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Stories That Had Readers Writing

By Michael Getler
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page B06

There was, as usual, lots of solid reporting in The Post last week. But readers, as usual, also offered interesting and important challenges.

For example, on Dec. 2, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that Palestinians should seize this time to make progress with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because he has the ability to move the peace process along. Sharon "asks only for one thing, the end to the explosions, so they can work together on a solid basis," Mubarak was quoted as saying. The New York Times described Mubarak's comments as "remarkably conciliatory remarks towards Israel." The Washington Times, in a front-page account a day later, described them as "a rare note of praise by an Arab leader for an Israeli leader." The Post did not report it. No explanation so far.

On Dec. 7, every major newspaper I looked at -- except The Post -- had on its front page the story about an armed attack by Islamic radicals on the U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia that killed five consulate employees -- none of them American. The Post put the story on Page A19, with a small reference to it on the front page.

Putting this story inside, said one caller, "was insulting. That was a U.S. Consulate. The people who were killed worked for us. We were the target and you put it on Page 19. It shows the world how we view the world." The Post had a lot of good stories on the front page that day. But by any measure that attack was one of the biggest news stories of the day, and I think that's what people expect to find on the front page.

Writing about people who are at war with U.S. forces is always a tough assignment and is certain to upset some readers. But it is an important aspect of coverage. One such story, by Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Anthony Shadid, appeared Dec. 1 and rattled some readers both with its tone and content.

It was the story about "a blacksmith turned insurgent" in Iraq and how this transformation "began with the death of his son, Ahmed, whose short life was ended by an American bullet." Yet the story later says the father did not see the source of the bullet that killed the 13-year-old, who had insisted on carrying ammunition in the battle for Fallujah. The incident took place just before the ground assault on the city, so readers can fairly ask whether the boy might have been killed accidentally by an insurgent. And there is no caution in this article that the stories told by the boy's father could not be independently verified. It all may be true, but it doesn't hurt to say one can't be absolutely sure. Editors said the father's bona fides were checked extensively.

Another story from abroad that drew some complaints was a front-page piece by Jerusalem correspondent Molly Moore on Nov. 29 headlined, "Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army; Civilians Describe Abuse; Troops Lament Conditions." This was an account of the humiliations and other, sometimes worse, abuses suffered by many Palestinians as they seek to pass through Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the real and psychological toll this duty also takes on many Israeli soldiers. This was a very powerful story about an important subject that doesn't get much scrutiny.

The story reported that the Israeli military says these checkpoints are necessary to protect Israel and Jewish settlements in the territories, that they were a factor in reducing suicide bombings, and that 39 Israeli soldiers had been killed at checkpoints and roadblocks. But the story began with two wrenching and dramatic glimpses of Palestinians being treated harshly. There was no attribution, however, and some readers seized on this to cast doubt on the story. Actually, Moore, who spent lots of time at checkpoints, says she witnessed both episodes. There is no easy journalistic convention for saying "I saw this," and yet not saying it in some fashion assumes too much of the reader.

The story also drew some criticism for not laying out the "numerous" incidents of violence and deception by some Palestinians at these checkpoints. The story does describe the death of two Israelis at a checkpoint at the hands of a Palestinian who had an automatic rifle wrapped in a prayer rug. Moore says that while there have been other such incidents, they are not "numerous." Nevertheless, some additional sense of the dangers, techniques and ruses would, in my view, have added to the credibility and thus the power of this story and diminished its vulnerability to criticism.

On the home front, the goings and stayings within the Bush Cabinet provided both news and criticism of the news. On Dec. 3, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced his resignation at a news conference at which he volunteered an astounding statement: "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." The Post did not do a separate story about that, including his comments in another story Dec. 4 about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld being expected to stay on, which was no surprise. The Post, as of this writing, hasn't done a follow-up on Thompson's comment, or asked, for example, what he did about protecting the food supply these past four years.

That story about Rumsfeld, incidentally, reported on the front page that his retention "eliminated the last major uncertainty about the shape of President Bush's second-term Cabinet." That lasted until the Dec. 9 front-page story that Treasury Secretary John W. Snow had been asked to stay on. Snow had previously been associated with perhaps the most cutting and oft-cited anonymous quotation of the political season, a Post story on Nov. 29 that contained this sentence: "One senior administration official said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow can stay as long as he wants, provided it is not very long."

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

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