Before anybody else beats me to it, I'd like to nominate a candidate for The New Yorker magazine's "Which Page of the Newspaper Do You Read Department?" Look at Saturday's Washington Post.
The lead story was about a decline in the nation's unemployment rate, placing it at the lowest point in more than five years, an event that easily justified such prominent attention. The headline noted that the rate had declined to 7 percent and the lead paragraph began, "The nation's civilian unemployment rate unexpectedly fell last month to 7 percent, its lowest level in more than five years, the Labor Department reported yesterday."
But wait. When readers reached page A15, they found a transcript of President Reagan's remarks in which the president, in his lead, told how delighted he was to learn "that our unemployment rate has dropped to 6.9 percent, the lowest level in over five years." In the time it took me to go from page 1 to page 15, unemployment had dropped another tenth. Not bad, I thought; at this rate Secretary of Labor William Brock will achieve full employment before I eat my next meal.
Some Saturday readers may have seen some dire conspiracy by Post editors and writers to deprive the Reagan administration of the fullest glow of triumph, but how it came about is almost humdrum -- although The Post is not blameless.
John Berry, business section reporter who often writes these monthly-report stories, said he always emphasizes the civilian unemployment figure and makes his month-to-month comparisons on that basis. The president used the overall unemployment figure, which is always about a tenth lower, because it includes armed forces stationed in the United States. Since there is no unemployment in the services, Mr. Berry believes the civilian figure is the more valid measure. The president, eager to make the most of the achievement, naturally used the overall figure.
In any case, since Post editors provided a transcript of the president's remarks, readers had the benefit of both. It would have been better if there had been some effort to reconcile the differing figures and if the front-page story had at least included some reference to the overall percentage. One way might have been to quote the testimony of Janet Norwood, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. She said plainly, "The overall jobless rate was 6.9 percent in August, and the civilian worker rate was 7 percent."
Another shortcoming, it seems to me, is that in these stories -- and I have reread the past five months' worth -- there are no comments from workers or worker organizations, people who certainly have a deep interest in the statistics, whether on their way up or down. Mr. Berry looks on his assignment as dealing with the significance of the statistics, not reactions. But I think the unemployment problem is better defined by including comments from those most concerned.
The Post had a similar oversight late last month in its reporting on the president's decision not to impose a shoe import quota. The AFL-CIO and several unions issued a statement attacking the administration's judgment, but while manufacturing companies and retailers were quoted, there was no word from the workers or their union representatives in The Post report. Was anyone more directly affected?
Unions may be feeling there is a conspiracy taking form. The Washington Journalism Review's August issue offered a "Directory of Selected News Sources" replete with government, public interest, corporate and trade association contacts, but not a single union or group of unions made the list.
The timing of reactions to such news developments as a declining unemployment figure is important. Yesterday's Post reported Mayor Marion Barry's reaction Monday to anti-Semitic remarks of Louis Farrakhan made almost two months ago. The story appeared on Metro page C1. If Mayor Barry had made his comments at the time of the July 22 Farrakhan appearance, it probably would have made the front page.
Whatever the reason for Mayor Barry's slow response, it will come as cold beans to those who expected him to toss hot words promptly in reply to Mr. Farrakhan. And yesterday's inside section won't placate readers who wanted more prominence given to the story even two months late, but editors insist news is what happened lately.