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A Pretty Good Story, Except for the Lead

By Michael Getler
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B06

On March 3, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) took a pretty strong verbal shot at Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan during an interview with CNN. Reid blasted Greenspan as "one of the biggest political hacks we have here in Washington."

The Post's Dan Balz wrote a news story that appeared on Page A6 in the March 4 paper, detailing Reid's charge that the Fed chairman had given the president a pass on deficits that had built up in the past four years and that he should be challenging Republicans on their fiscal policies rather than promoting Bush's plan to introduce personal savings accounts within Social Security. The story also quoted a Republican National Committee spokesman as calling Reid's remarks regrettable. The story said Reid's remarks reflected Democrats' frustration over Greenspan's support for the key element in Bush's Social Security plan, and it pointed out Greenspan's support for tax cuts when Bush was pushing them in 2001.

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The next day, The Post took the issue of Greenspan's role out to the front page with an article by reporters Dana Milbank and Nell Henderson that was headlined, "Some Democrats Say Greenspan Has Gone From 'Maestro' to Partisan." The headline accurately reflected the story content, except for the lead paragraph, which said: "Questioning the wisdom of Alan Greenspan in political Washington is akin to challenging the integrity of the pope in Rome, so figures in both parties agreed yesterday that the top Senate Democrat's description of the Federal Reserve Board chairman as a 'political hack' was a blunder."

Setting aside the analogy to the pope, there was absolutely nothing in the story that supported the idea that figures in the Democratic Party think Reid had committed a political blunder. Five Democrats quoted in the article, along with a bank economist and a former colleague of Greenspan's at the central bank, all offered criticism about what they perceive as the chairman's role in inserting "himself and the Fed into political debates over the direction of fiscal policy," as the former Fed board member, Laurence H. Meyer, wrote in a recent book that is quoted in the story. None of those quoted used language as strong as Reid's but there was no sense whatever that Reid was being rebuked.

So the lead of the story seemed especially strange, because not only was there nothing in the story to support it as far as the Democrats were concerned, it also seemed to contradict the story itself.

This was not lost on readers, more than a dozen of whom wrote or called to ask what the basis for this claim was, who were the Democrats who thought Reid blundered, and whether that information may have been dropped from the story for one reason or another. "The error is ultimately the editor's," one e-mailer said. "Either the article's claim should have been supported, or it should not have run. And placing it on the front page is beyond belief."

Actually, this 19-paragraph story had 18 good paragraphs about an important issue -- the question, as viewed from both sides, of whether the Fed chairman is seen as playing a political role -- that deserved to be on the front page. And, as I said earlier, the headline captured what the story was about. What I can't understand, and what I agree with the readers about, is how such an unsupported lead paragraph could get on the story and on the front page. It seemed impossible to read that story to the end and not say "huh?" when you went back and re-read the opening paragraph.

The idea behind the story, editors here say, was to get beyond Reid and focus on Greenspan as the issue. None of the Democrats quoted in the piece "were joining in to assail Greenspan to the degree Reid had. They were much more muted," in the view of Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd. "But I suppose it's fair [to say] that the piece doesn't offer support for the assertion" in the lead, she adds.

In that first Post story about Reid, he was quoted as saying that Greenspan should not be promoting the plan to introduce personal accounts within Social Security. But a reader who watched the interview points out that Reid, in contrast to the CNN interviewer, never used that term, which is one Republicans prefer, but rather always described Bush's plan as "privatization." Similarly, another reader last week challenged a story in which reporters used the term "tax relief," as if taking a cue from a Republican dictionary, rather than using "tax cuts" or "reductions." Others at times have challenged the use of the word "reform" when applied to the battle over Social Security, health care or taxes. New Post guidelines state that this word "means change for the better. Do not use it to describe political proposals on which people disagree about whether improvements are being made."

The Post, generally, is quite careful about such usage when the reporter is describing something in his or her own voice. And in some cases, such as personal accounts and privatization, it makes sense to use them both. At times, these word games seem to go too far. Some readers thrive on finding such words as "gotchas" to prove bias. I don't think that's the case. But when every word is scrutinized for alleged political meaning, the extra effort to be precise is worth it.

The Post keeps me plenty busy, but what are relatives for if not to occasionally criticize? So I can't resist being aghast and amazed that at this time of high-profile, self-inflicted media wounds, Newsweek magazine, owned by The Post Co., put a phony picture of Martha Stewart -- her face on someone else's body in a false setting -- on its March 7 cover. A tiny note at the bottom of the contents page describes the cover as a "photo illustration," which means nothing to most humans.

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

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