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Washington Post Crashed-and-Burned-and-Smoking Watch: Mike Getler Says It's the Editors' Fault

Michael Getler: The Washington Post's biggest problems between 2000 and 2005 were named Len Downie, Liz Spayd, and Fred Hiatt: they were the wrong editors in the wrong places at the wrong time.

Dan Froomkin:

Watchdog Blog » Blog Archive » ‘A Failure of Editors’: Michael Getler – who was Washington Post ombudsman from 2000 to 2005... blames the editors.... In an article for Michael Tomasky’s Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.... What Getler saw from his “catbird seat” was

a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried....

Getler also points out that it helps if the editors know what they’re taling about. He writes that editors

need to be experienced and informed so that when they gather around story conference tables to decide what goes on Page A1, they are able to argue with authority about the value of their stories. They need to understand that in extreme national circumstances, stories based on anonymous sources must compete with and be treated equally at times with the pronouncements of a president.... My sense is that what ailed the Post most in its coverage was not having the right editors in the right places at the right time.

Getler also notes that much of what these editors overlooked was in plain sight:

Some examples: In the summer and fall of 2002, the paper failed to record promptly the doubts of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey. When Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, wrote a cautionary op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, it apparently didn’t strike anyone at the Post as news. A rare Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on containment rather than war—that the administration refused to provide witnesses for—got a few paragraphs at the bottom of a story. The testimony of three retired four-star generals warning against an attack before the Senate Armed Services Committee was not covered at all. Speeches by Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Robert Byrd that seem prescient today were not covered.... Large anti-war rallies in London and Rome went unreported the day after. In October, when more than 100,000 gathered in Washington to protest the war, the story went in the Metro section because the Post underestimated its size.

Then there was what Getler calls the “Page A18 problem”:

Here’s a brief sampling of... Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted....

Getler ends with a plea that will be familiar to regular readers of this Web site: That this failure be re-examined, so that the proper lessons can be learned.

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