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Ask The Post

Fred Hiatt
Washington Post Editorial Page Editor
Wednesday, March 8, 2006 12:00 PM

This Week: Editorial Page editor Fred Hiatt was online Wednesday, March 8, at noon ET to discuss The Post's op-eds, editorials and opinion columnists.

The transcript follows.

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Chantilly, Va.: What is the process you go through to determine what will be included in the paper's editorials each day? Who does the editorial page speak for, the publisher, the editor only, the staff of the paper, someone else? Are all editorials specifically approved by the publisher?

Fred Hiatt: Thanks for tuning in everyone.

This seems like an excellent first question. Almost every morning, I sit down with our editorial board and we argue about the issues of the day and try to come to a consensus on which editorials we should write, and who (among the eight of us) should write them. We don't always reach full consensus, but we try.

In the end we publish editorials that do speak for the newspaper, but in a funny way--after all, we're completely separate from the reporters and editors who put out the news, and they disavow any opinions. In a sense we speak for the publisher, for the owner--but they don't review most editorials. Instead, they hire someone (me) who they think generally will share their world view.

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Washington, D.C.: Why hasn't The Post editorially demanded that the Bush administration and/or Congress take urgent steps to implement mandatory gas mileage requirements to control increasing global warming?

Fred Hiatt: Actually, we have supported raising the gas mileage requirements for cars and trucks; in principle, we also support some kind of carbon tax, which would be probably the most efficient way to move toward other forms of energy. But we recognize that that isn't politically likely right now.

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Washington, D.C.: When sending an unsolicited editorial, how can a writer stand out from the pack?

Fred Hiatt: We receive about 70 unsolicited opeds a day, and we only have room on average for one (given our regular columnists). So we have to turn down a lot of excellent pieces. In general it helps if the writing is clear and the piece says something that hasn't been said--will entertain our readers and tell them something new, or help them think about an issue in a new way.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking my question.

Last December, it was reported in the press that some Washington think-tank types had been paid by lobbying or other special interest groups to write op-ed pieces that promoted the groups' policy positions.

Does the Washington Post have a formal policy that restricts, or requires the disclosure of, this sort of supplementary income for its op-ed contributors? If so, is this policy uniform for regular columnists and guest columnists?

Fred Hiatt: We ask our contributors to tell us any relationship they may have that could conceivably be considered a conflict of interest. Doesn't mean we wouldn't publish a piece, but we might decide that readers should know and be able to decide for themselves.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think it is wise for an unsolicited writer to contact the editorial page in advance and discuss what they are working on? Is the editorial page staff amenable to pointing an unsolicited writer in the right direction - so they have the best chance of being published?

Fred Hiatt: Honestly, no. We don't have time to do much of that. But we do look at every piece that comes in, and sometimes if we think an oped might work with some tweaking, we'll talk to the writer about that.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Does The Post often get criticized for being "too fair" to certain interests/perspectives? For example, I've noticed that in your coverage of issues relating to global warming your journalists often present the completely dismissed perspective that global warming "isn't happening" as if it is on equal footing with the opposing viewpoint. Your thoughts?

Fred Hiatt: Well, as editorial page editor I have nothing to do with the news coverage of climate change. I do oversee the editorial page, where our position is that climate change is a serious problem that this country should be responding to more seriously than the Bush administration has.

I oversee the oped page too, where I believe we ought to publish a range of opinion--but not a range stretching to include what clearly isn't true.

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Washington, D.C.: I am curious as to why The Post does not publish more letters to the editor. On any given day there are usually no more than six. By comparison, today's New York Times printed 15 letters, and as far as I can tell from its Web site, the LA Times ran 10. The local paper in my hometown usually runs 7-8, and they have only a single page to work with for all editorials, columns, and letters.

I find letters to the editor to be an interesting gauge of community sentiment, which actually raises another question I have about the letters the Post publishes. Your page seems to give most of its letter space to "experts" - i.e. people with titles after their names. Why not more from everyday readers/residents, whose perspectives are equally interesting?

Thanks.

Fred Hiatt: Great question. I would like to publish more, and I agree they shouldn't all be from experts. Sometimes we're obliged to run letters from experts, ambassadors, etc., who've been mentioned in news stories or editorials and deserve a chance to reply. We have less space than the NYT in part because we run a cartoon six days a week. We do have the Free for All page on Saturdays which allows for some more reader response. But it would be good to have more.

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Mexico City, Mexico: Which criteria do you use to use a piece from an international columnist about issues that concern both the U. S. and other nations?

Fred Hiatt: We consider them seriously. I like having opeds that give American readers a perspective from abroad that they may not get from American reporters, American TV, etc. On the other hand, those opeds have to compete for the same scarce space I mentioned earlier.

