There are many ways that newspapers can aggravate some of their readers without meaning to, and many ways in which they can appear to be biased without actually being biased.
On Wednesday, for example, a front page, above-the-fold headline said, "Cheney: Kerry Victory Is Risky." A much smaller headline below it said, "Democrats Decry Talk as Scare Tactic." These were over a story reporting that Vice President Cheney, in an appearance in Des Moines, "warned on Tuesday that if John F. Kerry is elected, 'the danger is that we'll get hit again' by terrorists."
This was one of the most explosive allegations to have been made publicly by a candidate in this campaign. The second paragraph reported the vice president's quote in its entirety, followed by another long paragraph about what President Bush had said in Missouri about Kerry's recent statements on Iraq.
Those three long paragraphs took up all the front-page space for that story. The result was that the response to Cheney's remarks by the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards, wound up in the continuation of the story on Page A8. That response, in paragraph five, involved a quote from Edwards from an interview on his plane.
To some readers, this appeared to be unfair treatment of the Democratic contenders. I think they raise a fair point.
The Los Angeles Times, in my view, handled the display of the story in a better fashion. It was in the same position as The Post's story, but there were 10 short paragraphs on the front page, including all of Cheney's quotation and a fuller statement by Edwards that went beyond what was inside The Post. "Dick Cheney's scare tactics crossed the line today, showing once again that he and George Bush will do anything and say anything to save their jobs," the statement said. "Protecting America from vicious terrorists is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's an American issue and Dick Cheney and George Bush should know that," the Times reported on its front page. The Times's account continued inside the paper with a final comment from Edwards that said: "John Kerry and I will keep America safe, and we will not divide the American people to do it."
The issue, as I see it, rests with editors rather than reporters. Reporters don't know where their stories will appear or, if they get on Page One, how much of the story will appear there, or how reporting from two campaigns and locations will be blended together. Editors preside over such things. Readers should not have to turn the page to find the response to an especially volatile front-page allegation.
And one other point: The word "warned" in the lead sentence of that story seems to me to be the wrong one, implying a factual basis for what Cheney said. "Claimed," "alleged" or "said" would have been better.
On Saturday's front page, The Post published a big and powerful photograph by a Reuters photographer identified as S. Dal. It showed a man carrying a naked and injured child away from the school in Beslan, Russia, after Russian forces stormed a building where hundreds of people had been held captive by Muslim guerrillas. Several angry readers called that morning, criticizing The Post for putting the photo on the front page. Many of them said they had to grab the paper before their children saw it.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said he made the decision to use the photo, after discussion with other editors, because "this news event, in which perhaps an unprecedented number of children were killed and injured, justified this powerful pictorial reporting." This issue has come up before, and the views of some parents are understandable. But this is a newspaper produced for adults, and what happened in Beslan was horrendous news. The photograph captured the horror, and the humanity, of the scene and belonged on the front with the story.
Speaking of issues that have come up before, several readers complained that the extensive and continuing Post reporting on the siege at Beslan described the perpetrators as "guerrillas," "hostage-takers" and "attackers," and not as terrorists. "Come on," one reader wrote, "how bad does an act have to be before your writers decide maybe it deserves harsh, accurate labels instead of purposely neutral ones just because the terrorist group may have arisen from past sins on both sides?" Others say the term guerrilla is not deserved, that it "gives them a status they don't deserve" and dishonors a designation that has a distinct, historical meaning that doesn't involve intentional mass killings of innocent civilians.
The Post reporting on recent Chechen attacks against Russian airliners and subway stations, and in Beslan, has, in fact, included some use of the words terrorists and terrorism. But the bulk of the coverage, like the reporting on the Middle East conflict, has avoided those labels and relied on vivid, factual description to describe what is happening. It does use more neutral designations, and does not adopt language that one side or another would prefer. That is Post policy (as it is with many news organizations), and I think it is a good one, especially when reporting on long and brutal conflicts. But Post guidelines also say that "terrorism is real and identifiable, and we can identify it when that is appropriate." I think that is also a good idea and that the paper should not be afraid to use that word more often to describe actions on any side when appropriate.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.