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Notes Overlooked and News Overdone?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, June 17, 2007

The most vociferous mail last week came from readers who felt The Post was wrong to print an Outlook piece that was flawed, wrong to cover the perils of Paris Hilton and wrong to disclose District teachers' salaries in a Web graphic.

Comments about the District public school series that began last Sunday have been overwhelmingly positive; most readers seemed thrilled that The Post is reporting in depth on long-apparent problems.

The series melded the best of newspaper and Web journalism. The newspaper concentrated on why reform efforts haven't succeeded, and washingtonpost.com put a wealth of public information into an interactive school-by-school map that showed building repairs, crime reports, test scores, budgets, and salaries of teachers, staff and administrators.

But some teachers are upset that their salaries were disclosed; some said the salary figures are wrong. Dan Goldfarb, a teacher at Banneker Academic High School, said publishing the figures is "offensive," invades his privacy and "is totally unnecessary."

While that anger is understandable, there is a higher good to be served here -- accountability. There is no way to assess how each school is doing without looking specifically at what is spent. If the names are veiled, it is harder to hold individuals as well as the District accountable.

Public employees' salaries are public records. When someone is paid with taxpayers' money, that salary is liable to be made public whether you're the president of the United States or the county dogcatcher. (It's possible I'm inured to this from being married to a longtime educator whose salary was frequently published.)

The Post regularly prints the salaries of others whose records are public, such as highly compensated executives of publicly traded companies -- obtained from the Securities and Exchange Commission -- and the salaries of executives of nonprofit organizations, which must file tax records to keep that status.

The compensation figures are what the school district budgeted for each staffer, and many include 15 percent added for benefits; that was added to the Web graphic Monday. Those who see inaccuracies should e-mail dc-schools@washpost.com so the graphic can be amended. The map invites readers' help. Readers already have alerted The Post about issues to follow in later reporting.

Goldfarb said Banneker is a success story with great graduation and college-attendance rates, and he was concerned that good things about District schools will be ignored. This is an accountability series that will continue for many months and will take account of the good as well as the bad and the ugly, editors say.

Accountability is not why The Post reports on Paris Hilton. Some readers said that they don't want to read about her to-jail-or-not-to-jail saga and especially didn't like the June 9 photo of her on Page 1. John Fay of Wheaton wrote: "The Post has hit rock bottom with today's picture of Hilton on the front page, partly above the fold, followed by a story in Style. If the Post wants to run these stories to appeal to some demographic . . . it should have a separate section devoted to grocery-store-checkout stuff."

Like it or not, Hilton's story is news. William Booth, Style's West Coast correspondent, has treated the story as the show it is. Managing Editor Phil Bennett made the call to have that photo on Page 1. "The Paris Hilton saga speaks to our character as a celebrity-soaked culture, which is why so many people find something to say about it, and why it deserved some place on A1. A picture key to the Style piece seemed right. I don't think we lost our heads," he said.

But Bob Senser of Reston wanted more serious reporting. "We do have a two-tiered system of justice. Paris Hilton, with the help of lawyers, was thumbing [her] nose at the courts."

Al Gore partisans were furious about a piece by Andrew Ferguson titled " Fact Check" in Outlook last Sunday. It started by saying: "You can't really blame Al Gore for not using footnotes in his new book 'The Assault on Reason.' It's a sprawling, untidy blast of indignation, and annotating it with footnotes would be like trying to slip rubber bands around a puddle of quicksilver." Ferguson, senior editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, went on to say that he didn't believe an Abraham Lincoln quote in the book was authentic.

But Gore did have 20 pages of endnotes and cited a 1950 Lincoln encyclopedia for the quote. Ferguson didn't check the back of the book, and neither did Outlook editors. Boaz Kochman of New York wrote: "Mr. Ferguson's entire column is based on a falsehood. I trust that a correction is forthcoming." The correction appeared Monday.

Ferguson said, "I'm mortified about this. It was incredibly stupid. How I missed them is inexplicable." Ferguson said he worried that "everyone will dismiss" his point about the Lincoln quote. The encyclopedia Gore quoted is discredited by most Lincoln scholars, he said. "But there's no reason Gore should have known that."

Kalee Kreider, Gore's communications director, was upset that Gore wasn't called about the piece. "Well before the Outlook piece, [Gore] had learned the quote was questionable, so he requested a change in the second edition" of the book.

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

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