One thing about journalism that is both natural, yet occasionally distorting, is what I call the "megaphone effect." It occurs when reporters write about something that is scheduled to take place in the next day or two, and then write essentially the same story when it actually happens.
There is nothing terribly wrong with this. News organizations like to be first with stories and sometimes, even if it isn't much of a scoop, it provides a decent "news" story that usually says something like, "The administration is expected to announce on Monday that. . . ." The only problem is that such stories amplify an administration position and give it even more publicity than it might otherwise receive.
In the past 10 days, The Post provided the megaphone a couple of times.
On Thursday, May 20, a headline on Page A18 said, "Bush to Detail Transition Monday in First of Several Iraq Speeches." The story, by reporters Robin Wright and Mike Allen, said the president would give a major speech about his plans for Iraq and would give one every week through June 30, when the United States is to turn over limited authority in Iraq. The story quoted no officials by name. One unnamed "senior State Department official" said of the speech plans: "From our point of view, there's remarkable consistency and there's a useful purpose in repeating what is guiding our actions and our commitment to Iraq and Iraqis."
The Post also showed remarkable consistency. Three days later, the lead story of the Sunday paper, also by Robin Wright, carried the headline "President Plans Drive to Rescue Iraq Policy; Speeches, U.N. Action Will Focus on Future." The story reported that "President Bush will launch an ambitious campaign tomorrow night to shift attention from recent setbacks . . . and focus instead on the future of post-occupation Iraq." The president, it said, "will open a tightly orchestrated public relations effort in a speech at the Army War College." A supporting quote about "our chance to create some movement in a different direction" came from another, or perhaps the same, "senior State Department official who would speak only on the condition of anonymity."
Then on Tuesday, spread across the top of the front page, was the real story of the actual speech, "Bush Seeks to Reassure Nation on Iraq," by White House correspondent Dana Milbank.
So the White House hit the trifecta with The Post on this one: three articles -- two of them on the front page -- from one speech that everyone knew was coming and that did not turn out to be particularly newsworthy. Ironically, the "analysis" article on Page A12 on Tuesday by Wright and Allen said that the president didn't answer the key questions.
The Thursday and Sunday stories, it seemed to me and a couple of readers, also didn't answer key questions about The Post. There are new guidelines here for diminishing reliance on quotations from anonymous sources. Yet here were two stories with nothing remotely sensitive about them based entirely on such sources. Referring to the Sunday story, especially, one reader said: "It was PR puffery for the president based entirely on anonymous sources. I thought The Post had rules against that, especially when the officials quoted are not disclosing anything that could get them in trouble. If the White House wants to launch what Robin Wright calls a 'tightly orchestrated public relations effort' make them do it on the record." I'll vote for that.
Then, the administration hit the daily double. On Wednesday, a front-page story by reporters Susan Schmidt and Dana Priest was headlined, "U.S. Warns of Al Qaeda Threat This Summer; Agents in Country Said to Be Planning Attack." The headline and first paragraph of this quite detailed story suggested that al Qaeda has people in the United States. The second paragraph said "Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III intend to hold a joint news conference this afternoon to discuss the threat" and to ask Americans to watch out for al Qaeda operatives who "may be in the country."
The actual news conference was then the lead story in the next day's paper, Thursday, with many of the same details, including indications that terrorists want to mount an attack that would affect the upcoming election. That story, by Schmidt and John Mintz, reported the naming by the FBI of seven suspected agents -- all but one of whom have been sought for several months -- and reported that "officials said they do not know whether any of the seven is in the United States."
The initial Post story on Wednesday apparently caused Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to appear on five network TV shows that morning. Ridge seemed to take a more cautious approach to the information than Ashcroft did later in the day, saying on CNN, for example, "The intelligence that we've received over the past several weeks is just, again, a series of general non-specific threats against the United States. There is absolutely nothing specific enough . . . today to make a recommendation to the president to raise the threat level."
Nevertheless, these were alarming stories. Those readers who wrote said they were "suspicious," as one put it, of the timing, the lack of specifics and the suggestion by Ashcroft and Mueller that terrorists might mount an attack to affect the upcoming election. Some referred to the press conference as "scare tactics," especially after Ridge's more calming words, and questioned the need to put both Post stories, rather than just one, on the front page.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.