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Two Stories That Pushed Some Buttons

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 21, 2008

In a hotly contested election, readers are on the prowl for any story they think is unfair to their candidate. Republican-leaning readers criticized two Page 1 stories on Sept. 12 -- one about Cindy McCain's drug addiction almost 20 years ago and the other about a remark in a speech by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The Palin story-- headlined "Palin Links Iraq to Sept. 11 in Talk to Troops in Alaska" -- was written from Alaska by National reporter Anne E. Kornblut. In the first online version, she wrote that Palin linked the war in Iraq with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Palin told Iraq-bound troops they would "defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans."

The second paragraph was edited on the National desk to say that linking "the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein" to the attacks, "a view once promoted by Bush administration officials, has since been rejected even by the president himself. On any other day, Palin's statement would almost certainly have drawn a sharp rebuke from Democrats, but both parties had declared a halt to partisan activities to mark Thursday's anniversary."

In the print version the next day, the "sharp rebuke" sentence was gone and another sentence was in its place: "But it is widely agreed that militants allied with al-Qaeda have taken root in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion."

So was Palin alleging that Saddam Hussein had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, or was she referring to attacks on U.S. troops by al-Qaeda in Iraq? Some readers and the Web site of the conservative Weekly Standard said the story misrepresented what Palin said.

The confusion deserved to be cleared up right away, but it took five days for a clarification to be published last Wednesday; it quoted a Palin spokeswoman as saying Palin was referring to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Kornblut said she thought there could have been more than one interpretation of Palin's remarks, so she didn't initially object to the changes made in her story, but she now wishes she had pressed harder to delete the Saddam Hussein reference.

The Cindy McCain story is fraught with partisan crossfire and human drama. Several readers and McCain's former Washington lawyer, John M. Dowd, complained that she overcame her addiction to prescription painkillers in 1992 and that the story has no bearing on John McCain's run for president.

The story was peddled to some news organizations (The Post was already working on the story) by a Democratic operative who set up a news conference Sept. 11 for Tom Gosinksi, a figure in the case. The Post story noted that. And Republican operatives asked Post editors not to run the story.

The addiction problems of Kitty Dukakis, wife of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, and of first lady Betty Ford were widely covered. Cindy McCain's case was more compelling because her drug use resulted in a federal Drug Enforcement Administration investigation. She admitted taking painkillers from an overseas medical charity she founded, which led to it being shuttered and to the charity's doctor losing his medical license. She cooperated with the investigation and, as a first-time offender, was put in a diversion program that mandated community service, drug treatment and reimbursement of the costs of the investigation.

Gosinksi, a former employee of the charity fired by McCain, was a source for The Post story, which said he had asked for a $250,000 settlement from the McCains in exchange for not filing a wrongful-termination lawsuit. That looked like blackmail to Dowd, who asked for an extortion investigation; Gosinksi never filed the lawsuit.

Much of the information in the story had already been in other publications, especially in Arizona, but the story did not get much national attention. The Post ran a two-paragraph item in the Names & Faces column in the Style section on Aug. 23, 1994, and it was mentioned briefly in stories in 2000, when her husband ran for president, and in a recent Style story.

Cindy McCain put the subject in the public realm by talking about her addiction many times, first at the time of her legal troubles and again when her husband ran in 2000; she wrote a piece about it in Newsweek in 2001. This year she gave interviews on the subject to Jay Leno and "Access Hollywood" and said that she would work on addiction issues as first lady.

A candidate for president or vice president gives up his or her privacy and a spouse's privacy as well. A presidential or vice presidential spouse holds a taxpayer-supported position and is part of the package being scrutinized by voters.

The episode was obviously painful for the McCain family. John McCain said he never knew of her addiction; Michael Dukakis said he never knew that his wife was addicted to diet pills. Cindy McCain blamed her addiction on pain she suffered after back surgery and the pressure of her husband's involvement in an ethics investigation.

Still, Cindy McCain is not the nominee. Another way to handle the story -- especially in a hotly contested, partisan election atmosphere -- would have been as a sidebar to a profile of Cindy McCain or in a story about the McCains' long-distance marriage.

The story badly needed her voice, but she refused repeated requests for an interview, as did the McCain campaign. The story lacked the detail only she could have given it; she could have cleared up any inconsistencies. It could have been a more revealing and sympathetic story.

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To correct an error in my column last week: The Sept. 10 McCain-Palin rally was in Fairfax City, not Fairfax County.

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

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