Ombudsman

Fairness and History in the Balance

By Michael Getler
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Compared with most weeks, this past one was relatively quiet on the complaint front. There were challenges, as there are almost every week, about how the paper handles the Social Security debate. For example, are reporters allowing President Bush to get away with claiming that the system is "on the path to bankruptcy" by 2041, as he said at his April 28 news conference?

The next day's stories pointed out that critics say that claim is misleading. Readers say it isn't just critics. It's a fact that the Social Security board of trustees say that in 2041, tax income would still cover 74 percent of the costs of the system. Others say the truth depends on the definition of the word "bankrupt." Some companies continue to do business while in bankruptcy, but the White House points out that bankruptcy means "having insufficient assets to cover one's debts," which, they say, applies to the system in 2042. There is not room in every story to explain this dispute in full. But some effort to keep readers aware of it seems necessary every time.

Some readers also complained that the headline above the news conference story, "Bush Social Security Plan Would Cut Future Benefits," was unfair. They pointed out that the president said, "I propose a system where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off." That's true. But one could argue that it is also true, and more relevant to about 70 percent of wage earners, that, as the headline said in blunt terms and accompanying stories made clear in more detail, currently scheduled or promised benefits would be reduced for the great majority of recipients under such a proposal.

There were a handful of e-mails and calls last week about one phrase in a well-reported and documented front-page story last Sunday by Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi about Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a new federal investigation into whether a deal involving a fleet of gambling casino ships involved bank fraud. The phrase came 13 paragraphs into the story. It described Abramoff as, "A smooth-talking political power player who was an Orthodox Jew." There are many other important characters in the story, but Abramoff is the only one whose religion is referred to.

Editors say: "Jack Abramoff has made his religion a prominent part of his public profile, therefore we felt it was important to mention it when we were doing a quick summary of his biographical information. We meant in no way to slight Abramoff's religion or to connect it to any of the current controversies involving him. We noted in introducing this that he is 'a study in contradictions,' then lay out facts commonly presented when his bio is being summed up. We put these facts in contrast to each other, political power player vs. Orthodox Jew, Hollywood producer vs. top lobbyist, to show that he combines many traits that do not usually coexist in one individual. One of Abramoff's points is that he is living evidence that people with his religious beliefs can thrive and find common cause with conservatives in the Republican Party." That may be true, but it is not explained in this particular story. So I'm with the readers in that the relevance test didn't seem to be met.

While I deal mostly with complaints, as a reader I would also tip my hat vigorously toward The Post -- and reporters R. Jeffrey Smith, Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi, Mike Allen, Thomas B. Edsall, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, database editor Derek Willis, and the research staff -- for an extraordinary string of well-documented stories over the past year on the ties between lobbyists, institutions and powerful congressional figures, and on the ethics surrounding these ties. Last Thursday's front-page article by Smith and Willis documenting the use of corporate jets by congressional leaders was just the latest in such reporting.

A handful of readers last week also faulted the paper for not following up on a London Sunday Times disclosure of a secret memo by a foreign policy aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair after a Bush-Blair meeting in July 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. It said, in part: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam [Hussein], through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Two other matters struck me last week. One was the failure in the April 30 and May 1 papers to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war in Vietnam. There was a brief story inside Metro on May 1 about Vietnamese Americans marching, and there had been a nice feature a week earlier by reporter Phuong Ly on the lives of Vietnamese immigrants. But that war and its ending was one of the great traumas of modern American history, with comparisons today, some relevant, some not, to the current war in Iraq. An important opportunity -- one that was grabbed by television and several other newspapers -- was missed to remind, reflect and perhaps educate many readers, some who remember vividly and some who remember not at all.

The other was an exclusive story by reporter Josh White on Wednesday based on 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and Army investigative reports. They document not only that former pro football player Pat Tillman had been killed accidentally, through "gross negligence" by his fellow Rangers, rather than by enemy fire, but that the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, was told of the circumstances days before a nationally televised memorial service. Yet the Army decided not to tell the family or the public until weeks later. Post Associate Editor Steve Coll, back in December, revealed much of the detail surrounding Tillman's death. But White's story nailed it down, added important new information and seemed to me to deserve Page A1 instead of Page A3.

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


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