Alongside the controversy that almost cost budget director David Stockman his job last week--and may yet in the view of some in Congress--is the story of how this newspaper wound up between a rock and a hard place, journalistically speaking.
When Willian Greider, an assistant managing editor of The Post, entered into an arrangement with the budget director prior to Mr. Stockman's appointment last January, it was agreed, according to Mr. Greider, that Mr. Stockman "would relate, off the record, his private account of the great political struggle ahead. The particulars of these conversations were not to be reported until later, after the season's battles were over. . . ." Mr. Greider's objective and understanding with Mr. Stockman was to publish the results in a lengthy magazine article. In all, 18 conversations took place. Now, this yeasty 20,000-word piece has appeard in The Atlantic Monthly. In brief, it portrays Mr. Stockman coming to share the view of administration critics that President Reagan would be unable to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget at the same time. This extraordinary story raised important questions among readers and aroused comment within the journalistic community.
First, it is asked, why would a newspaper make an agreement that tied its own hands in any way on publication? Mr. Greider and Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee say that, as a condition, Mr. Stockman insisted on no reporting in the daily paper and that was accepted before any of the interviews occurred. "It was the quid for the quo," Mr. Bradlee says, meaning that the news side of The Post benefited from eight months of "guidance" on important administration policies as they were being developed and that Mr. Greider's complete article would be carried by the paper when the magazine was issued.
It turns out, however, that something less than clear understanding was reached with The Atlantic. Bradlee presumed that The Post would publish simultaneously with the magazine while Mr. Greider recalls it more as a commitment for first reprint rights. Either way, the paper was to be frustrated in its plan to run the text-- or major portions of it--in yesterday's Outlook section owing to the magazine's contention that the issue had not yet reached all of its subscribers. The Post chose to respect the property rights of The Atlantic despite calls to its editor pointing out that copies had been available in Washington for several days. Adding to the fix the paper finds itself in is Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) who has placed the full text in the Congressional Record.
That all involved in this episode were not paying addition on when and how to publish is abundantly clear. In his press conference last Thursday, Mr. Stockman spoke of a "misunderstanding" between himself and Mr. Greider, but left it ambiguous. Efforts to clarify this with Mr. Stockman have been unsuccessful. Earlier, OMB spokesman Edwin Dale told me that Mr. Stockman is "not very advanced" in the rules of the road of contemporary journalism. Mr. Greider notes that Mr. Stockman could have no doubt about where the article would be published because he approved an Atlantic photographer's taking pictures of him at work. On the important question of direct quotation, the judgment seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Clear answers are hard to come by.
While not all would agree, Mr. Bradlee is satisfied, he said, that the daily paper has been covered on all of the substance that grew out of the Greider/Stockman conversations because Mr. Greider provided continuing leads to reporters on his national news staff. The assertion that the paper had a handle on everything important and, by implication, that its readers enjoyed an edge on those of other newspapers would require an academic examination to prove. Would, for example, the average reader have perceived the Reaganomics plan as constructed of papier-m.ach,e as Mr. Stockman has now virtually described it?
There is easily room for doubt, and this brings to question the ethics of an editor writing for publication elsewhere while supervising coverage of the same field within the newspaper and, in this case, leads to the awkwardness of a staff reporter covering the news his boss has created. It is a knotty problem. The policy of this and most newspapers to permit insiders--under certain circumstances--to write for outside consumption is one you wouldn't get many votes to change. The "non- competitive" principle that underlies this policy is becoming an increasingly thin line, as this case demonstrates. Perhaps the subject matter would be the more determining factor--rather than merely the address of the other publication.
Last, there is the question of The Post's handling of the news when it broke. This has perplexed readers. To many, including this one, it seemed too deliberately inconspicuous--the equivalent of hiding light under a bushel. The story didn't get to the front page until the third day running, although it would be hard to identify another one nearly as newsworthy. Even after Mr. Stockman had been "woodshedded" by the president, had offered to resign and held a nationally televised press conference, The Post's coverage did not seen adequate to the event. At least one other paper carried the text of Mr. Stockman's press conference while The Post published only the formal statements by Mr. Stockman and the White House together with its main news story and an analysis piece meant to demonstrate that the "major points" made by Mr. Stockman in the magazine had become part of the public record. The analysis was not very convincing.
All this being said, Mr. Greider has written an impressive piece. For the present, you'll have to read it in The Atlantic or the Congressional Record.