Two articles in The Post this past week or so should have aroused your righteous anger. It is estimated that about 2 million people read this newspaper every weekday; only one of them complained.
The offending stories involved people in high office who were accused of criminal wrongdoing and subsequently exonerated.
In one case -- that of James Beggs, former head of NASA -- the indictment commanded a big headline on the front page. That was in December 1985. It took the Department of Justice 19 months to learn it had no case. When it decided to go public with this news, it did so in a way that -- well, let me put it this way, there ought to be a law against the government conducting its business in such a shoddy manner. This, however, doesn't let The Post off the hook.
The editors buried the story of Mr. Beggs' exoneration on page 8. When I confronted Executive Editor Ben Bradlee with this, he said simply: "It should have been on Page 1."
To add insult to injury, the accompanying photo of Mr. Beggs carried a caption that said he'd been among those indicted for fraud, not that he'd been cleared of any illegal acts. The front-page headline of the indictment referred to him; the headline of the story clearing him did not. Yet here was a man who has been living under a cloud for a year and a half, having resigned his job as administrator of the space agency, preparing to defend himself against charges of defrauding the government when he was an official of the General Dynamics Corp.
The Justice Department had the guts to say "mea culpa." But it did so in a devious way designed to minimize attention. Instead of holding a press conference in Washington at high noon, which would have been a class act, the dismissal of the fraud charges was requested of a federal judge in Los Angeles in the dark of night, figuratively speaking. At about 9 p.m. a week ago Friday, the Los Angeles Times story punched its way onto the news desk at The Post. Deputy Managing Editor Richard Harwood was on call that night to approve any decisions that involved the front page. No one called him. It is the general policy of The Post to give those accused equal prominence when cleared, which was done in the case of former labor secretary Raymond Donovan, for example. The exact positioning of the "all clear" story is determined somewhat by what other news is demanding attention, of course, but page 8?
At the time of the Beggs indictment, I was approached by my son Peter, whose name keeps cropping up in this column. He said his friend, Jim Beggs, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, told him his father had been unjustly accused of defrauding the government. He said he was proud that his classmates were treating him no differently from the way they had treated him before the story became public. My son wanted to know why people in Washington were talking as though Jim's father were guilty, and why did he have to resign as head of NASA when everybody agreed he was doing a top-notch job? Those were tough questions, and I assured my son the system would work. If he were innocent, the world would soon know it, and The Post would trumpet the news. He called me from college last week. I explained that sometimes the judicial system doesn't work the way it should, and neither does the commitment to fair play at The Post. To his credit he refused to accept this.
The other unjust story I mentioned aroused just as much indignation -- more, in a way -- as the Beggs affair. I say "more" because in the Beggs story, there was deadline pressure, which calls for a certain amount of forgiveness. But in the half-page picture layout on the Federal Page last Thursday, there was ample time for contemplation.
There were nine pictures grouped together in a rogues' gallery arrangement with a large-type introduction about widespread corruption in the Reagan administration. The nine head photos were offered as "an update on senior officials who have faced criminal charges since 1981."
You have to read the fine print to learn that while they've all been placed in the same cage by the editors -- under "corruption" -- four of the nine have been found innocent, one of them being former NASA administrator James Beggs, who never even had the privilege of a trial.
This, my friends, is questionable, if not irresponsible, journalism. I'll rest my case.