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Washington, D.C.: I've noticed The Post has embraced blogs in a big way. Most seem to be opinion, not straight news, which I guess is what blogs everywhere tend to be. Some are on the left (Froomkin), some in the middle (the debate), but I haven't seen any that are consistently right-of-center. What do you think of the blogs on the site now (Achenblog, debate, etc.)? Do you read them? And are the any plans to add a conservative blog?

Fred Hiatt: I don't oversee this Web site--but I believe the people who do agree with your point and are in the process of looking for a right-of-center blog. I think it would be a good idea.

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Princeton, N.J.: Fred, this is an old topic, but one that is still important. The Post ran a series of editorials on Social Security. They were all based on the premise that the middle projection of the Social Security Administration was gospel. A lot of economists have pointed out that this projection (as well as the CBO one) made assumptions that were essentially unknowable, e.g. the average growth in the GDP over the next 75 years would be 1.78%, and, in addition, made extremely conservative guesses for these assumptions. Also if you compare the record of the SSA's middle projection with its high projection, you see that the high one has been much more accurate. Why wouldn't The Post admit these editorials rest on a bed of sand?

Fred Hiatt: I'd be a fool to get into a LOL debate on Social Security, least of all with someone from Princeton! However I would say--we believe strongly that the aging of the population, combined with rising health care costs, are going to put a huge squeeze on the federal budget in coming years--to the detriment, if there's no entitlement reform, of national parks, aid to the poor and everything else we care about.

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Belle View, Va.: Good Afternoon, Mr. Hiatt. I have been attempting to get a simple answer to a simple question from The Washington Post for many, many months, to no avail, so I will try again with you. Why does The Washington Post refuse to publish the names of the authors of your editorials? The Washington Post recently came down harshly on the posting of comments by anonymous contributors, and I see no difference in The Post's obsession with secrecy in editorial authorship. Even the Supreme Court lists it's member's votes, pro and con, why does the Post refuse to let it's readers know who has written it's editorials? Or are all of your writings based on a unanimous vote? Many thanks!

Fred Hiatt: We think there's value in having one column of opinions that speak for the newspaper--and the process of seeking consensus on our board, which I mentioned earlier, often leads to superior editorials. Often more than one person contributes by the time an editorial makes it into the paper.

Several of our editorial writers do also write columns under their own bylines.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why is The Post's coverage of the Iraq war unbalanced. For example, why aren't we given more news coverage about the suffering and loss of life of Iraqi civilians and innocent children. Why the push for war and almost unquestioning acceptance of the administration's plans for war?

Fred Hiatt: I know many readers disagree with our stance on the Iraq war, which is fair enough, but I don't think it's right to say we've been unquestioning. We've been highly critical of much about the administration's plans and the way they've been carried out.

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Falls Church, Va.: Mr. Hiatt--

I'm one of those baffled by the Post's reluctance to label Dana Milbank as a columnist. What is your view about that decision? And if he were to be officially designated a columnist, would he be welcome on the op ed page?

Fred Hiatt: Again, not my call. As a reader, I think Dana is trying to do something that no one else is doing, either in the news pages or on the oped pages--a sketch that can give you more of a feel, or a different feel, for Washington than news stories can, but not one based on opinion. I think they're often terrific.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How many people are involved in the really big editorial decisions, like, say, which presidential candidate to endorse? Is it still just the members of the editorial board, or are there more voices involved?

Fred Hiatt: For big ones like that, the editorial board is involved, and so is the chairman of the company, my boss, Donald Graham.

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West Springfield, Va.: When you print letters to the editors about a controversial story, how do you determine how many pro versus con letters you publish? Can a reader determine an approximate percentage of pro/con letters received at The Post by the number of such letters published?

Fred Hiatt: We do factor in the weight of reader opinions when we decide how many on which side to publish. But I'm more interested in publishing a range of different and interesting views than I am in providing a statistical sample.

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Fairfax, Va.: Participants in The Post's LOL sessions often level the accusation of pro or anti-Bush bias against The Post's political coverage and its editorial comments. Have you ever looked back and added up the times over the last year The Post has sided with Bush and the times your editorials have opposed Bush? If so what's the score?

Fred Hiatt: I haven't done such a tally. We take seriously our claim to be an "Independent Newspaper," which means to me that we evaluate issues on their merits, regardless of which party or politician is supporting them. I know if you went back you'd find issues where we're closer to Bush (Dubai ports, say) and issues where we're highly critical (treatment of foreign detainees, say). A count wouldn't interest me particularly.

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Washington, D.C.: For those not so well-established in the area, is there some sort of easy way (i.e. on the Web site) to find out basic background information about your regular columnists? I would be interested in what their experience is with the issues they write about.

Fred Hiatt: That's a good question. I believe there's some information here on washingtonpost.com. After the chat I'll go look at whether there should be more.

