Communication around the newsroom can be in as short supply as we all know it often is around the house. You just expect more from folks whose business is communicating.
Turns out I was not alone--as stated in this space last week ("Unfinished Business," Aug. 24)--with a denial that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia telephoned President Reagan and threatened to remove $100 billion from American banks in retribution for presumed U.S. encouragement of Israel's assault on Beirut. The Post already had a credible disclaimer but chose not to inform its readers.
Recall that columnist Haynes Johnson reported the threat, absent any administration comment, Aug. 15. On Aug. 24, this column was critical of The Post and the press generally for evident lack of interest in running down what, if verified, would be a sensational story; or, if denied, would merit attention. Only after the column appeared did Mr. Johnson and I learn that the newspaper's news side had accepted a denial from a White House source familiar with the presidential conversation. Still, Post editors have left the published record incomplete, including omitting this response by Secretary of State George Shultz, when he was asked about the report on "Meet the Press" Aug. 22: "There hasn't been evidence of such a withdrawal. . . . Nothing has come to me in any official way." Had the report been published elsewhere, one might understand The Post's determination not to refer to it. But that wasn't the case, even if the editors judge it now to have been a non-event.
Some background may be of interest:
Before publication, Mr. Johnson called the report to the attention of the assistant managing editor for national news, Peter Silberman. Based on previous experience supervising business and financial news, Mr. Silberman was skeptical -- even had the threat been made -- that it could have been executed by anything as simple as a stroke of the pen. Some months ago, he examined the possibility against a less specific but similar network news report.
Unaware of that and in response to inquiries, I asked Managing Editor Howard Simons whether the Johnson report was being checked. Assured that it was, and assuming the result would be published, I turned away from it. Seeing nothing in the newspaper throughout the week, I went to Deputy White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes, who, in addition to providing an authoritative denial, confirmed he had not been approached by The Post. Out of that, last week's column was written. None of us -- Messrs. Speakes, Johnson, myself -- was aware the paper had tapped in at another point in the White House.
While Mr. Silberman agrees that inter-office communication was wanting on this one, he holds that the paper has not abdicated a responsibility. We simply disagree. He's right, that, like their syndicated peers, staff columnists are, to an extent, enterprises unto themselves. There aren't enough man- hours available, he argues, to run down the disclosures that turn up in signed columns. Then, there are jurisdictional issues that, I guess, say something about constituent egos. These, I can attest, bruise easier than anything else in a newsroom. It is not a clean, well-lighted problem, and one, perhpaps, to examine more broadly. Don't the columns carry the paper's good name? Doesn't its fealty to readers include telling them when a disclosure from its own pages has been run down and deemed invalid? I believe the paper erred in not reporting what it learned. For that matter, so does Mr. Johnson.
A separate but not unrelated topic which the paper was justified in omitting:
The Post has not reported an unidentified Israeli's claim that presidential envoy Philip Habib told Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the PLO would not have agreed to depart Beirut had it not been for sustained Israeli bombing. American networks gave it wide coverage following a meeting between Mr. Begin and Mr. Habib.
Neglecting the report corroborated the view of committed critics that the paper is anti-Israel. I suggest otherwise. For there is no evidence that Mr. Habib said what has been alleged. In addition to the secretary of state's dismissing it at his press conference Aug. 20, two senior State Department officials -- who would know -- deny it convincingly. Then, the Israeli Embassy, promising to authenticate it, has not called back.