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Slow News: Lots of Firing, Not Much Smoke

In February, Army Times reported that thousands of wounded veterans were awaiting decisions on benefits from a military bureaucracy that is "agonizingly slow, grossly understaffed and saddled with a growing backlog of cases."

But while news organizations followed up periodically, the problems seemed diffuse and abstract, and had to compete with daily pictures of devastation in Iraq. What kicked the story into high gear were two symbols -- the awful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as revealed by The Post, and reporting by ABC's Bob Woodruff, who had suffered brain damage from an Iraqi bomb. Yet the broad outlines were visible much earlier.

John Walcott, McClatchy's Washington bureau chief, says that much of the news business leans heavily on The Post and the New York Times "to set the news agenda," and "that was a problem in the coverage of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq . . . The administration can ignore Salon or the Chicago Sun-Times or McClatchy much more easily than it can ignore The Post or the Times, but that doesn't mean that any of us should ignore, much less minimize, good work by our competitors. All of us should have been faster to follow the trail that Salon broke."

Still, while television can be slow to pick up on print reports, sometimes it's newspapers that miss the boat.

When Newt Gingrich told a Christian radio show this month what had long been suspected -- that while married he was carrying on an affair with a House staffer at the same time he was championing Bill Clinton's impeachment -- it was immediately big news on the networks.

"A startling admission," said ABC's Elizabeth Vargas. "Gingrich revisited past sins," said CBS's Jim Axelrod. "A carefully timed confession," said NBC's Brian Williams.

Although the former House speaker, who fessed up to Focus on the Family's James Dobson, is weighing a late-starting presidential bid, you needed a magnifying glass to find the newspaper accounts.

The New York Times (one paragraph), Washington Post (four paragraphs), and Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune (five paragraphs) all ran brief wire stories. USA Today carried nothing.

Were the papers being squeamish, overly high-minded or simply dismissive of what they deemed old news? Gingrich's confession was an important political and cultural moment, and besides, readers would have gobbled it up.

A Question of Diversity

Fifteen percent of stories on the network evening news in each of the last two years were reported by minorities, an all-time high that is more than double the level of 1990.

CBS's Byron Pitts led the 2006 field with 76 stories, followed by ABC's Pierre Thomas, NBC's Jim Maceda, and CBS's Randall Pinkston and Joie Chen, says a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Women reported 28 percent of the pieces, just under the high-water mark of 29 percent set in 2002. ABC's Martha Raddatz was the most frequent female face, with 137 stories; CBS anchor Katie Couric had 103, and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, 85. Couric nearly lapped the field with reported or narrated pieces, even though the survey includes only four months of her "CBS Evening News" tenure.


Her face peers out from Metrobuses around town, the young star of a promotional campaign for Washington Post Radio.

Now it can be told: She's the 12-year-old daughter of a New York Times reporter.

"It's very cool," says Timeswoman Sheryl Gay Stolberg, though she did stop to wonder about aiding the competition. Her husband, Scott Robinson, is a photographer who was hired by Post Radio's ad agency. Asked to submit images of ordinary people, he included a shot of their daughter, Olivia, in her karate class. "She and her sister are very happy they didn't select a photo of them in the bath," Stolberg says.

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