It seems trivial to write, or even think, about anything this week other than the chaos and tragedy that is still unfolding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But what follows are some reader challenges to a few Post stories that developed in August before Katrina hit, and while I was away, and that seem worthy of note and comment.
Early in August, Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Di Rita wrote to take strong exception to a July 13 article on Page A12 by Ann Scott Tyson under the headline "Official Admits Errors in Iraq." It was based on an interview with outgoing Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, who was deeply involved in war planning.
Di Rita wrote that Feith "did not admit 'errors' or 'missteps,' " as the story says. "Nowhere in this story does the reporter use the interviewee's own words in a way that would justify her thesis." What Feith did, Di Rita said, "was to acknowledge that for every course of action, there were pros and cons" and "alternative courses of action. To state, therefore, that Mr. Feith was acknowledging 'errors' is more than a stretch; it is a misrepresentation of what he said." Di Rita added, "Your reporter wrote that Feith's 'comments are a rare public sign of doubt about Iraqi policy by a Pentagon official.' Feith never expressed doubts about U.S. Iraq policy. It's Tyson's opinion that he expressed doubts. Nowhere in the quotes used, or the fuller transcript, will you find him expressing 'doubt.' "
Tyson did extract some interesting and newsworthy reflections from Feith, including that he had favored an earlier transfer of power to Iraqis, and he did use the word "errors." But Feith made those reflections and used that word in an explanatory fashion, dealing with complex events and continuously reexamined assumptions, while pointing out that there were always legitimate arguments on both sides. So I have some sympathy with Di Rita's complaint. I thought the headline and some of the assessments were stronger than the more nuanced quality of Feith's responses.
On Aug. 14, The Post led with a story headlined "U.S. Lowers Sights on What Can Be Achieved in Iraq; Administration Is Shedding 'Unreality' That Dominated Invasion, Official Says." This was a powerful, eye-catching story by Robin Wright in Washington and Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad. It got a lot of attention on TV talk shows and in opinion columns. But it was also criticized by several readers who felt that the paper did not live up to its rules for describing as fully as possible the position and motivation of anonymous sources.
The story quoted an unnamed "senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion" saying: "What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground." Another unnamed official "who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity" said: "We set out to establish a democracy, but we're slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic."
These identifications don't actually violate Post guidelines under certain conditions. But they don't tell us much, either. Are they White House officials or others? And there is not much to help readers understand why these officials are talking. For example, were these authoritative-sounding assessments meant to set the stage for a big change in Iraq policy, without having to be accountable for it, or were they meant to deflect criticism of the administration for a while?
Here's what one reader said: "This morning's lead story is something of a scandal. In effect, The Post's fine reporters and editors are allowing the paper to be used, with impunity, by an unidentified source who is in the process of scaling down the very public expectation that our president is simultaneously inflating. I hate to see a fine paper collaborate in this shabby game." Another said: "To report such a dramatic admission without attributing it is merely to serve as a conduit for the administration to float another trial balloon. If the story gets much attention, Bush will repudiate it. But you will have served your purpose as a stooge."
When 38,000 pages of 20-year-old documents containing the work and thoughts of a young lawyer, John G. Roberts Jr., in Ronald Reagan's White House were released in mid-August, most newspapers led with broad, general assessments of the content. But The Post put a hard-hitting headline on its Aug. 19 front-page story that said, "Roberts Resisted Women's Rights." The headline reflected the story by reporters Amy Goldstein, R. Jeffrey Smith and Jo Becker.
The Post has done a good, and exhaustive -- 30 news stories -- job of covering Roberts since he was nominated to the Supreme Court on July 19. But several readers viewed this story, its headline and its prominence on Page One as "inflammatory" and "distorted."
In particular, readers faulted the paper for putting so much emphasis on a personal aside Roberts made in a 1985 memo, that asked "whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good." Many people felt that Roberts was making a joke about lawyers. The White House spokesman said so, but The Post put that interpretation in the 17th paragraph of the story. The remark, however, was in the lead of the story and accounted for eight paragraphs of The Post account. The following day, a Politics column by Post writers Dana Milbank and Peter Baker also said "many disinterested observers said it sounded as if the targets of Roberts's barb were lawyers, not homemakers."
Another reader, referring to Roberts's views on the issues of pay equity for women and affirmative action, said that with such prominent display and an "inflammatory headline," the paper "has a responsibility to provide a sense of whether Robert's views made him an anti-feminist at the time or simply on the conservative side of a legitimate policy debate." The Post may well have extracted the right threads and subjects from this vast pile of paper. But the manner in which it was presented seemed too clear-cut and assertive for a complicated, hot-button issue.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.