Betraying a journalistic preference that may be as out-of-date as the straight-up martini, I make something of a nuisance of myself harping to editors about the intrusion of commentary into The Post's news columns.
>In breaking the mold on the "he said/she said" formula in news writing--at about the time the martini went on-the- rocks--newspapers became more interesting and readable. Public issues had grown more complex, hence more interpretive reporting became necessary and acceptable. Still, readers measure a paper's credibility by its adherence to balance and objectivity in news reporting. Too often, I feel, these principles are subordinated in news columns to an excess of subjective writing.
>One example--not the only one--in The Post recently concerned former city council chairman Sterling Tucker and his intention to run for mayor this year. It was by staff writer Juan Williams and ran on page one. It was pegged to a luncheon meeting Mr. Tucker and Mr. Williams had had a few days earlier.
I criticized the piece earlier in an in- house note, saying that it read more as opinion than news, and that the first several paragraphs insinuate that Mr. Tucker ought to "get out of the race before he gets in." If it had been done in more conventional news style or featured as an "assessment" of a political candidate, as newspapers do, or slugged "analysis," also done occasionally, I might have had less basis for criticism. As written, I concluded it was unfair to Mr. Tucker--not because of inaccuracies or factual mistakes, but because it gets journalistically slanted with its emphasis on reportorial judgment. Mr. Except where he speaks for himself, the article bears an absence of anyone speaking for Mr. Tucker. However, Mr. Williams defends it as a "hard" news story and is supported by Deputy Managing Editor Richard Harwood.
>The first several paragraphs identify patrons in the restaurant acknowledging Mr. Tucker: "a caroussel of important faces circles to pay respects, mostly from a distance." One, "a wealthy woman who contributed to his last campaign for mayor gives Mr. Tucker a quick kiss on her way to the ladies room." The following paragraph: "No one stops. There are no promises of campaign contributions or of support for the man who was barely beaten at the wire in the 1978 Democratic primary for mayor and now says he wants to run again."
Next, the piece says, "Tucker has become a regular sight" at the restaurant, "eating with the lawyers, developers and other businessmen whose contributions have been known to make or break political campaigns . . . trying to get them to put their money on him one more time." The story doesn't say who these people are.
Mr. Williams has said that, prior to meeting with Mr. Tucker, he talked to more than a dozen former supporters, advisers and contributors, enough to conclude that Mr. Tucker's campaign was "in trouble." Two former supporters, Raymond J. Howar and Harley J. Daniels, are quoted as seeking to discourage Mr. Tucker from entering this year's race.
Mr. Tucker is quoted, presumably over lunch: "What kind of sport is this, one strike and you're out. . . . I'm a good person and I can lead. I can't understand what's going on . . . " and later, "The Sterling of old would have said he'd heard from some people and they won't contribute. . . . So he'll go off and do something else. The new Sterling is not going to let a cadre of money people determine whether I have a chance to reach my peak." He is then described as planning to find new financial backers.
>Nowhere is there an identification of or quote from anyone who supports Mr. Tucker.
In a letter to publisher Donald Graham, Mr. Tucker wrote that, during the interview, he told Mr. Williams he had a finance committee of 25 persons committed to raising $250,000, and that approximately 87 percent of his supporters in 1978 are again supporting his candidacy. No reference to either point is included in the story. Covering a subsequent press conference where Mr. Tucker released his letter to Mr. Graham, Mr. Williams included the information in a story without explanation for its omission from the original one.
Later, in a telephone conversation, Mr. Tucker told me the effect of the story was a judgment by The Post that he "can't win, can't raise money," and the "damage" to his candidacy is "irreparable." If he's right, he has given The Post much to think about.