washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ombudsman

What Readers Saw, and Didn't See

By Michael Getler
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page B06

What follows are observations by readers about a couple of items that appeared in the paper last week and an observation of mine about a story that didn't appear.

Last Saturday, The Post published a letter on the Free For All page from a reader objecting to the label that the paper has used for many months at the top of pages carrying news about the war in Iraq. The label reads "Postwar Iraq" and the reader called attention to the "stupidity" of such a label over stories with headlines such as, "In Fallujah, Marines Feel Shock of War." Actually, several readers have made this point to me, so I was glad to see the letter published and remiss in not raising the issue myself. Since the letter appeared, others have written to agree with the writer and to make the point, again, that "the war is not over." The editors are taking this under consideration.

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

Also last Saturday, The Post ran a powerful story on the front page of the Metro section by Ian Shapira headlined "Va. Wife Slain After Court Denies Protection; Estranged Husband Arrested in Florida." Sarah Crawford, the story reported, had pleaded with a Prince William County judge to make her estranged husband -- who she said had beaten and threatened to kill her -- stay away from her. She was granted a temporary protective order, but the judge declined to extend it at another hearing and, six days later, the woman was found shot to death in a Charlottesville hotel room.

The article includes the names of the victim, her husband, the local attorney and the victim's parents, and even the make, model and color of her car. But the judge is not identified, nor is there any indication that The Post tried to reach him or her. Several readers complained, properly, about what seemed to be an inexcusable omission.

Then, on Wednesday, The Post ran a two-sentence item midway down in its corrections box on Page A2, stating that the original story "may have left the impression" that the judge declined to extend the restraining order but that "additional court documents show that the protective order was dismissed at Crawford's request." Wow! "May have left the impression"? The headline and the story clearly said so. This is the kind of "correction" that should have been a follow-up story instead, correcting the original report and explaining in a more forthright and visible way how this happened.

The story that didn't appear in The Post is about a 102-page report by a task force of the Defense Science Board, a federal advisory committee composed of academic, think tank and private-sector representatives who provide independent advice to the secretary of defense. The report had not been made public until after the New York Times wrote about it on Nov. 24, followed by the Associated Press and other news organizations.

In some ways, the report -- titled "Strategic Communications" -- is dry, bureaucratic fodder. But deep inside, it goes to the heart of both the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, and it raises many crucial issues that don't get probed deeply enough by news organizations, in my opinion.

The report comes at an interesting time. President Bush, on many occasions when speaking of Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network and the "nature of the terrorist enemy," has said: "They hate us. And they hate freedom. And they hate people who embrace freedom." Last week, in a television interview, Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said, "We know there's another attack coming. You and I can't say if it's next week or six months from now, but it's coming." In recent weeks, there have been new statements from bin Laden (on Oct. 29) and his top deputy and strategist, Ayman Zawahiri (on Nov. 29). Zawahiri was quoted as saying: "You must choose between two methods in dealing with Muslims. Cooperate with them based on mutual respect and interests or deal with them as if they are spoils of war. This is your problem, and you must choose. And you should know that we are a nation of patience, and we will continue fighting you until the last hour."

Now comes the Pentagon's advisory board with a sharply critical report that says U.S. efforts to separate "the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists . . . have not only failed . . . they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended."

Here are some of the key points:

• "American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the U.S. to single-digits in some Arab societies."

• "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states."

• Since Sept. 11, 2001, "American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. What was a marginal network," the report said, is now a community-wide "movement of fighting groups."

• "Muslims," the board says, "see Americans as strangely narcissistic -- namely, that the war is all about us . . . no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game." The critical problem for American public diplomacy, the section concludes, is "a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none -- the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam."

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

© 2004 The Washington Post Company