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Gaps in Disclosure, and in Satire

By Michael Getler
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page B06

For those of you who worry about media credibility, it was another one of those weeks. Things were disclosed about the media that made some people cringe, yet it was the press that disclosed what was going on in its own back yard.

USA Today earlier this month revealed that conservative 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.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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Then, on Wednesday, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz disclosed that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, who has written in support of President Bush's "marriage initiative," had not revealed that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002 for services associated with the program. Gallagher takes issue with the description of her role in The Post's story, but has apologized to readers and acknowledged that she should have disclosed the relationship.

A few days earlier, in the aftermath of the president's powerful and far-reaching inaugural address, The Post published a front-page analytical piece on Jan. 21 that quoted an array of sources, among them Yale University's John Lewis Gaddis, and William Kristol, the editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard magazine and a leading voice among neoconservative Republicans. Both had very positive things to say about the speech. "This was a historic speech," Kristol said.

The next day, another front-page story on some additional morning-after context supplied by White House officials also reported that the planning for the speech had included consultations with a number of outside experts, including Kristol. Oddly, the story again quoted Kristol describing it as a "a rare inaugural speech" that will be "historic." The story also reported on a pre-speech meeting attended, "according to one Republican close to the White House," by Gaddis, military historian Victor Davis Hanson and columnist Charles Krauthammer, whose column appears regularly in The Post. The story said this meeting was "a lively exchange over U.S. policy and the fight for liberty."

This disclosure provoked a fair number of critical e-mails and calls from readers, some of it probably prodded by a Web site called Media Matters for America that used the Post story to support a headline that read: "Kristol, Krauthammer lauded Bush inauguration speech without disclosing their role as consultants." It pointed out that both Kristol and Krauthammer had praised the speech in appearances during Fox News TV coverage of the inauguration. That would not be unusual, since both have been strong supporters of the president and their views are well known.

This type of issue has come up before. In 1980 columnist George F. Will appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to praise Ronald Reagan's performance in a debate with Jimmy Carter; it was later disclosed that Will had a hand in coaching Reagan for the debate.

The current situation is much murkier. Krauthammer has since told The Post that the speech never came up at the meeting, that he did not consider himself to have been consulting in any way on it, and that if it had come up, he would have disclosed it.

The meeting was held on Jan. 10 and the White House invitation concerned a discussion of "American foreign policy at it relates to the Middle East." Among the questions to be discussed were: "What should this Administration do/say more of -- and what should it do/say less of? What are the key, achievable goals we should aim for during the next four years?" Presidential speechwriter and policy adviser Michael J. Gerson was in attendance.

Kristol, who was not at that meeting, and Krauthammer are both important thinkers and voices. They both also have considerable access to the media. If they were involved in some fashion in helping shape the themes of the speech, and were then going to comment on it, they should have acknowledged their role or participation. Even better, in my view, would be for columnists, generally, to stay out of White House advisory deliberations. They have ample opportunity to lay out their thoughts in public.

On the lighter side of the news business last week, the Style section last Tuesday featured an "Appreciation" of Rose Mary Woods, who died last week at the age of 87. She was the former secretary to President Richard Nixon who had claimed in 1973 to have inadvertently caused an 18 1/2-minute gap in a tape recording that would have been crucial to the Watergate investigation. The Style story, by Hank Stuever, had a big chunk of white space in the middle. It was a spoof, but some readers didn't get it and wanted either a new paper or the story restored online.

On the other hand, The Post got fooled in its special inaugural edition Jan. 21. It published a picture of a middle-aged guy in a tuxedo waving his wallet at an anti-Bush protester and saying he wanted to thank the president for the tax cuts. The man was identified in the caption as Rich R. Danu of Detroit. Thanks to Erik Wemple of Washington's City Paper, we now know that Rich R. Danu was part of a group called "Billionaires for Bush, a bunch of lefty satirists who parade around in jewels and rich-person outfits pushing their 'agenda.' " Other members' names include "Ivana Moore-Enmoore, Robin Eublind and Fillmore Barrels."

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

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