On Friday, Jan. 17, a front-page story reported: "National security adviser Condoleezza Rice took a rare central role in a domestic debate within the White House and helped persuade President Bush to publicly condemn race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Michigan." The story, attributed to unnamed administration officials, went on to say that in a series of one-on-one meetings with Bush, Rice, a former provost at Stanford University, helped convince him that favoring minorities was not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses.
Michigan's admissions policies are being challenged before the Supreme Court, and the story said that "officials described Rice as one of the prime movers behind Bush's announcement . . . that he would urge the Supreme Court to strike down Michigan's affirmative action program."
This was a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at a different role on a touchy issue for one of the White House's, and the country's, most recognizable figures. Yet there was no indication in the story, by White House reporter Mike Allen and legal affairs reporter Charles Lane, that anyone had asked Rice, or even her aides, whether the portrait of her being painted by the administration officials was accurate. There wasn't even a line saying the paper had tried to reach her, if that was the case. This is pretty fundamental stuff.
Later on Friday, in response to the story, Rice put out a statement saying, in part, that she agreed with the president's position, "which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight it." But, she added, "I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body." In a front-page follow-up story on Saturday, Allen wrote that Rice's public statement -- that she believes race can be used as a factor in college admissions -- went "beyond President Bush on a central question in his affirmative action policy." Allen also wrote that Rice reportedly was angry about the Post article the day before "in part because she believed it had been written only because she is black."
Then on Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press," moderator Tim Russert read to Rice the lead of The Post's initial story reporting her central role in the debate and in Bush's decision and asked, "Is that accurate?" Rice said: "No, it's not accurate."
So what's going on here journalistically? Did The Post fail to take the basic step of seeking comment from the subject of the article? Did the reporters speak to Rice or her aides, but under ground rules that did not allow any useful attribution? Did Rice or her aides in fact talk to the reporters but not like the way the article came out? Did The Post, or its sources, get something wrong? These are the things readers were left to guess about.
As far as I can determine, here's what happened. The reporters did not talk to Rice. But they did, according to Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd, "ask her office to make Rice available to discuss her views. But our request was denied." A senior administration official (not Rice) to whom I spoke, but am not permitted to name, confirms this. Spayd says she "regrets that we did not include a sentence in that first piece making clear to readers that we had tried and failed to talk to Rice directly about her views."
The official also says that reporter Allen spoke at length about Rice with those who could be described, under the ground rules, only as senior administration officials. But when the article appeared, Rice felt it mischaracterized her role, her views and her actions at Stanford, and she issued her statement. Spayd says that while she was pleased the first story illuminated Rice's unusual role and her advice to Bush to oppose the Michigan policy, "unfortunately, it is obviously true that the initial accounts we received of her position were incomplete; either our sources didn't know or didn't tell us Rice's full view."
The White House doesn't buy that, or the idea that the first story "illuminated" Rice's role. But the story did, in an unintended way, eventually produce a statement by Rice that put her views on the record. My view, for the record, is that The Post and the "senior administration officials" deserve each other on this one, and that readers deserved better.