Questions Over Counting and Credit

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Washington journalism has about it a peculiar insularity. Who gets credit for groundbreaking reporting is not important to most readers, but Washington editors often try to knock down each other's stories and want to be credited when they think they've broken a story first. I know; I've done it.

So a memo from Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau that criticized The Post, leaked to a popular media news Web site Friday, was not viewed with equanimity in The Post's newsroom.

Several in the newsroom felt the attack by Clark Hoyt, Knight-Ridder Washington editor, and John Walcott, Washington bureau chief, on Post stories last week about Iraq was unwarranted. David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, said he feels strongly that The Post's story was groundbreaking and accurate.

Newspaper staff memos are leaked all the time to Jim Romenesko, who runs a daily collection of media news on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. So Post staffers felt the leak was deliberate; Hoyt said he did not leak the memo. Hoyt had already voiced his complaints to me.

The most serious issue was Hoyt's questioning of figures cited in a front-page story in The Post on Tuesday -- that the death toll in recent Iraqi violence had hit 1,300 -- and of where that information came from.

In his memo, Hoyt said, "Our reporting in Baghdad -- and reporting by other news organizations -- so far has been unable to verify the Post story.

"The Post quoted officials at the city morgue in Baghdad as saying that they had logged 1,300 bodies of people killed as a result of the sectarian fighting. But when our correspondent examined the books at the morgue, he could find only about 250 bodies logged in as killed in the violence. Our story, quoting the Iraqi Cabinet, said the death toll was 379, which would have included those 250."

The memo went on to say that a Post article on Wednesday "quoted Gen. Ali Shamarri of the Interior Ministry's statistics department as saying the toll was 1,077. . . . In Baghdad, our correspondents attempted to interview Gen. Shamarri to confirm the Post's account of violence more widespread than previously believed. They were told that no person by the name of Ali Shamarri worked in the statistics department, nor anywhere else in the ministry."

The Post story on Wednesday, quoting the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq, also said that "[o]fficials overseeing Baghdad's morgue have come under pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture."

Hoffman said of all the stories by Baghdad Bureau Chief Ellen Knickmeyer: "I am confident in the validity and accuracy of our story. I am confident in the soundness of our sources.

I am aware of the identity of all the sources and the process of the reporting."

Knickmeyer, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Associated Press before joining The Post, was in the morgue and reported what she saw personally, Hoffman said. Iraqi staffers for The Post were also involved in the reporting. What about Gen. Shamarri, whom no one else could find? Hoffman said he doesn't know why other reporters couldn't find Shamarri. "I can't speak for them."

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