The Washington Post gives the embargo system a kick in the pants.

Media criticism.
Nov. 21 2007 5:46 PM

Breaking News, Not Transcribing It

The Washington Post gives the embargo system a kick in the pants.

(Continued from Page 1)

By these standards, Timberg and his paper are innocent of the UNAIDS charge of "ignoring" and not "honoring" the embargo. Timberg's story derailed the UNAIDS rollout—the embargo curtain was scheduled to rise at 00:01 GMT on Wednesday, Nov. 21. By giving prominent coverage to critics "who have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS," Timberg diverted the conversation from the one UNAIDS officials hoped to kindle.

UNAIDS vigorously disputes the allegations leveled in Timberg's piece, as the Nov. 21 New York Times and other publications attest. Without naming the Post, the Times heavily critiques its piece. The Times reports:

Dr. Paul De Lay, Unaids's director of monitoring and policy, replied that the idea that earlier estimates were deliberately inflated was ''absurd.''

The revision, disclosed in the news media on Monday night ahead of yesterday's official announcement by the AIDS agency and the World Health Organization, puts the number of people infected with H.I.V. at 33.2 million, down from 39.5 million.

The lower figure is based on newer, more accurate surveys in India and several African countries. The costly, time-consuming household surveys made it clear that previous estimates, gleaned mainly from tests on women in urban clinics, were too high.

Dr. De Lay said that Unaids's job was to give advice and monitor trends, and that its budget did not come from the money that has poured into the field recently to buy drugs and hunt for vaccines.

Also, he argued, ''cooking this data would be almost impossible'' because it is gathered by health ministries in each country and overseen by several agencies.

Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, director of H.I.V./AIDS for the World Health Organization, added that it was not clear before late 2003 that the estimates were probably too high. And the biggest drop in the global figures came from revising the figure for India downward, which was done in July.

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I leave it to another press critic to judge the Post's take against that of the Times.

Will UNAIDS punish the Post? Probably not, because 1) they don't have the goods on the paper, and 2) even if they did, they'd rather have the paper pissing from inside the tent.

The dust-up illustrates how porous the embargo system is when contested by determined reporters. Timberg didn't violate an embargo, he got a leak and he ran with it, and the sooner UNAIDS makes its peace with that, the better off we will all be.

Even if you don't agree with the substance of the Post's take on the UNAIDS report, please admire it for refusing to sing from the prepared songbook. Here's hoping that the hullabaloo inspires other reporters and publications to give embargoes everywhere a kick in the pants.

******

My favorite sort of embargo? The unsolicited e-mail from a publicist who sends embargoed news to me without asking me first if I agree to the embargo. Should I start publishing these nonbinding embargoes as fast as I receive them? Vote via e-mail at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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