Accurate, but Not the Whole Story

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Accurate stories can be misleading. Two recent Page 1 stories -- one on the Fairfax County libraries and the other on the sale of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards's Georgetown house -- brought complaints that there was less there than met the reader's eye.

The Edwards story, by John Solomon and Lois Romano, was controversial even in the Post newsroom and was attacked by Edwards, his staff, liberal-leaning blogs and about 50 readers.

Reader Robert SanGeorge of Chevy Chase wrote: "I read it three times and could not figure out why it was a news story, let alone a front-pager. What's worse was that the placement, the headline and the tone of the story clearly implied that former senator Edwards had done something sleazy."

National Desk editors saw the point of the story as transparency. Under the terms of the sale, the buyers chose not to reveal their names. In learning their names, The Post found they were also under federal investigation. Edwards and other presidential candidates can expect -- and deserve -- close scrutiny of any financial dealings.

The buyers were Paul and Terry Klaassen, founders of an assisted-living chain. The Post has reported that they are involved in a federal inquiry into questionable accounting practices and the dating of stock options from their company, Sunrise Senior Living. Some labor unions also have complained about their practices. Real estate agents said the fact that the Klaassens veiled their identity is common in high-end real estate transactions, as the story also noted.

I kept waiting to read about the connection between the Klaassens and Edwards that would make this sale unseemly; it wasn't there. Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Edwards "has never met or spoken with them; nor have they contributed to his campaign."

The story was interesting, but it was more of an item for the Reliable Source or In the Loop -- and not worth Page 1. It seemed like a "gotcha" without the gotcha.

The story also lacked needed financial context. It noted that Edwards bought the house for $3.8 million in 2002 and sold it last month for $5.2 million after it was on and off the market for 18 months.

But the story didn't pin down that the house, in the 3300 block of P Street, had at least $1 million in renovations, said several sources. The asking price originally was $6.5 million and had been lowered twice, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the region's multiple listing service.

And the story didn't mention how home prices had risen from 2002 to 2006 -- for District single-family homes, the gain was 61 percent, said Fred Kendrick of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokers. Applying those numbers would put Edwards's house at about $6.1 million, not counting the renovation costs.

"It's not like buyers were lined up at the door," said Connie Maffin of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "From a real estate standpoint, money talks and nothing else does." Maffin is the head of the D.C. Real Estate Board and a past president of the local Realtors' group.

Fairfax library officials complained about the Jan. 2 story that indicated some literary classics were being "dumped" to make way for more popular books. Reporter Lisa Rein asked Lois Kirkpatrick, library marketing and public relations manager, in December for a story idea during the holidays. Kirkpatrick and Clay told her about the "Hot Picks" computer program and a "new, more retail-oriented approach" that would get more popular titles to patrons faster, Rein said. To do that, librarians needed to aggressively remove other books -- ones not checked out in two years -- from the shelves.

Rein noticed that some of the books weeded out were classics and thought that was the lead. Edwin S. Clay III, the library system's director, said the story "was basically accurate" but the impression that he believed was left by the headline and graphic "couldn't be further from the truth." Kirkpatrick thought the story "sounded like we were trashing" classic literature. "Classics are a minuscule proportion of the books on our computer reports. The largest percentage is nonfiction," she said.

The library story's headline was "Hello, Grisham -- Goodbye Hemingway?" The graphic listed five books "in danger of being weeded from the shelves of the Fairfax County Public Library system." This is how many copies the library system has of those works, in print and various electronic formats: "The Works of Aristotle," 107; "To Kill a Mockingbird," 359; "The Sound and the Fury," 99; "For Whom the Bell Tolls," 108; and "The Glass Menagerie," 116.

The story said that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that hadn't been checked out in two years and that could be eliminated. Those books have been checked out; it would have been better to say that some copies of those books may not have been checked out in two years at some branches and could be weeded out. Kirkpatrick and Clay say there was never any intention of weeding out all copies.

The story was picked up by news services and resulted in a firestorm of outrage across the country and critical editorials in other publications that depended on The Post's reporting. Clay said that all public libraries weed out-of-date, unused and "torn-up and ratty" books. Most of the books are not "dumped." They go to organizations that sell them and return proceeds to the library, which the story noted.

The most obvious problem is that the graphic, not done by the reporter, said that the book titles were in danger of being removed from the system. That was not true.

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


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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