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Vienna, Va.: Would the Post ever endorse more Republicans than Democrats in local and state elections?

Before every election you present your recommendations for state delegates and senators. Invariably, The Post selects nine Democrats for every Republican.

Why is this? And is it set in stone?

Fred Hiatt: Nothing is set in stone. There are many local Republicans we've happily supported over the years (Connie Morella in Md., for example, or Tom Davis in Virginia). Lately the Republican position on fiscal matters in the state of Virginia has been on the whole less compatible with ours than the Democratic position, and that tends to be a big factor in state delegate races.

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Arlington, Va.: Has Don Graham considered raising his profile on the editorial page?

Fred Hiatt: Not that he's mentioned to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the tendency for national newspapers to be labeled either liberal (NY Times) or conservative (WSJ) stems mostly from the types of things found on their op-ed pages or more from the ways in which they choose to cover what is found on the front page etc.? As an editor yourself, do you think any of these criticisms are valid?

Fred Hiatt: I think it's more from the positions they take in editorials and the columns they choose to run. I don't, for example, think that the WSJ news coverage reflects the conservative slant of its editorial board.

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Winston Salem, N.C.: When do you feel that The Post will take accountability for its poor reporting before the Iraq invasion? Its influence is felt especially when the reporting is weak or incomplete.

When do you feel The Post will own up in its editorials in its mistake in supporting the war for the wrong reasons?

Fred Hiatt: I can't speak for the news side, but they have done pretty searching stories on themselves, in my judgment. As for editorials, we've acknowledged that we were mistaken in our assumptions about WMD, and we've written editorials about the implications of that intelligence failure, and we've written editorials along the way trying to explain to readers how we feel about the war as it's progressed, and why.

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Munich, Germany: Is there any coordination done on the daily op-ed topics. I noticed today that there were pieces on the upcoming Russian hosted G8 meeting, the proposed fence between Mexico and the States and Global Warming (all great articles by the way).

Also, an opinion is an opinion, but who takes responsibility for the factual content of an op-ed piece? If something turns out to be falsely stated, then I assume that The Post will have egg on its face as well.

Fred Hiatt: Sometimes we try to run one or more opeds on the same topic. Certainly we try to run opeds that are topical--relevant to the news.

I'm ultimately responsible for the factual accuracy of what appears on either the editorial or the oped page. When there's a mistake, sometimes the columnist corrects it in a subsequent column, sometimes we run a correction.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you ever miss being a news reporter, and do you see yourself leaving your current job anytime soon?

Fred Hiatt: I miss the part of being a news reporter that involved a lot of getting out--particularly to foreign countries. But you might be surprised how much reporting is involved in the writing of every editorial, so that part of the job really has continued.

I hope to keep the job for a while.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: endorsements of local candidates.

It's sad that one of the only two Republicans you could think of was Connie Morella. She was a Republican in name only.

Specifically, what is it about Republicans' fiscal positions that dissuade you from endorsing them? Or is it really something else?

Fred Hiatt: She's not the only one I can think of. She's just one whom I admired. And who got gerrymandered out of her job by Democrats in a way I thought was unfortunate.

As to the fiscal question: It's no secret that as an editorial page we believed that the tax-cutting agenda of the two previous Republican governors diminished the state's ability to do things (in schools, roads, universities, health care) that we think a state should do; and that we've supported the agenda of the subsequent two Democratic governors to correct that. That's no excuse; it's a fundamental issue.

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Miami, Fla.: The Post has carefully returned its position on Iraq but my feeling is that it hasn't fully come clean as the NYTimes has on its mistakes. I feel you still are trying to justify the earlier mistaken editorial positions whenever possible.

Fred Hiatt: We have felt strongly that, whether invading Iraq was right or not, the country would be wrong to pull out as long as there's a chance to achieve something that would benefit the Iraqi people and U.S. national security.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You wrote that you are ultimately responsible for the facts presented on the editorial and op-ed pages. How long before press-time do you get the op-eds? How big a staff do you have to fact check op-eds before they go out? Printing corrections is a different from stopping factual errors before they are printed, as you know.

Fred Hiatt: Yes, that's for sure. Fortunately I have a copy desk chief and three full time copy editors who are terrific at their jobs (Vince Rinehart, Gina Acosta, Autumn Brewington and Tom Rowe). They catch a lot of mistakes before publication. And while sometimes we have plenty of time--an oped that we accept days before we can use it--a lot of times they're working on pretty tight deadlines.

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Washington, D.C.: They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that might be an understatement in regards to Tom Toles's work.

What disturbs me is that Toles's pictures uniformly bash Republicans. Where is the balance?

