It is rare that three short sentences buried deep in a 70-inch-long article trigger a rumble of phone calls and a lead editorial in The Washington Post, occupy part of a morning-after-Iowa press conference and result in a presidential candidate's meeting with some of the top editors of the paper.
The sentences were in the 37th paragraph of The Post's story Feb. 13 headlined "Peace With American Jews Eludes Jackson" by reporter Rick Atkinson with a contribution by staff writer Milton Coleman, who has been traveling with Jesse L. Jackson in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
The sentences read:
"In private conversations with reporters, Jackson has referred to Jews as 'Hymie' and to New York as 'Hymietown.'"
"I'm not familiar with that," Mr. Jackson said Thursday. "That's not accurate."
Yesterday, at a Washington news conference, Mr. Jackson said, "I deny the allegation" that he had spoken "in derogatory terms about people who happen to be Jewish." He said the charge was inconsistent with his lifetime of concern about civil rights for blacks and Jews alike as oppressed minorities. He said he had gone to Skokie, Ill., with his family and "preached from the pulpit" against a march by American Nazis.
The "Hymie" reference was read by some as lifting a flap on his personal views and fitting in with his recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and personal embrace of its leader, Yasser Arafat, several years ago. The concerns were renewed with recent disclosures of substantial contributions from Arab sources to organizations affiliated with Mr. Jackson.
I was troubled by the reference, too. The reporter's reference to "private conversations" carried a tang of off- the-record. Second, despite its way- back placement, it could be very harmful to a public figure. Shouldn't the reporters who heard the language be cited, awkward though it might be for them?
In probing the matter, I have been told that Mr. Jackson used such language more than once in informal conversations with black reporters on the campaign trail. A second Post reporter said he had heard the same language in non-campaign conversations, but that he considered them off-the-record.
I must admit that I had reservations about the article well before reaching the cited paragraph. It seemed to me that Post editors were giving an unusual amount of attention and prominence to the story, placing it on page one above the fold with jumps to pages four and five and dealing with subject matter more comprehensive than new. Further, it involved interpretation sufficient to merit a reader warning label of "News Analysis."
Coming a week after The Post featured a large (5 by 10 inches) photograph of black Rev. Jackson kissing an elderly white woman on the lips, it got particular attention from me. Mr. Jackson is a charismatic media figure with a commanding presence, but should he be in The Post so prominently in circumstances that may excite racial, religious and sexual feelings? I think it has been overdone.
On the other hand, I believe the editorial calling on Mr. Jackson to deal with the "Hymie" allegation was correct. Those who aspire to the White House should be expected to maintain a high standard of personal conduct.
Speaking of news play and emphasis, I, and apparently several readers as well, am critical of the prominence given to the page-one story and picture yesterday of Kathy Boudin, in jail facing charges of murder and robbery, and a front-page story Sunday on Donald Thomas Maziarz, convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death in Prince George's County.
While human interest stories have a place in newspapers, to many this coverage carries an air of excusing serious crimes or allegations of same and do not sufficiently remind readers of the victims and the seriousness of the crimes involved. Often, unfortunately, the victims are no longer available to tell their side of the offenses.