Mobile (Ala.) County School Board President Dan C. Alexander was quoted in a Post story Feb. 5 saying, "If someone doesn't give them (the Supreme Court) the finger every now and then, nothing ever changes." The trouble with this trenchant comment, evoking an image of defiance by Mobile public schools to Supreme Court rulings against religious teaching, is that it was voiced by reporter Art Harris, not by Mr. Alexander.
The school board is characterized without challenge as "one of the most openly defiant" in the United States, most recently in the face of a new ruling by Justice Lewis F. Powell. The story is otherwise well-documented, including descriptions of Bible history teaching in elementary schools and school prayer over a public address system at another.
Researching his story, Mr. Harris talked with Mr. Alexander for several hours. Mr. Harris acknowledges commenting at the end, "Dan, some of your critics might say you are giving the finger to the Supreme Court." He quotes Mr. Alexander responding, "If you don't give them the finger every now and then, nothing ever changes."
In a letter, Mr. Alexander confirms repeating Mr. Harris' words, adding "now, don't print those words, they were yours, not mine." Mr. Harris agrees he was asked not to publish the remark. He contends that Mr. Alexander, "an astute politician," didn't disagree with the concept or the language. "We were on the record. I said his supporters would surely consider him a hero for such sentiments. He agreed," says Mr. Harris, adding that he expressed doubt, "for reasons of taste," that The Post would publish the language. Editors here, with no reason to question its source, did not hesitate to use it.
In a subsequent telephone conversation, Mr. Alexander protested that he was "blind sided." As a lawyer, he said, "I can play with words." Had he been asked for a "strong" quote he might have given one, "but not a gutter phrase."
This kind of journalistic fix--a reporter graphically summing up a controversy and an official borrowing the expression in response--is not uncommon. Fair play and professional ethics entitle the respondant to be dissociated from it if that is his request. Clearly, that should have been honored in this case.
The National Conservative Political Action Committee has had a running dispute with The Post over the paper's tallies of NCPAC's win/loss record in last year's elections. Indeed, The Post did contradict itself on several occasions and, even at this late date, that ought to be acknowledged.
On Nov. 4, one story reported that NCPAC had won one of 14 Senate contests while another put the record at one of 17. Still another story the same day gave a count of one out of nine. The next day a Post editorial had a count of one in six while a news story said the organization's "hit list" registered one win in 17 contests.
In an op-ed pice Nov. xx, which he had been invited to write to give his views of what happened, NCPAC Chairman John T. Dolan cited the contractions while claiming a "win record of 70 percent" without detailing it. In general, the article was an attack on "big media," noting that CBS didn't credit this group with a single win.
The Post followed up in a column by David Broder, detailing several specific races where NCPAC lost in its effort to unseat candidates, including the amount of money spent in each. Mr. Dolan quarreled with several of Mr. Broder's conclusions but not his win/loss score--13 losses, one win. Mr. Broder did not address the earlier Post inconsistencies.
Mr. Dolan wrote another rebuttal challenging, among other things, Mr. Broder's reference to Federal Election Commission data on NCPAC's funding and overhead expenditures. When The Post editorial page turned it down, he had it issued under a "censored" label along with an annotated critique of Mr. Broder's column.
In a subsequent letter to executive editor Ben C. Bradlee, Dolan argued that Mr. Broder would have avoided the alleged errors had he called Mr. Dolan. Mr. Broder says that before writing his column he telephoned the organization twice and got no response. A similar experience was recounted by reporter Bill Peterson, who wrote one of the earlier news stories.
Asked Why the paper didn't correct the win/loss discrepancy Mr. Bradlee sayd he would now stand by Mr. Broder's account.