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Ombudsman

For a Few Stories, a Grade of Incomplete

By Michael Getler
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page B06

One theme that emerged from the ombudsman's e-mail last week was things that readers felt were missing from stories.

For example, when the House Ways and Means Committee opened its hearings on restructuring Social Security on March 9, The Post covered it with a standard 600-word story by reporter Mike Allen that appeared on Page A5. There is not much you can dwell on in a 600-word story that needs to cover lots of points, and Allen did a skilled and concise job. The main witness was David M. Walker, a Republican who heads the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The story devoted three brief paragraphs to some of Walker's key points, which Allen captured well.

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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But Walker is one of the most authoritative, candid and independent voices on this issue, and his testimony came as the nation continues to struggle with conflicting and confusing political arguments about Social Security. So a reader who watched on C-SPAN wrote to say she was "flabbergasted and disappointed at the Post's minimal coverage," which she called "a disservice to readers." Walker's testimony "should be heard far and wide. It is by far the most direct, fact-based, clear, well-articulated explanation of the Social Security issue that I've heard," she said.

Having watched an interview with Walker on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS late last month, I agree with this reader's characterization of Walker and that it would be helpful for readers to be exposed to more of his testimony. The Post's Web site, with none of the space restrictions of the printed paper, produced a fuller story about the hearing and Walker's testimony.

On Monday, The Post ran a front-page story by Chicago-based correspondent Peter Slevin headlined "Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens." It drew a lot more mail than the Social Security story. Indeed, it seemed to be perhaps the most-talked-about story of the week. This was a lengthy, smart and very revealing piece about how activists on the political right are crafting strategies and intensifying debate across the country about how students are taught about the origins of life. Policymakers in 19 states, Slevin reported, are weighing proposals that question the science of evolution.

The article laid out that strategy in fascinating detail. What it didn't lay out, but seemed to assume that everybody understood, was the basic science behind evolution. "Where were the quotes from scientists defending evolution and the teaching thereof?" one reader asked. "In fact, there is virtually no scientific controversy, yet we read quotes from a variety of elected officials telling us there is," he said. "There is no controversy about evolution," wrote another. "It is accepted as the foundation of the life sciences by all professional biologists around the world. To suggest that there is a doubt about its accuracy is the equivalent of doubting that the Earth travels around the sun."

Interestingly, the article drew a strong internal note, with a copy to me, from one of the paper's science reporters, endorsed by the science editor, which said: "How is it that The Washington Post can run a feature-length A1 story about the battle over the facts of evolution and not devote a single paragraph to what the evidence is for the scientific view of evolution? We do our readers a grave disservice [that word again] by not telling them. By turning this into a story of dueling talking heads, we add credence to the idea that this is simply a battle of beliefs."

Editors here, and Slevin in an online chat later, said that evolution is the accepted standard for most readers and that this story was about the "dynamic activities of the groups on the other side." That's true, and this was a truly illuminating story. I would side with the complainers, however. My feeling is that those extra few paragraphs could have defused ideological and scientific criticism and made the story more likely to be absorbed as newsworthy.

Some readers wrote to take issue with a story on Page A13 Monday by Jerusalem correspondent Molly Moore, reporting on action by the Israeli cabinet with regard to dismantling West Bank settlements under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The critics compared Moore's coverage unfavorably with that of the Associated Press and the New York Times, both of which reported that the cabinet affirmed it would dismantle 24 illegal West Bank settlements but did not say when that would happen. Moore's story reversed the sequence in the lead, reporting that the cabinet delayed action while acknowledging that evacuation of these outposts is required. She didn't use any numbers in the lead. I saw nothing wrong with this and Assistant Managing Editor David Hoffman points out that the cabinet statement doesn't mention any specific number of settlements. He also notes that there is a dispute about the number of unauthorized outposts established since March 2001 that fall under this requirement; the Israeli Defense Forces says there are 24, the activist group Peace Now says 51, and a special investigator appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently said there are 105 such outposts that should be dismantled regardless of when they were established.

The only flaw in Moore's account, as I see it, is that the sole figure included is the one asserting that there are 105 such illegal settlements.

Finally, in all the Post reporting Thursday about the nomination of the Pentagon's No. 2 official, Paul D. Wolfowitz, to become the head of the World Bank, and the quoting of people reacting to that development, the paper failed to record the view of the man Wolfowitz would replace, departing chief James D. Wolfensohn. So here is what he said, as reported by other papers. Wolfowitz is "a person of high intellect, integrity and broad experience both in the public and private sectors" who "has qualifications that would be critical for leading" the World Bank.

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


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