Readers who wrote or called me last week were perplexed, or worse, about some of The Post's front-page news judgment, some of the language used in the paper and the fairness of a column by the paper's fashion critic. They all go to choices that come up frequently in the fast-moving life of a daily newspaper.
Several readers said they were "shocked -- and I really mean shocked," as one put it, by the placement of a story from London last Sunday by London bureau chief Glenn Frankel. This was about the police acknowledging that a man they shot in the head seven times at close range, in front of terrified passengers in a London subway, was an innocent bystander from Brazil. He had been mistaken for a suspect in the abortive bomb attacks in the city the day before.
"What in the world were the editors thinking of?" asked another reader. "This story screamed for Page One . . . not A24." I agree. This was one of the most powerful, engaging stories to emerge from the new round of terrorist attacks -- the nightmare of innocent people being killed by police under tremendous pressure. Other papers available in this region -- the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Times -- all had it on their front pages, as did many other papers.
This story was also corrective in nature because the previous day's story reporting the shooting of a man said to be "linked" to the abortive attacks, which was at the top of the Saturday front page, described him, according to witnesses, as a "South Asian man."
Then on Monday, those same papers mentioned above also gave prominent front-page display to stories reporting that four major unions were boycotting the AFL-CIO convention that week and were expected to leave the federation entirely, fracturing the nation's preeminent labor organization. The Post had a solid story by reporter Thomas B. Edsall that day, but it was on Page A4. I thought the other papers played it right. The front page of a paper is supposed to be the showcase, primarily, for news. It is supposed to reward readers with a jump on what's happening. The Monday AFL-CIO story was one of those, a big story about to get bigger.
But editors face complex choices and weigh many factors. "We try for variety on A1," said Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman, who supervised the Sunday and Monday papers. For Sunday, he points out, there were two other terrorism-related stories on the front page -- a report by correspondent Anthony Shadid on the devastating car bomb attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, and another by correspondent Craig Whitlock on possible links to al Qaeda in the London and Egyptian attacks. "We considered the London story but were reluctant to put a third terrorism story out there. So we used a reference to it from the front page." On the AFL-CIO, Coleman said, there was a story inside the Sunday paper setting the stage for this development and the Monday story did not advance things much further before the event actually took place.
Hundreds of readers, some perhaps inspired by partisan Web sites but many clearly outraged with no prompting, took issue with a column in Style on July 22 by fashion critic Robin Givhan assessing the attire of John G. Roberts Jr.'s family when the new Supreme Court nominee appeared with President Bush on television. Readers called it "ugly, condescending," "insulting and demeaning to the family," and "unworthy of The Post." My charter doesn't extend to the opinions of columnists, but I thought the question of fairness, since much of it focused on how the children had been dressed by their parents, was a legitimate challenge inherent in the resentment of readers.
Style's editor, Deborah Heard, said: "I thought it was a smart, thoughtful discussion of fashion and the messages inherent in the choices people make, especially when they're presenting themselves in public forums. I think it was fair commentary. Style covers politics as well as fashion. Robin expertly connects the two. My answer to people who disagree is that I respect their right to do so."
On the language front, two items of the locker-room (boys') variety attracted attention. One was a "Doonesbury" comic strip by Garry Trudeau in which a caricature of President Bush refers to his top aide, Karl Rove, as "Turd Blossom." A handful of readers complained. One cited legendary Post publisher Eugene Meyer's commitment to decency and wrote that "I suppose Mr. Meyer never had the displeasure of finding a turd on his breakfast table, as so many of us did this week." The Associated Press reported that about a dozen newspapers either pulled or edited the sequence. The Post ran it. This is, clearly, a repulsive bit of imagery. On the other hand, this is, indeed, one of two nicknames the president has bestowed on Rove, and it has been widely reported and written about. So it's okay by me in an opinionated comic strip.
The other item also involved the leader of an important organization. In a July 21 Style story about Dean Baquet, the new editor of the Los Angeles Times, Post reporter Howard Kurtz quotes Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, as saying that his cross-country rival "has this habit of telling recruits that there's something in the New York water that makes your penis fall off." To those who raised eyebrows, Style's Heard says: "He said it. He knew he was talking to a reporter. It was an interesting and informative quote. And, there is nothing inherently offensive about the word penis." Well, that takes care of why The Post printed it. I'll leave it to the New York Times's public editor to assess the remaining issues.
I'll be away in August.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.