Judging by the coverage he has inspired in this newspaper, Charles Z. Wick has given the job of director of the U.S. Information Agency a higher and more controversial profile than any of his predecessors.
He is not happy with all this attention, particularly a long front-page story July 13. "I don't think it was fair," he has said. A more extensive complaint was brought by John Shirley, the agency's acting deputy director and longtime career officer.
Separately, Mr. Wick disputed a July 9 Post editorial. His comments were published in a letter to the editor last Saturday.
The July 13 story, by reporters Howard Kurtz and Pete Earley, was headlined "Hollywood Style Diplomacy: Wick Adds Flair to U.S. Story." Essentially, it had two elements: 1) new information about paid speaking trips abroad by "prominent" Republicans and about some hefty grants to "ultra"-conservative organizations to help mold opinion; 2) a delineation of Mr. Wick's personal style drawn from an interview and documents on his travel obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The latter commanded most of the space and set the tone for this 60-inch piece.
Mr. Shirley complained that he and others tried unsuccessfully to interest the reporters in agency programs and that the article misrepresented the range and nonpartisan nature of the speakers program. And he said that the government did not pay for the expenses at luxury hotels as listed in connection with Mr. Wick's travel. Told that documents supported the story on the last point, Mr. Shirley withdrew that complaint.
Still, it was noted, the story risks misleading the reader when it says, "Other items listed--500 francs (about $65) for his wife's lunch in Paris, $38 in flowers . . . and a $40 hotel message--are part of an overall bill that is partially paid by the government." It might as easily have said these items were paid by Mr. Wick.
High up the story says that Mr. Wick sometimes flies the supersonic Concorde. The reader, Mr. Shirley observed, isn't told until the 37th paragraph that Mr. Wick pays the difference between what he's entitled to and the Concorde cost as he did for an accompanying "bodyguard."
Mr. Kurtz, who wrote most of the story, says he "tried to be fair" and feels he succeeded. Where facts were in dispute--e.g. who proposed security protection for Mr. Wick--"we gave him the benefit of the doubt." The director, according to Mr. Kurtz, said the State Department proposed it, although the reporters got a denial later from a department official.
Assistant managing editor Peter Silberman says the story succeeded in what it set out to do--"show the man and his style in running the agency, in his own words." A "sidebar" expanding on the speakers program and reflecting more of Mr. Earley's work did not run for want of space and because it did not add substantially to the main story, said national editor Leonard Downie.
On first reading it and before receiving a complaint, I wrote the editors: "The peg appears to be the speakers program and the grants. Fair enough. For the rest, it reads like a replay of the spendthrift ego-tripping long Style profile of last year including the same four- column photo of Wick looking like a heavy." That 80-inch article of May 1982 also featured "Hollywood hustle."
We've had all we need to know about Mr. Wick. It's time for equal space on those many USIA programs--whether and how they've been altered under this administration, beyond the off-hand treatment July 13. Take the "mission" of the agency as stated in the Foreign Affairs Authorization Act of 1979 and measure it against worldwide performance. That's where the real money--the $701 million budget for this fiscal year--is.
"Twinning," pairing ostensibly related stories, is a newspaper tradition. More often than not it works, even though the common headline may address only one of the stories. The Post twinned two stories on the front page July 18. One dealt with the "ethical dilemma" of risking invasions of privacy while seeking information from patients suffering from AIDS disease. The other described use of a controversial drug and psychiatric counseling in treating "sex offenders." The stories were joined by a picture of the drug, implying the common denominator was illicit sex. The judgment that "medicine" was the link, as one editor described it, was mistaken. Other editors agree.