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Aftershocks From Asia

By Michael Getler
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B06

The catastrophic wall of water that swept away so many lives late last month in South Asia provided another of those unexpected tests for news organizations. Once again, The Post's experienced staff of foreign correspondents rose to the occasion. Reporters in Indonesia and India were on the scene quickly. Others from bureaus in China and Europe joined in, as well as reporters from the Washington staff. Within days, The Post had 10 reporters (but no photographers, something that was left to the wire services) spread throughout the devastated areas.

Adding a personal and chilling sense of what it felt like on the first day of the calamity was an account by Washington-based reporter Michael Dobbs, who was vacationing with his family in Sri Lanka and was in the water when the tsunami struck. Dobbs, a veteran foreign correspondent, went on to report the destruction and huge loss of life elsewhere on the island.

Ironically, it was another piece by Dobbs -- this one on the front of Style on Jan. 3 -- that produced the only critical note from readers. This piece, like the first one, was personal and focused on the family, especially a brother who owns an island in Sri Lanka, as well as on other guests who had joined their group on the island and, oddly, some cheese that had been brought from England. The story was candid and provided another slice of reaction. But it "reeked of privilege," as one reader put it, and drew several complaints as being "embarrassing" and alien to the catastrophe at hand, and reflecting a "lack of judgment" by the paper.

Yet a front-page story from Washington, by John F. Harris and Robin Wright, drew the most criticism. The Dec. 29 story reported that the Bush administration more than doubled its financial aid to victims of the tsunami "amid complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions."

The story went on to say that "domestic criticism of Bush continued to rise. Skeptics said the initial aid sums -- as well as Bush's decision at first to remain cloistered on his Texas ranch for the Christmas holiday rather than speak in person about the tragedy -- showed scant appreciation for the magnitude of suffering and for the rescue and rebuilding work facing such nations as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia." It added that there had been repeated inquiries from reporters about his public absence. On Dec. 30 Bush made his first public statement about the tsunami after it hit on Dec. 26.

The Post story provoked scores of e-mails and phone calls, almost all of them critical. Readers accused The Post of using the tragedy to bash the president, and many said they wanted to know "who are all these skeptics doing the complaining besides Harris and Wright?" as one put it.

My view is that this story did have flaws in the way it was presented.

On the other hand, I think the paper did the right thing in reporting this story and putting it on Page One. Almost from the start it was clear that an extraordinary natural disaster had struck several countries in Asia. The population in the hardest-hit country, Indonesia, is overwhelmingly Muslim. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, countries and leaders around the world voiced support and sympathy for the United States. But for the first three days of this tragedy there was no visible sign -- beyond a written statement issued by the White House -- of the American president, something that people around the world look for in a crisis. And there was only a small initial pledge of U.S. government aid. Since then, U.S. aid of all types has vastly expanded. But first impressions are important and the messages they convey, even if unintended, can linger.

None of this means that the president was not horrified by the disaster or that he didn't intend to do a lot more and say more publicly as the situation unfolded. But at a time when many people think that the media are too timid, The Post was the first paper among those I look at regularly that gave prominent attention to this story, which was timely, factual and observable.

The problem with the story is that it did not back up the claim that "domestic criticism of Bush continued to rise." There was only one substantial on-the-record quotation in the story, from the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, that carefully summed up the major components of the situation.

At the same time, Post editors, once again, routinely allowed an anonymous White House official to take a dig in the same story at former president Bill Clinton, who had spoken up before Bush about the disaster. The unnamed official said Bush "didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.' " This provoked other reader complaints.

This was a legitimate story by alert reporters that was made unnecessarily vulnerable to criticism because the language conveyed a political tone to some readers yet was not sufficiently supported by content. That not only diminishes the impact of what is being brought to the attention of readers but also poses risks for news organizations in today's superheated political environment.

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

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