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Too Lofty a Spot for This Story?

By Michael Getler
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B06

It was almost certainly the least surprising "news" of the week, but it was spread across the top of The Post's front page on Wednesday. The first-edition main headline said, "Cheney Applauds Bush Appointments." As the evening progressed, the paper apparently grew slightly more conservative, journalistically speaking, and changed the headline to "Cheney Defends Bush Appointments."

In the story, which grew out of an interview by Post reporter Jim VandeHei with Cheney aboard Air Force Two, the vice president elaborated on the wisdom behind President Bush's nominations of former State Department official and U.N. critic John R. Bolton as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and of former deputy defense secretary and Iraq war strategist Paul D. Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. He also talked about the appointment of White House advisers Karen P. Hughes and Dina Powell to beef up the State Department's "weak" public diplomacy operations.

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When the vice president grants a rare one-on-one, on-the-record interview with The Post, it is virtually certain to go on Page One. That is pretty much the convention at every paper, although it's not a good one and demonstrates the ability of any White House to grab a piece of the front page almost any time it wants. But spreading that story across the top of Page One when there is little or no news content upset several readers.

This does not quite rise "to the level of dog bites man," wrote one reader. "Total spin," another wrote. "Cheney defending Bush appointments is news? What was expected, that he would not? Where is Cheney's credibility after all his failings in the Iraq fiasco? Maybe the story is worthwhile, but not as the top lead," one more reader wrote. Is that the only news The Post "can wring out of a sit-down with one of the most controversial vice presidents in recent memory?" another asked.

I thought the reporter probably did as well as one could in a 20-minute interview. The description of the theme behind the appointments was worth reading, as was Cheney's view that the previous inhabitants of the State Department didn't do a very good job of public diplomacy. But was this story overplayed? Absolutely, in my book. And did the headline invite ridicule? For sure. Had Cheney made these remarks on a Sunday morning TV talk show, they probably would not have earned more than a paragraph or two in the next day's Post.

On the one hand, the administration did well in The Post last week. Aside from the Cheney interview, there were three stories about Bush and Cheney on the road plugging their Social Security plan, appearing March 19, 22 and 23.

On the other hand, several stories depicted alleged administration deception. The most important, in my estimation, was by staff writer Dafna Linzer, who reported last Sunday that, in an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the administration had told its Asian allies that North Korea had exported nuclear material to Libya, thus helping its effort to become a nuclear-weapons state. But Linzer reported that what really happened, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction, was that North Korea sold the material to Pakistan, which sold it to Libya; that there was no evidence that North Korea knew of the second transaction and that Pakistan's role was concealed because it is a key U.S. ally in the hunt for al Qaeda leaders.

This story was on the front page but below the fold and beneath a story about a forthcoming proposal by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for reforms at the United Nations. Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman, on duty for the Sunday paper, said that he and other editors viewed the U.N. story, which was also an exclusive, as "stronger and with broader impact" than Linzer's story. It's easy for me as an outsider and second-guesser to disagree, but I do. Linzer's story, and its implications, struck me, and a couple of other readers, as extraordinary.

It also struck the White House that way because a spokesman called it "flat wrong" in a letter The Post published Friday; the letter said that the allies were told several times during the briefings that the nuclear material sent to Libya went through the illicit network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. However, stories on the front pages of the New York Times and The Post on Feb. 2, both based on briefings by senior U.S officials, reported "the near certainty," as the Times put it, "that North Korea sold processed uranium to Libya." There was no indication in these stories that these officials mentioned any connection to Pakistan or Khan at the time. But the next day The Post reported that the evidence could "just as easily" point to Pakistan as the source.

Another story, by Shankar Vedantam, appeared on the front page March 22. It reported that the Environmental Protection Agency, in unveiling a new rule about limiting mercury emissions from power plants, failed to reveal that a Harvard University study, paid for by the EPA and involving an EPA co-author and two EPA scientists as peer reviewers, had reached opposite conclusions.

In that same paper on Page A3, reporter R. Jeffrey Smith, using documents revealed by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), wrote about the Justice Department redacting and withholding portions of an FBI agent's conclusion about the quality of intelligence yielded by controversial interrogation practices used at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Columnist Martin Schram, a former Post reporter who writes for the Scripps Howard News Service, also called attention to these stories and others last week in writing about "governments that lie" and how journalists "communicate" that to the public.

There is, of course, always another side to these stories. The Post reports that, as well, and one hopes that over time the facts can be documented in a convincing fashion. Linzer's story has gotten a lot of attention overseas. But what puzzles and disturbs me these days, in general, is what little resonance these stories and many others in recent years seem to have. They don't seem to cause anywhere near the stir in the public or the Congress or the press that they should.

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

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