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Allen's Run of Problematic Press

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 1, 2006

So is The Post out to get George Allen? That's what some folks have been angrily charging lately.

Suzanne Rosenberg of Manassas complained: "I want to cancel my subscription to your paper. I have absolutely had it. I don't know how many articles you had on the stupid macaca incident. And this big article in The Post . . . about his ancestry, it should not matter; it's ridiculous. It's obvious that your paper does not like George Allen, does not endorse him and you're doing everything . . . to make him look bad in the eyes of the public."

Several questions arise about the coverage of the Virginia Republican senator in his campaign against Democrat James Webb. Was the "macaca" incident worth reporting? Was it overreported? Is it news that he has some Jewish heritage? Was it fair to interview his mother? Why pick up a story from a liberal-leaning online magazine that said he used "the N-word"? And does the coverage hurt Allen's campaign?

First, let's go to the macaca tape. Watch it on washingtonpost.com. It was definitely a news story. Allen rightly apologized for a lapse in judgment.

Did The Post overplay the incident? Not initially, but the coverage went on for too long after he apologized. The news stories, handled by the paper's Virginia political reporters, did not go overboard. An editorial was well done. Then the columnists weighed in, along with Style reporters and editorial cartoonist Tom Toles. No one piece was over the line. But when you put it all together, it looked like piling on.

Then the matter of Allen's Jewish roots emerged.

There are reasons to ask a candidate, especially one who has presidential ambitions, as Allen does, about religion and ethnicity. Remember the controversy over John F. Kennedy's Catholicism? Or Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's support for abortion rights and whether that meant he could receive communion as a Catholic? Or the continuing importance of conservative evangelicals to the Republican Party?

Post reporters at an Allen-Webb debate did not ask Allen if he had Jewish roots and hadn't planned on asking. But a TV reporter did, based on a story in the Jewish Daily Forward that said Allen's mother, Henriette, was born into a Sephardic family in Tunisia. The question was not played up in The Post's story about the debate; it was dealt with in the last two paragraphs. But Dana Milbank focused on it in his Washington Sketch column.

Allen's sputtering response , in which he said the reporter was "making aspersions," made the story come alive. And his bad-joke comments a few days later about eating a ham sandwich and his mother making good pork chops added fuel. My talks with Post Virginia editors and reporter Michael D. Shear about campaign coverage, especially on the Jewish queries, make me think they gave Allen the benefit of the doubt.

The whole package of coverage prompted Dorothy Armistead of Sperryville, Va., to complain: "I'm not Jewish myself but believe you me, I think it is a repulsive way of handling this story. I just don't understand what is happening to the editorial policy of The Washington Post that they can allow that kind of thing to happen."

A number of readers, including Karin Mears of Centreville, were upset that Allen's mother was interviewed. "It was despicable of you to call George Allen's mother and grill her about her heritage. She's 83 years old and has a right to privacy, no matter what her reasons are. "

Shear's interview with Mrs. Allen -- which the senator's campaign staff did not want to take place -- told readers what happened from the point of view of Allen's mother. It was a needed and even sympathetic story. It was easy to empathize with her fear of revealing her Jewish background, especially because her father had been imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. She said she told Allen about it only recently, asking him to keep it secret. Allen frequently mentioned that his grandfather was imprisoned by the Nazis; it would be logical to think his grandfather might have been Jewish.

This brings us to the story from Salon that said he used the N-word in his college days. Two people, including a college friend, made the accusation; others have said they never heard him say it. The Post couldn't ignore the story , but it should have noted that Salon is a liberal-oriented Web site.

John Burpo of Springfield asked: "Why did The Post violate its own guidelines and standards to allow anonymous sources to attack Senator Allen with unsubstantiated allegations?" Using quotes from two anonymous sources who said that Allen had used the racial epithet added nothing to the story.

Does all the coverage hurt Allen's reelection prospects? The stories -- six of them were on Page 1 -- don't help him, but there are five long weeks before Election Day. The Post has also reported stories that haven't helped Webb -- such as the front-page article about his remarks concerning women in the military and accusations that he also used the N-word and took part in racial harassment when he was young.

While this has nothing to do with news coverage, it has been noted that The Post's editorial board has never endorsed Allen. That is true, but it also did not endorse Webb in the Democratic primary.

I trust that Arlington reader David Tuma's wish will be fulfilled by Election Day. He wrote: "Frankly, I think more important (and responsible) reporting would be on what has shaped their views since then and what both have done to improve conditions for all people."

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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