When newspapers pick a fight with City Hall, it can be counted on to be of general civic interest. When they go at one another, it can be wondered whether the result wasn't a waste of precious news space. Which is about where I come out on last week's flap between The Post and The Washington Times.
You saw a fairly long Post story Sept. 18 about The Times spiking its own critic's negative view of "Inchon," an apparent $40 million flop about the Korean war. Critiques published elsewhere, including in The Post, leave it little hope except perhaps of winning the movie industry's Edsel-of-the-year award.
Because the film is backed by evangelist Sun Myung Moon -- he's listed in the credits as "special adviser" -- and Rev. Moon is the Unification Church, which, with its associated businesses, funds the Times, killing its review by Scott Sublett was seen by some Post editors as a contradiction of repeated statements about The Times' editorial independence, and thus legitimate news. The Times publisher, James Whelan, did not return reporter Lois Romano's calls for official comment, and Executive Editor Smith Hempstone would not discuss the "internal functioning" of the paper. Since then, the issue reportedly has caused the resignation of a deputy news editor.
According to Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, the story was held for a day until he was satisfied the information was authentic. The initial leak was confirmed by others, Miss Romano reported. I don't dispute some news value in this. I question whether it justified 25 inches of space. Also, the issue is more complicated.
Two days later, a long Times editorial barked about "guttersnipe journalism" and charged The Post with retaliating over loss of the Ear column to The Times. "The newsroom went into a tizzy," it announced with no little hyperbole. Elsewhere, and more to the point, it accused The Post of deliberately withholding word that The Times planned to run an equally severe review by Vincent Canby of The New York Times (it appeared that day) and that that was known by Miss Romano before her story was printed.
Both she and Assistant Managing Editor Lee Lescaze confirm that a call to this effect was received. Considering it not authoritative, perhaps misleading, Mr. Lescaze said he had Miss Romano seek confirmation from either Mr. Whelan or Mr. Hempstone. Neither could be reached. The decision was to omit reference to the Canby review. The disclosure, Mr. Lescaze maintains, was "predictive," and The Post wanted it officially. I believe it warranted at least a qualified, "while it could not be confirmed" mention in the story. Mr. Lescaze disagrees.
Mr. Hempstone's view is that "staffers should not write about matters affecting Rev. Moon or the church," pointing to independent news agency coverage of Rev. Moon's conviction on income tax charges during the newspaper's first week of publication. He failed to note that reporter John McKelway wrote The Times story July 1 on a mass wedding in New York presided over by Rev. Moon.
Mr. Hempstone is angry that The Post has taken an unfair shot: "Noblesse oblige is not the long suit on 15th Street." Post editors stand by a judgment that Times editors welshed professionally, backing away from their first tough call. Could both be right?
Francis D. Gomez, a spokesman for the area's Hispanic population and frequent correspondent, faults The Post for its "disregard" of his community's interests and programs. I can agree with Mr. Gomez to this extent:
The Post should have given more attention to Hispanic Heritage Week recently -- e.g. two days of symposia sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration, housing, education and other topics; a press conference at the National Press Club by caucus chairman Robert Garcia (D- N.Y.) and Rep. Marty Martinez (D- Calif.). The paper missed both, and other events. Most notably, it overlooked an address by President Reagan as he saluted 200 Hispanics from around the country at the White House.
Newspapers aren't programmed to cover ethnic communities as such. Furthermore, most residents want to be viewed as Americans, part of the community landscape. Yet, when they come together to celebrate the diverse heritages that are the country's coat of arms, newspapers would do well to pay special attention.