"Cheney Calls Kerry Unfit," read the big, front-page headline over a story in Thursday's Post about attacks on the Democratic challenger at the Republican convention in speeches by Vice President Cheney and Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia.
"Unfit" is a powerful, personally damning word; it has become even more explosive in the past several weeks because it is in the title of a best-selling book, "Unfit For Command" by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi. The book is the cornerstone of a nationwide effort by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to challenge Sen. John F. Kerry's war record.
The problem is that Cheney never used the word "unfit." Yet the headline can be seen as reinforcing the Swift boat challengers' attack. The headline writer no doubt drew inspiration from the first paragraph of the story by reporter John F. Harris, who wrote that Cheney "reached back decades" into Kerry's life, "arguing in taunting language that the Democratic presidential nominee has demonstrated through his public statements and votes that he is unfit to be commander in chief in an age of terrorism."
You could draw that conclusion from listening to what Cheney did say. But that, in my view and those of some readers, was a poor choice of words and headline. The headline went beyond what Cheney said and then spread the characterization across the front page.
Readers on both sides objected. Some thought the Post was showing editorial bias and opinion by subtly connecting Cheney's speech to the Swift boaters, while others thought the headline unfairly transformed Cheney's speech into a personal attack on Kerry rather than on his record. In a campaign as volatile as this, it seems to me to be best to stick with what was said and leave the interpretation for readers. Kerry, the next day, echoed The Post's characterization, saying "the vice president called me unfit for office last night."
In another story in that same paper, the Post's stated dedication to weeding out anonymous quotes faltered once again. In a story by Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman previewing Bush's scheduled speech to the convention, there is this: "The strategists are saying, 'Everything is breaking our way. It looks like it's almost over,' said one close adviser who demanded anonymity." One reader put it differently: "Said one close adviser who requested anonymity because there was no other way the Washington Post would ever publish such an absurd claim without challenge."
I don't usually deal with advertisements, but this week's e-mails and phone calls brought many complaints from readers who said they were offended by a large ad in the Style section Aug. 27. The ad depicts a group of Orthodox Jews wearing traditional garb. One of them wears a "Jews for Jesus" T-shirt under his open coat. The headline reads: "Things Aren't Always What They Seem To Be . . . "
"What's wrong with these images?" one reader wrote. "They express contempt for religion and mock the believers. . . . It is disgraceful for the media to perpetuate religious contempt." These readers didn't want to see this ad again. They are not alone. Others complain from time to time about advocacy or special-interest advertisements that they view as offensive.
But advertising is also a medium of free expression, and The Post's director of public relations, Eric Grant, offers this explanation: "The Post's standards provide broad license for people and groups to have their say in advertisements unless they are illegal, false, advocate illegal actions, or are clearly not in keeping with common-sense standards of taste. When we do not see anything in a particular advertisement that is contrary to these standards, we try not to place limits on speech or content even if we do not like the ad or agree with it."
I would add that one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in extending the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech -- New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964 -- involved a full-page advertisement by a civil rights group that actually had some inaccuracies in it.
And there was another matter this week that I usually don't write about but that readers write to me about: opinion columnists. At issue is an Aug. 9 op-ed by syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak titled "Veterans Against Kerry" that gives support to the emergence of the "Unfit for Command" book as a "passionate but meticulously researched account of how Kerry went to war." What was unknown to readers of Novak's column, and also to the editors here who publish his work, was that Novak's son, Alex Novak, is the director of marketing for Regnery Publishing Inc., which published the book. I doubt that this had an effect on Novak's views, but it is the kind of thing that editors should know beforehand.
Lack of disclosure by columnists has come up twice before in this column: when George F. Will wrote in March 2003 about embattled media magnate Conrad M. Black without disclosing a past financial relationship with Black; and when Novak in July 2003 disclosed the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame without alerting editors that he had considered and rejected a CIA request to withhold her name.