One of the oddities about this job is that it's hard to get away from. A vacation means that while you are away and trying to relax, a thousand e-mails a week and scores of phone calls are piling up. The thought of coming back to thousands of such messages is enough to make the excessively conscientious among us put down the book and reach for the laptop now and then.
Two stories in the past two weeks generated the most mail. One was a story on the front page of the Metro section on Tuesday. The headline read, "The Frenzy Over Lewinsky." Above it were four small photographs of Monica Lewinsky, and a smaller headline that said, "As the Scandal Unfolded, a Media Storm Swirled in Washington." The story, by reporter Lyndsey Layton, was part of an occasional series of articles looking back "at memorable summers," in this case the summer of 1998.
The problem, as many readers saw it, was that the article appeared the morning after former president Bill Clinton had delivered a rousing speech to the Democratic National Convention, which was reported on the front page of the same paper. "What on earth was The Post's rationale for running an article -- you can't call it a story -- on Monica Lewinsky today," one reader asked. "It had no news value, was apropos of nothing and coming the day after Clinton's address certainly made me wonder if there was some political motivation." Another said: "To ask readers to believe that this conjunction was merely coincidental would be insulting. It could have run last week, or last month when his book was being promoted or next month." In short, another said, "we are left with what must -- no matter how disturbing -- be the reason the article was printed: to embarrass former President Clinton and to distract the public from the eloquent speech he gave last night."
Metro's top editor, Jo-Ann Armao, reminds readers that this was part of a weekly summer series with previous installments about the year "Jaws" appeared in local theaters and the year that Glen Echo park was desegregated. "In truth, I don't think anyone thought of the juxtaposition of the long-planned summer of Lewinsky with Clinton's appearance before the convention. Should we have? Probably. Would we have altered our production schedule? Probably. That said, I don't think any reading of the story would present it as an anti-Clinton piece; it was clearly about the memories and experiences of Washington residents and visitors."
That's a candid explanation. I don't believe there is any conspiracy at work here. Nevertheless, many readers were angered by the story and cynical about its timing, and their complaints ought to be a warning to editors. I was also surprised to see it Tuesday morning and in such a prominent place. This was not much of a story to begin with (no offense to the reporter, who was carrying out an assignment) yet by a simple lack of alertness, the paper managed to alienate a fair number of readers and feed the perception that it is politically biased.
The other story attracting reader allegations of bias was on the front page July 19 and headlined "In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams." The lengthy article, by Jerusalem correspondent Molly Moore, traced the lives of seven Palestinians, boyhood friends who went from a youthful and hopeful theater group to an adult life of militancy, killings and suicide attacks that, so far, has taken the lives of five of them.
Many of those who complained said they felt the story "glorified" and "created a sense of sympathy and tragedy around the clique of killers," as one put it, instead of "sympathy for those who are being attacked," as another reader added. The Post can certainly explore the lives of Palestinians, wrote another reader, "but it should not do so with an agenda to indict Israel improperly for their suffering and to make killers look like helpless pawns."
Foreign Editor David Hoffman says, "One of the most important questions about militancy has been: why? A goal of this article was to get beyond the stereotypes, beyond the television broadcasts and glib explanations, and find out through real experiences why people are radicalized."
I did not read this story the way the complaining readers did. I viewed it as a valuable exploration of real lives and real transitions that are part of a brutal and tragic struggle. This is what reporters do. They try as best they can to get inside all sides in a conflict, including the resistance, whether in Iraq, Chechnya or the West Bank.
But it is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is guaranteed to draw letters, generated in part by pro-Israel U.S. organizations that analyze such articles and tell their members where and to whom to write.
Now, back to the beach and the books for a little while.
Michael Getler can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.