Rep. James P. Moran Jr., the Northern Virginia Democrat who won a primary battle Tuesday, has been involved in so many financial, ethical and personal scrapes during his seven terms in Congress that it would seem hard to be unfair to him. Yet many readers, and I'm one of them, felt The Post was unfair in its recent coverage.
Metro editors at The Post strongly disagree.
On Friday, June 4, four days before the 8th District primary between Moran and political newcomer Andrew M. Rosenberg, the lead headline in Metro, with a reference from the front page, said: "Moran Accused of Biased Remark; Ex-Adviser Revives Anti-Semitism Issue."
For a news story, it had what struck me as an unusual first sentence, saying that a longtime adviser to Moran "has lodged about the most damaging allegation that could be made about the congressman from Northern Virginia at this point in his reelection campaign: that he heard him make an anti-Semitic remark." The adviser is veteran pollster Alan M. Secrest and he told reporters Lisa Rein and Spencer Hsu that Moran had made a remark that "was anti-Semitic in nature" at a meeting with advisers several weeks ago.
Secrest had severed his 20-year relationship with Moran in what was described as a "scathing letter" of resignation on May 25. The resignation was first reported on June 3 by the newspaper Roll Call. Secrest did not mention the anti-Semitism charge to Roll Call.
Secrest, The Post reported, "would not say what the remark was or explain why he would not say." The Post quoted Moran as calling this a "flat-out lie" and two other Moran advisers who were present said they heard angry words exchanged over money and polling but no such remark. The Post also reported that Moran's campaign had paid Secrest $69,650 for polling services in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, with the last payment of $8,000 on May 3.
The Post published two more stories about this on Saturday, another on Sunday and another on Monday. All of them repeated Secrest's uncorroborated claim. Many readers called and e-mailed to complain that Moran had been "smeared" by The Post, and that the paper had been "out to get him." "The Post violated its own standards by featuring the 'hearsay' about the allegedly anti-Semitic comments, and all the more so because the source was a special pleader," one reader said. Others asked why Secrest made his claim to The Post more than two months after the remark was allegedly made at the March 18 meeting, a point not explored in the coverage.
Writing in the Augusta Free Press online newspaper in Waynesboro, Va., Paul Goldman, a former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said: "How can we have a fair political process if, in the last week of the campaign, someone can purposely leak a resignation letter . . . in order to get that media giant to print a damning charge . . . without even knowing what the alleged anti-Semitic words were exactly? It is fundamentally unfair to ask someone to defend themselves against words the accuser refuses to reveal."
Other aspects troubled readers. A Sunday feature by Hsu on the character issue noted that Moran was about to be married for the third time and was moving into a "McLean mansion" (later corrected to a home in Arlington). The New York Times, on the other hand, quoted Moran in its Tuesday editions pointing out that his daughter converted to Judaism and that his step-grandsons are Jewish.
Metro's top editor, Jo-Ann Armao, says she is "frankly baffled by the suggestion that The Post should not have reported this story -- a longtime aide and political ally to one of the Washington area's most influential congressmen quits the campaign at a critical point in time and cites as reason his on-the-record allegation that the congressman, already under fire for previous comments deemed inappropriate, made an anti-Semitic remark. The story was thoroughly and diligently reported. We tried many times to get Secrest to say specifically what Moran said to him, telling him that it hurt the credibility of his charge. His refusal was a factor in how we played the story," Armao said.
"Many readers and voters have said they don't believe Secrest's charge. And every reason they cite -- that there was a financial dispute between the two, that Secrest is sometimes a hothead who has had breakups with other clients, that there was a dispute about campaign strategy, that Secrest wasn't specific, that others denied the charge -- they know because they read them in our stories. In other words, we reported everything we could and left readers to make the decision about whether to believe Secrest's allegation.
"Critics seem to be saying," Armao said, "that we should have decided whether the charge was true before deciding whether to write a story. I do think that we have to judge the credibility of the accuser, and in this case again, it was someone who has been a staunch backer of Moran for two decades, someone who has not been accused of lying, someone who has a national reputation he seemed to be risking."
"If Secrest had told us the alleged specific comment, and Moran denied saying it, would it have made a difference to those who feel we shouldn't have written the story?" These are good points, and that last question Armao raises is a very good one.
Post legal guidelines point out that it can be and has been argued that sometimes the mere fact that a charge has been made is newsworthy and should be reported. Post guidelines on the sourcing of articles do not deal with this kind of situation specifically. They focus on not publishing ad hominem attacks from unnamed sources. "This is an interesting twist," another reader writes. When anonymous sources are used, "we are asked to trust the media. Here, The Post seems to be trusting the accuser simply because he said something happened. Isn't this asking a little much?"
In this case, I think it is. My own view is that what The Post violated was a fundamental sense of fairness and common sense by airing and repeating this explosive, uncorroborated, unexplained -- and denied -- charge four days before an election. Because Moran is such an easy target is all the more reason to be careful.