Jack Anderson produces a daily column for about 600 U.S. dailies and another 300 weeklies and foreign publications, which he says makes him the biggest among news-political columnists and gives him an audience estimated at about 40 million. Sometimes his readers are not alerted until the final paragraph that his facts are disputed, and on rare occasions, as last week in The Post, the final paragraph is lopped off.
Last Wednesday, Mr. Anderson's column in The Post was headed, "Anti- Terrorism Advice Mimics TV Fare," and told of devices recommended to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sounded, Anderson said, "as if they were stolen from an old Buck Rogers serial." Then followed a recounting of strange suggestions from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A final paragraph, as sent by Mr. Anderson, read, "Footnote: A FEMA spokeswoman said that the Los Alamos study was merely a catalogue of potential ideas, and that FEMA has spent no funds to follow up."
The Post's assistant managing editor for national news, Peter Silberman, said his editors "do cut the column to fit the hole it was meant for. Occasionally we cut them badly. In this instance, we cut it very badly."
Why was the clarification in the final paragraph? Mr. Anderson, a veteran newsman who started in Washington as an associate of Drew Pearson and wrote one of the first books about McCarthyism, declared, "We have found that the footnote is the second best-read part of the article -- right after the first paragraph."
"There are occasions when we will put the denial higher," he said, and a look at recent columns reveals several instances in which denials are in the third, fifth or seventh paragraphs.
"In sng like this," Mr. Anderson added, "which is not denying the story, but clarifying, it is hard to clarify in the second paragraph what we haven't explained yet. We put it where we consider it appropriate. The Post seldom cuts from the bottom -- it normally does an excellent job of editing. . . . Our readers know where to look for it. This is our spot for it. The footnote emphasizes and stands out."
Asked why denials or clarifications could not be moved up in the Anderson column by The Post, Mr. Silberman said, "We don't want to take his column and rearrange it. Columnists have special idiosyncracies or habits and readers have been trained about them."
Now that this column nears its final paragraphs I trust they will not be lopped off, since I disagree with both the columnist and the editor. I believe it is unfair to readers to relegate a denial or clarification in a column of news to a final paragraph. Many quick readers may never reach the last sentence and so will have been misled. New, untrained readers may not be cued in to its importance.
Second, putting a cautionary paragraph at the end is a dangerous invitation to an editor or page makeup man bucking a deadline to trim it off; in the traditional inverted-pyramid news style, important facts are up front and the least important at the end of the story. Last Wednesday's experience is proof that it can happen.
Most important, such writing is unfair to the target of an Anderson column. A reader of Wednesday's column would have a different view of a federal agency -- FEMA -- if he knew early that no funds had been spent on the "far-out proposals" reported by Mr. Anderson.
The editor's response, while commendable in accepting responsibility, seems to treat Anderson columns as a special breed immune to Post standards of accuracy and fairness. In rereading the column I believe the one- sentence clarification could have been inserted in the second paragraph without impairing style and improving fairness.
In an in-house memo earlier I noted a Feb. 4 column about a former State Department official who, Mr. Anderson reported, had been driven from his post by a hostile chemical industry. I said the column was misleading to readers in sethat a final footnote read: "A State Department spokesman said King left voluntarily and is welcome back any time." Quite a different kettle of fish.
I suggested that the State Department comment should have appeared high up in the column, rather than at the very end. My views are strengthened by the slip last Wednesday.