Two issues dominated the complaint box last week, and both involved stories that some readers felt worked, unfairly, against Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry.
One was the coverage about Kerry's volunteering -- during the final presidential debate -- the example of Mary Cheney, the vice president's daughter, who, as a "lesbian . . . would tell you . . . she's being who she was born as." Complaining readers felt the coverage was too one-sided. They argued that Cheney is a major figure in her father's campaign, that the family has voluntarily raised her situation before at one or two events, and that she worked previously as an emissary to the gay community for Coors Brewing Co. So Kerry's reference was appropriate, they say, and should not have been the subject of such intense focus.
My view is that it was Kerry's statement that provoked legitimate news stories and that Post coverage, including an opinion poll, was fair and, generally, in context. But the stories did not remind readers of a campaign stop in Iowa in August when, The Post reported on the front page at the time, Cheney made "his most revealing public comments so far about the sexual orientation of his gay daughter."
The other complaint centered, once again, on the presentation of opinion polls at the top of the front page, an issue that was a subject in this column on Oct. 3. The one spread across three columns at the top of Page One on Oct. 19 read, "Bush Retains a Slim Lead in Poll." The headline and story reflected the statistically most likely outcome at the time -- a 50 to 47 percent lead for Bush. But several readers pointed out that paragraphs two and three of the story made clear that "Bush's lead is within the poll's margin of sampling error" and that in the 13 battleground states, "it is Kerry with the lead, 50 percent to 46 percent." The Post could have helped all its readers had it reflected at least the battleground state situation in the smaller headline beneath the main one, and not made the poll the most prominent article on the front page.
For an ombudsman born in the shadow of Yankee Stadium too many years ago, the historic clutch of my beloved Bronx Bombers last week was hard to watch. It was made a bit easier each of those four mornings-after, however, by the thinking, reporting and writing, on deadline, of The Post's Tom Boswell, certainly one of the best baseball writers of all time. The Post has a dugout full of fine sportswriters, including Sally Jenkins, whose front-page account of the Series final on Thursday also rose to the occasion, and they came through in the real clutch for readers.
Now, here is a big shift of gears. It is nine days before the election. There have been hundreds of stories and dozens of polls. There have been four debates, countless advertisements and many efforts to fact-check them.
Yet for me, as a journalist, citizen and determined absorber of news, there remains one huge, overriding, unnerving and, in my view, still unanswered question: How could it happen that the United States was taken to war on the basis of assertions to the public that turned out to be false? The Senate's bipartisan Select Committee on Intelligence in July stated its main conclusion clearly: "Most of the major key judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq's Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."
President Bush has cited the intelligence reporting and says everybody thought Saddam Hussein had such weapons. But intelligence agencies do not start wars. Presidents do that, and the Senate committee stopped short of assessing how that intelligence was used. Kerry voted to authorize the war, and therefore has focused on how the war has been prosecuted rather than the process that led to it. That has removed a core aspect of what should have been an intense part of the campaign debate, something that was left to former Vermont governor Howard Dean and former vice president Al Gore from the distant sidelines many months ago.
We now know the names of experts at the nation's top nuclear laboratories who challenged intelligence agency findings about Hussein's alleged nuclear program. We know that others at the State Department's intelligence bureau held the same view and that Air Force experts disagreed about the purpose of Iraq's unmanned aerial drones. Were any of these dissenters ever called before Congress, even in closed session, before the war? There's no indication that they were. No indication either, according to earlier Post stories, that more than a handful of lawmakers bothered to venture across Capitol Hill to read the detailed versions of the intelligence dissents that were held in separate vaults in another building.
And what about journalism? We are supposed to be part of the systems of checks and balances in this country, the so-called fourth estate. Yet the country was taken to war on the basis of a set of facts, assurances and images that turned out not to be so. With the exception of a handful of challenging efforts before the war, the situation demonstrated journalistic limitations that should seriously trouble all of us. Getting at this story meant banging up against what some consider to be a patriotic spirit, against a determined sitting president and a convinced constituency, against classified information, against "intelligence" agencies that should know what they are talking about, and, most agonizingly, against the human costs of conflict. We fell short.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.