Should This Parade Have Been Stopped?

By Deborah Howell
Thursday, January 10, 2008; 12:00 PM

How could The Post distribute Parade magazine last Sunday with an interview with former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- whose photo was on the cover -- that didn't take into account that she was assassinated more than a week before?

Linda Stathoplos of Bethesda wrote: "I realize the magazine was printed before her death, but I received the magazine section on Saturday, and did not receive the front page of the Sunday section with the explanation until this morning. Was any attempt made to include an explanation with the actual Parade magazine itself? In my opinion, it was a horrible decision to distribute the Parade magazine anyway."

Seventy-five percent of Post home-delivery customers -- by far the majority of those who buy the paper -- get Parade on Saturday with advertising inserts, comics and TV Week, all printed in advance. Post editors placed a note to readers on Sunday's Page 1, but it was small, below the fold, had no headline and mentioned other issues before the Bhutto interview.

The note should have been eye-catching and prominent, with a headline and an image of the Parade cover -- and should have run both Saturday and Sunday. I asked several readers if they had seen it. David Green of Purcellville said the notice was "not exactly prominent . . . it was a shame that the WP could not have drawn attention to this explanation in a more prominent manner than the sorry second item 'oh by the way . . .' buried at the bottom of Page 1."

Parade is one of the more popular sections in the Sunday paper and has appeared in The Post since 1941. Though The Post's name is on Parade, the magazine is not a Post publication; nor does The Post have anything to do with its production or national distribution -- only its local distribution. Parade is published by Advance Publications Inc., a company I worked before becoming ombudsman. Parade has a partnership arrangement with The Post and other newspapers and invests in Post promotion and research that may help Parade, whose revenue comes mainly from advertising, said Parade's chief executive, Walter Anderson.

Parade, which has a circulation of 32 million, is distributed in 414 other newspapers around the country; none of them dropped the issue with the Bhutto interview. Reader Leonard Tow of Potomac e-mailed to say that he knew Parade is "prepared by an outside organization, BUT she was assassinated a few weeks ago. There is no excuse for that article being printed and having the caption on the front page [of the Parade cover] as if she was still alive. It could have been edited. There was time to make that change."

Anderson said there was "no way" to edit the story. The issue was not only off the presses but was on its way to newspapers all over the country. Parade is printed on five different presses around the country three weeks before it appears in The Post and other papers. Its contract with The Post, according to Anderson, specifies that it is to be delivered to The Post nine days before distribution, which it was, on Dec. 28, the day after Bhutto was killed.

Could Parade or The Post simply have killed that issue of the magazine? There were two decisions to make, one at Parade and another at The Post. At Parade, Anderson said top executives met right after the assassination. Anderson said Parade executives felt the interview was important enough to share with readers. Author Gail Sheehy had spent several days with Bhutto in Pakistan in late November and had one of the last interviews with her before her death. In the interview, Bhutto said: "I am what terrorists most fear, a female political leader fighting to bring modernity to Pakistan. Now they're trying to kill me."

Anderson said, "It was a difficult decision and we knew we would be criticized, but the decision was a journalistic one, not a financial one. We knew all readers might not agree with it."

The Post could have chosen not to distribute it, but top news and business executives did not consider that option. They first heard about it when Parade arrived Dec. 28 at Post production facilities, and Kevin O'Neill, manager of packaging and distribution at the Springfield plant, gave them a heads-up: "It felt funny that she had just been assassinated and now the interview comes out," O'Neill said. When he didn't get contrary orders, Parade became part of the inserting operation, which begins every Sunday night and takes most of the week.

Parade executives also notified The Post and all other client newspapers of the interview and asked that they publish notes to readers. They also updated and released the interview on Parade's Web site soon after her death; some papers picked it up and ran it before the magazine was distributed, Anderson said. Post Executive Editor Len Downie agreed that the interview could be of interest to readers and said that the magazine also contained other stories and features readers would be looking for.

Some readers just didn't like the article, which included material critical of Bhutto. Gail Reinhart of Alexandria wrote: "I want to go on record as saying that I found the publication of Gail Sheehy's catty, snarky article on Benazir Bhutto ten days after the poor woman's violent murder to be in abominably bad taste. Sure, the insert was already printed before Bhutto's assassination, and not distributing it would have led to a lot of lost ad revenue, but someone should have shown a little common decency and made the decision to 'suck it up' financially. I recognize that Parade is an independent entity from the Post . . . Nonetheless, this piece was distributed as part of your paper and your name was printed on the front cover of the magazine, so I don't feel you can rightly deny all responsibility."

This has happened only once before in Parade's history, Anderson said. Jacqueline Kennedy was on the cover of a holiday issue in late 1963, after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated Nov. 22.

While readers' confusion and concern are understandable, it has been my experience that readers generally prefer to make their own choice on what to read -- and do not appreciate editors throwing out a comic or a feature without giving them the choice. Again, a prominent Page 1 note on Saturday and Sunday could have helped readers to understand what had happened.

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


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