By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
The Washington Post announced yesterday that it will back out of a controversial co-sponsorship of a Pentagon-organized event next month to remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and support the troops in Iraq.
The newspaper notified the Department of Defense that it would no longer donate public service advertising space to help promote the Freedom Walk, an event planned for Sept. 11. At the conclusion of the procession from the Pentagon to the Mall, there will be a performance by country star Clint Black, who recorded the song "I Raq and Roll."
"As it appears that this event could become politicized, The Post has decided to honor the Washington area victims of 9/11 by making a contribution directly to the Pentagon Memorial Fund," said Eric Grant, a Post spokesman. "It is The Post's practice to avoid activities that might lead readers to question the objectivity of The Post's news coverage."
The Pentagon expressed disappointment. "It's unfortunate that The Washington Post has made this decision not to support the Freedom Walk," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for communications. "But we do welcome their donation to the Pentagon fund."
Other media co-sponsors of the event are WTOP Radio, WJLA television and NewsChannel8. Officials with those outlets were out of the office and could not be reached late yesterday.
Pentagon officials have maintained that the event is intended to be a non-political homage to the victims and a salute to veterans past and present, devoid of commentary on the merits of the war in Iraq. The Post's corporate officials emphasized that distinction after its involvement was the subject of a Post story Friday. But The Post's participation was criticized by members of the antiwar movement and by journalists in the paper's own newsroom who posted messages on an internal electronic discussion board. These critics said the co-sponsorship could hurt the paper's credibility in covering the war and antiwar demonstrations.
"Post news employees are subject to disciplinary action for participating in political activities that may be perceived as revelatory of personal opinions or bias," said a resolution passed earlier yesterday by the leadership of The Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. "The Washington Post itself should be held to the same high standard. . . . The Guild supports The Post's stated intention of honoring the nation's veterans, including those who have served in Iraq. But the Post undermines this goal by lending its support to a political event that links the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to the war in Iraq -- a link that The Post, in its reporting, has shown to be false."
Grant acknowledged the negative reaction that the paper's initial stance received but said managers also began to reconsider the nature of the event.
"There was some criticism," he said, "but just as important was the fact that there seemed to be an increased possibility that the event could become politicized."
Peace activist Bill Dobbs yesterday welcomed the Post's change of heart.
"The reason why this was the right thing to do is that the press needs to have an arm's-length relationship with the government to hold them accountable," said Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, a national coalition participating in three days of antiwar activities -- also including a concert and march -- scheduled to begin Sept. 24. "This is a victory for . . . people who cherish The Post's reputation."
Barber, however, said critics are misconstruing the Freedom Walk. "This is . . . not a political event," she said, noting that, in addition, on Sept. 10 the public will have its first opportunity to visit the Pentagon to see where the terrorists crashed the airliner and to tour a memorial chapel.
"We were counting on The Post, who seemed to understand that this is really not anything but a Freedom Walk, to let the D.C. area know about this wonderful opportunity," Barber said. "We'll reach out through other communication channels."
Barber said as of last evening the other media co-sponsors had not notified her of any change in plans.