Tomorrow morning, staff reporters and editors will congregate, as they do almost every Monday, on the ninth floor of The Post's Northwest building to discuss the way they handled the previous week's news and related matters. For most of them, attendance is pretty much on their own time, but there's usually a good turnout, possibly because coffee, juice, doughnuts and freshly baked croissants are on the house.
At last Monday's gathering, I understand, there was a spirited discussion of the ethics involved in publishing the lead article the previous Sunday. The story cited "a senior administration official" who was accusing House Speaker Jim Wright of "screwing up" the negotiations on Nicaragua. There was no rebuttal from Mr. Wright.
The story was prepared Saturday afternoon by veteran reporter John Goshko, no stranger to the corridors of intrigue in the State Department or the halls of power in the Capitol.
The article led the paper, which means it was in the upper right-hand corner of the front page, a position presumed to command the immediate attention of all readers who do not first turn to Sports, Style, Business or the comics.
The article was generously sprinkled with strong and colorful quotes that increased its readability and justified its use in the lead position. Saturday was a dog-day afternoon for news, and Mr. Wright was the only fair game in town. In point of fact, Mr. Wright was not in town but in Texas raising money, and Mr. Goshko was unable to reach him or anyone in his camp. Mr. Wright's people say the reporter didn't try hard enough. Maybe yes, maybe no.
One of the questions is: Should The Post have gone to press anyway, as it did, without including Mr. Wright's defense, especially considering that the sole accuser was anonymous? Anonymous, of course, only to the 1,100,000 or so folks who bought The Post that Sunday. The motley assortment of Washington insiders, including Mr. Wright himself, knew perfectly well the identity of the "senior administration official." Did The Post have the right to withhold this information? And was it ethical to carry a personal attack on this highly placed elected official without naming the source? Not, of course, that Mr. Wright would have had to make even a phone call to figure out who the official was.
So the editors had the option of using the story Sunday, watered down with the source identified, or holding it for a day and getting Mr. Wright's side. Mr. Wright, of course, might then well have denounced the source by name -- which would have posed a new problem for the editors, perhaps never raised before in the newsroom.
Well, they had a corking good story last Sunday. Even Executive Editor Ben Bradlee did not disapprove after the fact. It was he some years ago who issued an edict that no stories would be carried in The Post unless the sources were named. There is no record of that order's having been rescinded, but after a week or so, nobody seemed to pay much attention to it, including Mr. Bradlee. There is still a policy of maximum identification, however. In seeking out the truth, the word is to get it by name but, above all else, to get it. That's the real rough and tumble of Washington journalism.
All one can ask is that editors and reporters at The Post not get selectively noble.
In a totally unrelated matter -- except for the fact that it also involves public officials "screwing up" -- The Post certainly let those snow bunglers in Prince George's County off easy. Can you imagine people on their way home on a highway right smack in the middle of an urban area getting stuck all night without public officials taking note or doing anything about it? The Post didn't do much about it, either.
If this nightmare had occurred on Mayor Barry's turf, you can bet there would have been journalistic hell to pay. So I wasn't surprised the next day when I found a message that Hizzoner was anxious to talk to me. I really expected to catch it. Instead, the mayor invited me to lunch.