In stepping daintily over the cracks to avoid quoting offensive language, The Post this week shot itself in the foot. The story concerned the filing of a criminal charge by a Virginia Supreme Court justice against a lawyer who at a Christmas party addressed him in vile language. Even outside the courtroom, state law makes this a criminal offense. Earlier in the month, the judge had enraged the lawyer by ruling against him in a case.
Accompanying the story was a photograph of the judge, who is black. Use of the photo, wittingly or not, injected the question in readers' minds whether this was a racial incident. Then, with the judge at the receiving end of the disparaging remark, the question was undoubtedly raised as to whether the slur was a racial one. It was not.
Two ways this could have been handled -- one was to cite the offending words, which raises the ever-perplexing question of when it is appropriate to use vulgar language in a family newspaper. The second solution was to finesse the problem by informing the reader that the slur to the judge was anatomical, not racial. The average reader could easily have taken it from there.
If you can't forever be in love, the next best thing is to be editor of a powerful newspaper in a monopoly town, because then you never have to say you're sorry. Well, hardly ever.
On the surface, this incident had a happy ending, with both sides bowing to each other, but it left scars. The question of whether Fairfax School Superintendent Robert Spillane ever uttered those harsh words will never be settled. Mr. Spillane doesn't exactly say he was misquoted, but that his words were lifted out of context and thus became a total distortion. This is reminiscent of an incident many years ago when an afternoon daily in New York quoted a mayor-elect on his plans for the Cabinet. The city government had become so corrupt that voters had had it, so the crooks had put up for mayor a ''reform'' candidate. He won despite opposition of the press. The city hall reporter from one of the newspapers asked the newly elected mayor who the new police commissioner would be, and the paper quoted him as saying: ''They haven't told me yet.'' The florid-faced mayor maintained for years his statement was taken out of context.
In this case, the blame for the brutal quote about ''the kid who would be dead in a few months . . . What's the point of a lawyer?'' must be shared by all involved, including Mr. Spillane.
In response to the cry of ''foul,'' The Post knocked itself out trying to get at the truth. Even the publisher injected himself into it. The result was a play-by-play story on Page A1 last Sunday, detailing what happened. It was an astounding reporting job by Eric Pianin and made fascinating reading to a news junkie who revels in the mechanics of how a story is put together. But the story did not quite add up to mea culpa, and the most meaningful quotation was the final comment of Managing Editor Len Downie, to wit: ''I wish the first day, in hindsight, we had been more aggressive in asking him whether he understood what he was saying.'' That one observation, plus a few lines of background, published in the usual place for corrections and amplifications, on Page A3, would have done it. Instead, Mr. Downie's near apology was diluted in the thousands of words explaining how the story came about.
We'd like to think everybody has learned a lesson from this incident, that editors will think thrice before tampering with a story to hype it, that their priority will be to determine what the subject was really trying to convey. Mr. Spillane, who made the remarks -- whatever they were -- casually in the corridor after finishing a press conference on the problem of admitting youngsters with AIDS to the public school system, now knows what even presidents have had to learn the hard way: once you finish a press conference or a formal one-on-one interview, keep your mouth shut. Jimmy Carter still wishes he had as he walked the Playboy magazine writer to the door with a little chitchat about lust in his heart.