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Ombudsman

Getting Blogged Down in the News

By Michael Getler
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page B06

Being away for 10 days usually means coming back to some old business. It's unusual for old business to remain new business over such a stretch, but that's what has happened with The Post's coverage of the mysterious Senate memo dealing with political strategy in the case of the now-deceased Terri Schiavo.

It started on Sunday, March 20, with a front-page story by reporters Mike Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia about Congress preparing to have the federal courts become involved, in hopes that doctors would be required to restore a feeding tube to Schiavo. The story referred to an "unsigned one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators," and quoted it as saying the debate would appeal to the party's core supporters. "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," the story quoted the memo as saying. The Post said the memo was reported first by ABC News and later given to The Post.




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What happened afterward, in the end, didn't amount to much. The Post story, at least the version I just referred to that was printed in the paper, eventually was shown to be generally accurate. Some important details are still not clear.

But what happened between then and now is also interesting as one more tale, but with some special twists, of partisan attacks on mainstream media news stories and reporters, and the impact of bloggers. In this case, The Post was also guilty of failed internal communications and, in my view, should have been quicker and more straightforward with its readers in acknowledging some confusion over this controversial story.

To understand this, you need to know that an earlier version of the story was slightly different. It described the document as a "one-page memo, distributed to Republican senators by party leaders." This version, which seemed to implicate the top leadership of the party in the distribution of the memo, was put out about 9 p.m. Saturday by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, which has some 600 news organizations as clients. It is normal for the news service to put out Post stories for its clients the night before publication in the newspaper. What nobody told the news service at the time, however, was that the story had been edited and rewritten in a more conservative fashion, so to speak, dropping the "by party leaders" phrase. The news service version was used by some other newspapers, including the Seattle Times and the Oakland Tribune, and was picked up by Reuters and Yahoo News.

Meanwhile, right-wing publications and bloggers immediately began to feast on the printed Post story. The critics said that there was no reason to believe the unsigned memo originated with Republicans and that there was considerable reason to suspect a Democratic dirty trick. On March 30, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote about the blogger challenges. He wrote about it again on April 4 after bloggers discovered the version of the story that had been sent out by the news service and used by some other news organizations. Kurtz also disclosed that the news service had sent out an "advisory" to its clients on April 1, largely in response to the blogger challenges.

The advisory, which was also put out later as a "clarification," came on the advice of editors here and was sent almost two weeks after the story first moved on the wire. It said, "The version of the article published by the paper did not specify the authorship and noted that the memo was unsigned. The authorship remains unknown." The advisory also mentioned the use of the "party leaders" phrase in the news service story but didn't clarify or explain it.

News service managers here say that they received no complaints from any clients about the article and that their search shows that fewer than 20 clients used it.

To further complicate things, that early version of the story that included the reference to unnamed "party leaders" also appeared in the early Sunday regional editions of The Post that go to about 60,000 readers in certain areas of Virginia and Maryland. The Post editors and reporters I talked to about this were not aware that this early version appeared in the printed paper in those early editions. So there has been no clarification in print about the change, which has irritated some readers who got those early editions and have been following this dispute.

Once Kurtz began writing, properly in my view, about what the right-wing bloggers were saying about the Post story, and pointing out that there were "several strange things about the memo," left-wing bloggers turned on him. That continues.

As matters evolved, follow-up stories by Mike Allen on April 7 and 8 reported that the legal counsel to freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted that he was the author of the memo and that Martinez's office says it is investigating whether this aide distributed it to other Senate offices. So the memo was not a fake and did have a Republican origin. The degree of distribution has yet to be resolved, as does the issue of the original description in the news service and early printed edition version that it was distributed "by party leaders."

Correction: In the March 20 column, I referred to the head of the Government Accountability Office, David M. Walker, as a Republican. That was based on a March 10 Post story about him. That designation was wrong, but rather than run a correction, which would have prevented repetition of the mistake because the corrections are linked to the original stories in the archives, The Post corrected it by reporting in a March 13 follow-up story that Walker explained that "from 1969 to 1976, I was a Democrat. From 1976 to 1997, I was a Republican. Since 1997, I have been an independent both in form and substance, which is important for my job."

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


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