The passive Washington Post.

The passive Washington Post.

The passive Washington Post.

Media criticism.
Nov. 25 2003 7:54 PM

The Passive Washington Post

Why can't daily newspapers defend themselves?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The Washington Post strides across the landscape like Colossus, vanquishing presidents, sending crooks to the slammer, rescuing the afflicted from affliction, and even publishing the late scores in the final edition. But for all his omnipotence, Colossus has a weakness: A newspaper convention holds that when a distinguished daily is punched in the face by a subject of one of its stories, it must refrain from punching back—at least in public.

Currently jabbing the Post are weapons wranglers David Kay and Stephen D. Meekin, both of whom wrote pissy Nov. 1 letters to the Post protesting Barton Gellman's Oct. 26 Page One story, "Search in Iraq Fails to Find Nuclear Threat." Splitting more hairs than a palsied barber, Kay writes that Gellman's story is "wildly off the mark" and gives a "false impression" of the conclusions reached by his team. The tag-teaming Meekin similarly accuses Gellman of exaggerating the scope of Meekin's official responsibilities in Iraq and of quoting him out of context.

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It should surprise nobody who follows Gellman's work that Kay and Meekin have no case. His richly sourced story cites official documents and many interviews—some on the record and some not for attribution—to support his assertion that while Saddam Hussein may never have abandoned his nuclear ambitions, "it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either." Such a program was a Bush administration casus belli.

Had Gellman's piece appeared in, say, the Atlantic Monthly, magazine convention would have allowed Gellman to respond directly to Kay and Meekin's protesting letters, and he would have demolished them. To Kay, Gellman might have written, "Thanks so much for taking the time to allege inaccuracies in my story when you declined to speak to me when I was reporting it," before dismantling his argument. Or, had Gellman's piece appeared on the Web, a New York Review of Books-style exchange might have raged on for tens of thousands of words between Gellman and the inspectors or their proxies.

Alas, nearly all daily newspapers follow the rigid and somewhat phony doctrine that they deal in only facts. Under this conceit, as long as a daily newspaper believes it got the facts right and gives the aggrieved some sort of right of reply—as the Post did—it has done its job: no need to comment further in its pages about shades of meaning, interpretation, or context, or to deliver a death blow to the whining subject of one of its stories—nor is it newspaper convention to respond, even if the need were felt. But the Post's decision to run the investigators' letters without response gave some readers the notion that the Post's silence meant it was conceding error on Gellman's part, as Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler notes in his Nov. 9 column. The Post's weak-kneed "no comment" inspired the conservative New York Post editorial page to accuse Gellman and his paper of conducting a "smear job regarding the hunt for Saddam's nukes" (see "The Washington Post's Nuclear Fibs," Nov. 15) and prompted former * American Enterprise Institute scholar Laurie Mylroie to knock Gellman's article in Nov. 2 and Nov. 4 postings on her "Iraq News" listserv.

Despite the silence in their own pages, Gellman and Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. deployed excellent defenses of their article in other venues. Gellman successfully counterpunched Kay and Meekin with a detailed, must-read letter to Mylroie (reproduced on The Nation Web site), and Downie laid one on David Kay's snout with a Nov. 11 letter, which was released to Slate by Downie's office.

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"The Washington Post stands by the story without reservation," Downie writes Kay. "You chose not to speak to the reporter before the story, nor to any editor afterward."

The editor of Colossus continues:

I expect you know that Mr. Gellman sought an interview with you for months and sent a summary of his story's main points for comment to Bill Harlow, your spokesman, two days before publication. Capt. Harlow arranged for a more junior official to call with a prepared statement. The statement was not on the record, and it addressed few of the particulars you now raise immediately after the fact.

Gellman and Downie's successful counterattack surely leaves them engorged with professional pride, but their behind-the-scenes correspondence does nothing for their readers, many of whom have every right to think Gellman was wrong and Kay and Meekin were right. It's a very sorry day for journalism when it falls upon me to defend the Washington Post from its nay-sayers! Why doesn't the newspaper just speak for itself?

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Barton Gellman wants to have it both ways. Via e-mail, he upholds the idea that newspapers mustn't quarrel with newsmakers, but he also defends his rejoinder to Mylroie. He writes:

Newspapers are and should be reluctant to participate in anything that feels like a debate with newsmakers, especially on a subject with political overtones. Speaking only for myself, in this case I felt I ought to make clear that we had not changed our judgment of the facts, and why.

I say hooey. A newspaper's fealty shouldn't be to decorum or convention but to its readers and to the truth (even though that "just the facts, Ma'am" convention is used in pursuit in of the truth, it can obscure the truth as well). If a newsmaker mentioned prominently in a Page One story insists that the newspaper got the story wrong, that's news! It's an opportunity to get closer to make more phone calls, write another piece, and unmuddy the stream! No matter how laudable their intentions, newspapers shouldn't duck for cover from their critics. Nonpartisan magazines that have reporting standards as high as those of the Washington Post prove every day that a publication is in no danger of degenerating into the wild orgy of an Internet message board just because, from time to time, its reporters reply to critics and newsmakers inside its own pages.

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Correction, Nov. 26, 2003: The original version of this article mistakenly described Laurie Mylroie as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mylroie is no longer at AEI. (Return to corrected sentence.)