Armstrong Williams's election predictions for Outlook's 11th Crystal Ball contest, published in the Nov. 3 issue, did not reflect a change he made in his original Senate forecast. The conservative commentator's final prediction: Republicans, 51; Democrats, 48; one independent. (Published 11/5/02)
Last Saturday, some 100,000 people, and possibly more, gathered in downtown Washington to protest against possible U.S. military action against Iraq. The Post did not put the story on the front page Sunday. It put it halfway down the front page of the Metro section, with a couple of ho-hum photographs that captured the protest's fringe elements. A photo of a larger crowd of demonstrators ran in the lower right-hand corner of the paper's front page. But that picture did not have a headline. Rather, it was linked to a story and headline from Mexico about a meeting there between President Bush and the leaders of South Korea and Japan. The article was about problems dogging U.S. efforts to lead a multilateral coalition against Iraq and North Korea.
Dozens of readers e-mailed or telephoned to complain that, by any measure, the antiwar rally should have been front-page news in the hometown paper. "Do not one hundred thousand or more demonstrators against a major war -- plus similar demonstrations in other cities -- merit front-page coverage?" one reader asked. "Can you think of any editorial reason, other than pro-war bias, that would prompt The Post to place its headline, 'Antiwar Protest Largest Since '60s,' in the Sunday Metro section?" she also asked.
Well, yes, I can think of another reason. It is called news judgment.
There was a lot of competition for a place on that Sunday front page: two stories about the horrendous attempt to rescue hostages from a Moscow theater, two follow-up stories to the sniper capture, and timely political stories about races in Maryland and Minnesota. That left one spot, and there was internal lobbying to claim it. Senior Post editors said it was a "close call" but they felt that the story from Mexico about the reported setbacks to two Bush initiatives, combined with a photograph from the Washington demonstrations, was the weightier way to go. Besides, they argued, most people also read the Metro section.
That sounds logical, but I'm with the complaining readers on this. Washington gets a lot of protest rallies, and most go into Metro. But this was one big demonstration -- a lot bigger, these Post editors acknowledge, than they expected -- and it was not about some narrow special interest. People had traveled here from all over the country. Post editors, in my view, fumbled this one, not because they are pro-war but because they were surprised at the turnout, and talked themselves into a compromise solution that pushed the story inside.
In Monday's paper, a headline at the top of Page One read "FBI's Theory on Anthrax Is Doubted; Attacks Not Likely Work of 1 Person, Experts Say." This fascinating story reported that a significant number of experts were now skeptical that last year's deadly anthrax attacks were the work of a single disgruntled American scientist and that the possibility of state-sponsored terrorism should be reexamined along with other possibilities. The Justice Department has been focusing for a long time on a former U.S. Army scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, as a "person of interest" in the case. But Hatfill denies any involvement and has never been charged.
This 2,500-word story carried the byline "Guy Gugliotta and Gary Matsumoto, Washington Post Staff Writers." Gugliotta is a familiar byline and one of The Post's top reporters. But Matsumoto is not on the staff. And nowhere in this important article that essentially challenges the thrust of a year-long federal investigation is it explained who Matsumoto is or what his role is. After making inquiries, I was told he is a New York-based freelance investigative writer who was contracted by The Post to help on this story. One editor said it was probably a mistake not to have explained this at the bottom of the article.
One would think The Post would not be so casual about identifying writers. Maybe editors should think about changing a byline policy that can be misleading about joint stories. (The story about Sen. Paul Wellstone's death on Oct. 26 did not explain that one of the authors was a stringer.) Or it could stick to the policy in the paper's stylebook, which limits the use of the "staff writer" label to reporters, editors and editorial aides employed by the paper.