or air, are more important than the individuals.

Readers caught much of the irony of these recent news events. Commenting on the Williams story, one reader said that The Post treated it mostly as a media story, which it certainly was, in part. But wasn't the payment by the Education Department, this reader asked, also "a story about government misconduct and propaganda" and "don't you do a disservice to your readers if you approach it only as a media story?" Actually, The Post did a very good job and did not approach it only as a media story. But there is more to do about the government's faux news role.

Columnist George F. Will, writing in The Post on Thursday, also reminded readers about the Department of Health and Human Services last year distributing fake "news" videos used by some 40 local stations around the country in which a fake reporter -- actually an employee of an HHS subcontractor -- extolled the benefits of the Medicare prescription drug plan. Will also noted that the Government Accountability Office recently chastised the Office of National Drug Control Policy for disseminating fake news videos.

Other readers noted the irony of massive coverage of the CBS scandal compared with the modest coverage of word that the weapons hunters in Iraq had finally called it a day. Neither was really a surprise because it was known earlier that the WMD hunt had drawn a blank, and the CBS report had already been discredited. But "neither scandal would have ever happened if journalists had done a better job," said one reader, citing an Editor & Publisher commentary.

The CBS fiasco is a black eye, for sure, the kind that lingers easily in the mind and on the tongue of many people, not just those who like to run down the dreaded "mainstream" media. Yet it is minor compared with the official but false certainties that propelled this country into war -- and all of its still unfolding and uncertain costs -- and for which no one has been held accountable. How that happened, and why news organizations didn't come closer to the truth, are vastly tougher issues.

As a final touch to a bizarre week, several readers noted mentions in Post coverage of the inauguration of President Bush, that The Washington Post Co. was among more than 100 companies that have donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to the event. The Post gave $100,000. The story explained that the company did that as a way to ensure that it would have enough tickets to events such as the inaugural balls to be able to offer them to major advertisers. It did not explain that the paper has been doing this since the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Readers who wrote to me said they viewed this as inconsistent with the role of a hard-nosed news organization. I would say they have a good point.

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

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