A few weeks ago an Alexandria special grand jury investigating sensational charges about a city drug probe found no wrongdoing by city officials and wound up with a broadside at the press. The jury was "appalled by the journalistic irresponsibility demonstrated by some members of the press" for printing "highly inflammatory allegations as facts on the basis of second-, third-or even fourth-hand information."
Which newspaper was the jury describing? The Alexandria Port Packet, The Alexandria Journal, The Alexandria Gazette, The Washington Times or The Washington Post? Jurors weren't talking, but the foreman, Brett Chowning, said the culprits knew.
The Packet, which broke the story about the aborted investigation and initially applauded the appointment of the grand jury, assume it was "included" in the criticism. Nonetheless, it printed the full text of the jury report. The Packet's special assignments editor, Alicia Mundy, who handled the paper's coverage, appeared before the grand jury twice for a total of 1 hour and 40 minutes, but complained last week that she had not been able to tell her story fully. She has pinned her hopes for vindication of her exclusive on a federal grand jury looking into Alexandria matters.
While federal officials, as is customary, are not talking about their grand jury probe, Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan, who had been special counsel to the Alexandria grand jury, said he had been told that the jury was "not going over the same ground as the state grand jury; it was not going to Monday morning quarterback."
Leonard Curry, who was the Packet's publisher until he resigned earlier this month, said the criticism of the press in the grand jury report "confirmed my concerns." A former United Press International, Washington Star and Washington Times reporter and editor, Curry said he had "wanted to see more documentation, more specificities" in the Packet stories and "less sweeping generalities."
But apparently the jury was not attacking the Packet alone. Horan, who was present during the jury's questioning of 32 sworn witnesses during nine days, said he thought it was this front-page banner headline in the Feb. 20 Alexandria Journal "that really set them off":
"Chief Blocked Murder Probe, Alexandria Ex-Cop Testifies."
The Journal's Phyllis W. Jordan, who has been covering the grand jury probe, acknowledged that the jury "could well be" upset by the headline, which had a "difference in emphasis, not in facts" from the story that she and Adrian Higgins wrote about a witness' testimony given behind closed doors.
Horan, who was inside the doors, had no doubts. He said the story was "blatantly untrue." The grand jury was equally plain, stating Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel "was not involved in any way in blocking the investigation," and said his police department was "functioning in a highly professional and enthusiastic manner."
The Journal responded to the jury report with an editorial attacking the jury and special prosecutor for not producing "results that command confidence."
While The Post coverage, as far as I can tell, has not been the target of jury attack, several readers have complained about the paper's treatment of City Manager Douglas Harman, now Fort Worth's city manager, during the airing of the issue.
Part of the problem was the in- fighting of the city council members, which resulted in an unclear definition of charges against Harman. (The jury lambasted "certain members," without naming them, for character assassination of public officials.) Another part of the problem was the use of journalistic shorthand in a running story. Thus, Harman sometimes found himself described as being as much a target of the jury probe as the police officials involved, when apparently the council complaint was essentially that he had failed to notify them of the undercover narcotics probe. Harman has called the council "a sieve" and noted that he could have been "held legally liable for release of confidential criminal justice information."
There are lessons to be learned from the Alexandria experience, but I don't think school has started yet.