To Readers, Terror and War Underplayed

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Coming back from vacation to a pile of mail reminds me of readers' abiding interest in terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Readers complained that The Post buried a story Monday following up on the attempted terrorist attacks in Britain. Charles Feigenbaum of Silver Spring wrote: "I understand that a lot of thought goes into determining which stories appear on Page A1, but I can't understand how the follow-up about the London and Glasgow attacks winds up on A15. Instead, we have an analysis about the besieged President Bush, a worthy story, but not one that needs to be on the front page; similarly the horse race story about [Barack] Obama raising a lot of money. I don't quarrel about the [story on the] growing and shrinking of fat but Metro ambiance belongs in (of course) Metro, and at best the Google and dog show items should be in Style."

Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor for weekends, made that call. Her reasoning was that "there wasn't enough new information to advance the story much beyond The Post's excellent A1 story on Sunday. The police had made another arrest and raided three houses, but we still did not have confirmed names of any of those arrested, knew little about any of them and had no new information about the scope of the threat. As to motive, it was hard to advance the story there, too. Our reporters quoted what police officials were saying, that the case was moving fast, but we only had outside experts theorizing about motive. Those are the main two reasons I opted to play the story on the World front with an A1 key."

Readers who write to the ombudsman are much more traditional than Post editors about what they want on Page 1. These readers tend to want the hardest of hard news on the front page. Post editors tend toward a "mix" of stories, sometimes features, that they believe will appeal to a broad range of readers. Dutt's reasoning makes sense, but the readers were right. Even if there wasn't much new, this was still the story on most readers' minds.

Some readers were disturbed by a too-brief story on a critical Iraq war speech by Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Barry Fulton of Chevy Chase e-mailed: "I am writing to express surprise that The Post relegated the Lugar Senate speech to a few lines on Page 2 today. The only less conspicuous place would have been in the help-wanted classifieds."

Dan LeDuc, the congressional editor, said that neither The Post "nor, as far as we know, any other journalists got advance word from Lugar's office about his speech." An Associated Press story at 9:38 p.m. alerted the National desk; three paragraphs made the Washington in Brief column.

Sandy Johnson, the AP's Washington bureau chief, said Lugar's staff had alerted the AP and sent a text of his speech at 6:47 p.m. Andy Fisher, Lugar's press secretary, said that e-mails were sent to a standard media list that included The Post. He said the notice was late because the senator didn't get floor time until almost 8 p.m. The New York Times and USA Today did not have a story the next day; the Wall Street Journal had a few paragraphs inside a larger story.

Whatever happened, National Editor Scott Vance said the story should have been more than a brief. He's right. The Post came back with a Page 1 story the next day about Republican discontent with the war and prominently featured Lugar's remarks. Lugar's speech was adapted into an op-ed in The Post the same day.

The most complaints were about a June 20 op-ed article by Ahmed Yousef of Hamas, a senior political adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, who is contesting his dismissal as prime minister by Mahmoud Abbas in the continuing warfare within the Palestinian Authority.

G.H. Rausch of Boca Raton, Fla., wrote: "It is hard to understand that a fine and upstanding publication such as yours would provide a forum -- in fact, a worldwide forum considering the position of your publication -- for a member of an organization dedicated to terrorism, the destruction of the State of Israel and ultimately, the destruction of western thought and way of life."

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said, "We frequently run op-eds from people with whom we disagree, sometimes vehemently. Sometimes we even run op-eds that express views we find repugnant. I think it can be useful for readers to get a sense of how people in the news think -- or how people in the news want to be perceived. I think our readers are smart enough to evaluate a Hamas piece in that light." My view is that we need to know what a group labeled as terrorist is thinking.

A few readers wondered why the New York Times and The Post ran different articles by Yousef on the same day. Hiatt said he and op-ed editor Autumn Brewington didn't know about the Times article. And David Shipley, Times op-ed editor, said he didn't know about the Post article. Hiatt said, "Our piece came to us through a representative of Mr. Yousef [in the United States] with whom we'd dealt before. He assured us afterward that he did not realize a separate piece was in the works." Shipley's source was in London and assured him of the same thing.

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


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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