Fred Hiatt: Actually, a week or two ago he had a pretty devastating one centering on a donkey, as I recall. Mostly it's true he goes after the party in power--but I think that's what good cartoonists tend to do.

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Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning....Congratulations!! Your typing abilities are way faster than those guys over in the News. Sometimes there are such long periods between questions/comments that I think they are finished and forgot to say good-bye.

Thanks for listening.

Fred Hiatt: Good typist--maybe that's why I got this job.

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Portland, Ore.: Mr. Hiatt:

I am curious about the perceived importance or impact of editorials by any paper. I confess that for some reason I enjoy reading by-lined columnists regularly, but only occasionally read an unsigned editorial, perhaps because they often seem as if they are written by committee and lack personality. In its readership surveys, are editorials widely read or generally not read by your readers, and do you think they actually have any impact on public opinion or public policy? Thanks.

Fred Hiatt: We try to write our editorials in a way that every reader might want to read them. I know we don't always succeed. As to impact--it really varies. These days there are so many sources of opinion, in so many different media, that no one voice is likely to be dispositive. And that's ok by me. We want to be one responsible, thought-provoking, thoughtful, sometimes passionate voice. But we're just one.

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Burke, Va.: I'd love to see more editorial writers do this type of Web question and answers. It'd be really informative.

Fred Hiatt: I'll propose that. I'm sure some would like to, after all that anonymous toil.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Hiatt--the ombudsman mentions often that The Post's news room and editorial staff are firewalled off from each other. What does that mean and how does it work? Thank you!

Fred Hiatt: It means that I oversee my (little) staff, and executive editor Len Downie oversees his (gigantic) staff, and while we are very friendly we don't talk to each other about what we have published or plan to publish. His reporters covering the presidential race, for example, have no idea whom we will endorse, or when, and no influence over that decision.

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Burke, Va.: A few things - I would like more loud and proud liberal commentators, in addition to the centrist ones you have.

I'd love to see your conservative columnists do one of these online things.

I'd like to see more and better fact-checking and sourcing. I know this are opinions, but they should always be anchored in facts.

Fred Hiatt: I tend to find that our more liberal readers think we carry only conservative and centrist columnists, and our more conservative readers think we carry only liberal and centrist columnists, and naturally I think we have a pretty good range.

As to getting one of the conservatives on line--good idea, I can't see why one wouldn't want to.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Mr. Toles' slant

You wrote: "Mostly it's true he goes after the party in power--but I think that's what good cartoonists tend to do."

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, are you saying that we can expect Toles to treat the new president the same as he mistreats Bush? This might be worth renewing my subscription...

Fred Hiatt: I think if you asked Bill Clinton that question, based on Tom's work in the 1990s, he would probably answer yes.

I think you ought to renew your subscription now. Just in case. Then you'll be ready.

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Madison, Wis.: Why doesn't any of the columnists (besides the guest columnist Ambassador Richard Holbrooke) take up HIV/AIDS related issues? The number of new cases each year has stayed at 40,000 despite the fact that we know a lot more now that we used to about the disease. More locally, HIV/AIDS policy-- prevention, awareness, education, programs etc. in the District is abysmal at best. As The Post reported, D.C. has the highest rate of new cases in a metropolitan city. It begs the question, what's more important--writing about what the president and when about Hurricane Katrina (conjecture and the blame game day after day) or this largely ignored epidemic in the U.S.? The intelligent people who read the op-ed section need to know what's going on!

Fred Hiatt: I don't disagree. I would say that there are a lot of really urgent issues--including Katrina and whether the nation is prepared to respond to another emergency--and it's hard to find room for them all. We have written lots of editorials about AIDS in Africa and the need to do more to help people there.

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Washington, D.C.: An interesting question for you, from someone who reads the opinion section daily and has also submitted things on behalf of clients.

Several times, I've found that an op-ed was received positively when submitted directly by the writer, be it a corporate leader, government leader (Governor/Senator-type), etc. However, when my public affairs firm has submitted a piece on behalf of these types on an equally relevant, interesting, engaging topic, it has been rejected.

I'm wondering if that's a matter of practice, and also, if there's a reason that pieces seem to be treated differently. I can think of one recent example in which we submitted something on behalf of a major political leader, simply because it was easier for us to send it in directly, on a timely topic that the White House had addressed recently and that has received coverage in major papers, but not The Post. And the Post editorial staff gave us a refusal that sounded as if it had not even been read.

Fred Hiatt: I don't think we discriminate against PR firms, but we don't discriminate in favor of them either; I always try to tell people that their chances of getting published are not improved by hiring an intermediary.

As to your recent experience--I'm sorry if we sounded peremptory. But I can be pretty sure the piece had been read.

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Fred Hiatt: Thanks for all the questions. Sorry I didn't get to them all. And thanks for reading the paper!

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