Remember the story about Secretary of State Alexander Haig and the minutes of his staff meetings being handed out by one of the participants? The notes were intended to demonstrate--and did--that Mr. Haig was on top of things at State and clearly not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, rumors of which had inspired an investigation by The Post. Because they were unsupported, the rumors were not mentioned in the story.
Consider now the front-page story (March 13) and a subsequent one (March 17) reporting admittedly unsupported allegations that, while attending an "adult" nightclub party in 1981, Mayor Marion Barry had used cocaine or was present when others did. A separate unsubstantiated allegation was that he had used cocaine on other occasions in after-hours places.
The initial story's first nine paragraphs describe a dispute in the District police hierarchy over handling of the rumors, on which no official inquiry was ever conducted. Police Chief Maurice Turner is quoted as saying he informed the mayor, after concluding that the "raw reports" were not reliable, that no investigation was warranted; and later, that he had admonished Mr. Barry for "bad judgment" in going to "This Is It," the nightclub.
After the reader is given the nature of the charges, Mr. Barry is quoted saying "emphatically last week that he did not use cocaine last year and has never used cocaine." The story then, seeming to stop in its own tracks, says that a two-month inquiry by The Post "supports the mayor's statement, and has turned up no evidence whatsoever" that he ever used cocaine or other illegal drugs.
Further down, however, the story attributes to Chief Turner an acknowledgment by the mayor that he went to the party in order to "pick up or seek" a campaign contribution. Inasmuch as Mr. Barry had not yet declared his candidacy for reelection, one wondered whether this was not the main news. Or, if that's all, was it a story? Reporter Athelia Knight says the story was very carefully edited.
The follow-up story was occasioned by the mayor's monthly press conference. Even though he was not asked a direct question, his alleged association with drugs was reported again. He did answer a question about a federal grand jury hearing allegations against Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House District Committee, and staff, regarding the purchase and use of marijuana and cocaine, saying that "It's popular now to use drugs as a character assassination process." Thus, the story's headline, "Barry Defends His Integrity, Denies Drug Use," was misleading. There was no direct exchange on the drug allegations. Referring to them, the story reprinted his denial and The Post's own conclusions from the initial piece.
The mayor was questioned about the report of a campaign contribution and gave a long, indirect "damned if you do, damned if you don't" response, apparently intended to deny the report. "If I do talk about it," he said, "then I become the object of another kind of story. . . . I was not campaigning then. I get campaign contributions from anyone that can legally give them. . . ." This was omitted from the story. Reporter Eric Pianin says he was restricted by space and, beyond the mayor's response, the campaign issue would require lengthy explanation. But with the drug rumors already judged to be without evidence, the question of a campaign contribution deserved some reference in the story.
But the real point here is publication of unproved rumors that a mayor indulged the illegal use of narcotics, with a suggestion that a newspaper has differing standards for different officials. Saying he is in principle against printing unsubstantiated material, executive editor Ben Bradlee adds that the police department "brouhaha" in this case had no context unless its cause was explained. That may be arguable. In the circumstance, absent evidence or eyewitness, Mr. Barry is entitled to the benefit of doubt. Should either become available, there would be no question about the paper's responsibility.