August 12, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

It appears that some people at the Washington Post are beginning to think about admitting that it did not do its job.

Former Assistant Managing Editor Karen DeYoung: "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.... If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.... [Contrary arguments are put] in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far":

washingtonpost.com: The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story: "The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"... Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part."...

When national security reporter Dana Priest was addressing a group of intelligence officers recently, she said, she was peppered with questions: "Why didn't The Post do a more aggressive job? Why didn't The Post ask more questions? Why didn't The Post dig harder?" Michael Massing... "on the key issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the paper was generally napping along with everyone else. It gave readers little hint of the doubts that a number of intelligence analysts had about the administration's claims regarding Iraq's arsenal."...

From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, The Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq. Some examples: "Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified"; "War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack"; "Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will"; "Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat"; "Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War."...

On Sept. 19, 2002, reporter Joby Warrick described a report "by independent experts who question whether thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program," as the administration was contending. The story ran on Page A18. Warrick said he was "going out on a limb. . . . I was struck by the people I talked to -- some on the record, others who couldn't be -- who were saying pretty persistently that these tubes were in no way suitable for uranium enrichment. On the other side were these CIA guys who said, 'Look, we know what we're talking about but we can't tell you.' " Downie said that even in retrospect, the story looks like "a close call." He said the inability of dissenters "to speak up with their names" was a factor in some of his news judgments. The Post, however, frequently quotes unnamed sources....

The Post gave front-page play to a Sept. 10, 2002, story by Priest contending that "the CIA has yet to find convincing evidence" linking Hussein and al Qaeda. That hardly settled the matter. On Dec. 12, 2002, investigative reporter Barton Gellman -- who would later win acclaim for his skeptical postwar stories from Iraq on WMDs -- wrote a controversial piece that ombudsman Michael Getler complained "practically begs you not to put much credence in it." The headline: "U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis."...

In October 2002, Ricks, a former national security editor for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering such issues for 15 years, turned in a piece that he titled "Doubts." It said that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. Most of those quoted by name in the Ricks article were retired military officials or outside experts. The story was killed by Matthew Vita, then the national security editor and now a deputy assistant managing editor. "Journalistically, one of the frustrations with that story was that it was filled with lots of retired guys," Vita said. But, he added, "I completely understood the difficulty of getting people inside the Pentagon" to speak publicly....

Pincus...e first met Hans Blix, who was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, at a conference in Ghana in 1959. "The inspectors kept getting fed intelligence by our administration and the British and the French, and kept coming back and saying they couldn't find" the weapons, Pincus said. "I did one of the first interviews with Blix, and like everyone else he thought there would be WMDs. By January and February [of 2003], he was starting to have his own doubts. . . . What nobody talked about was how much had been destroyed," either under U.N. supervision after the Persian Gulf War or during the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of Iraqi targets. But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten. Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."...

Pincus was among the complainers. "Walter talked to me himself," Downie said. "He sought me out when he was frustrated, and I sought him out. We talked about how best to have stories be in the kind of shape that they could appear on the front page." Editors were also frustrated, Downie said. "Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those stories.... Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

Those tendencies were on display on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a multimedia presentation at the United Nations -- using satellite images and intercepted phone calls -- to convince the world that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. An accompanying front-page story by DeYoung and Pincus examined Powell's "unprecedented release of U.S. intelligence." Not until the ninth paragraph did they offer a "however" clause, saying that "a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts" believed that Powell's description of an Iraqi link to al Qaeda "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said."...

We were not able to marshal enough evidence to say he was wrong," Downie said of Powell. "To pull one of those out on the front page would be making a statement on our own: 'Aha, he's wrong about the aluminum tubes.' "...

In mid-March, as the administration was on the verge of invading Iraq, Woodward stepped in to give the stalled Pincus piece about the administration's lack of evidence a push. "We weren't holding it for any political reason or because we were being pressured by the administration," Spayd said, but because such stories were difficult to edit at a time when the national desk was deluged with copy. "People forget how many facets of this story we were chasing . . . the political ramifications . . . military readiness . . . issues around postwar Iraq and how prepared the administration was . . . diplomacy angles . . . and we were pursuing WMD. . . . All those stories were competing for prominence."...

"Despite the Bush administration's claims" about WMDs, the March 16 Pincus story began, "U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress," raising questions "about whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence." Woodward said he wished he had appealed to Downie to get front-page play for the story, rather than standing by as it ended up on Page A17. In that period, said former national security editor Vita, "we were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks." Spayd did not recall the debate. Reviewing the story in his glass-walled office last week, Downie said: "In retrospect, that probably should have been on Page 1 instead of A17, even though it wasn't a definitive story and had to rely on unnamed sources. It was a very prescient story."

In the days before the war, Priest and DeYoung turned in a piece that said CIA officials "communicated significant doubts to the administration" about evidence tying Iraq to attempted uranium purchases for nuclear weapons. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion....

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Comments

Hmmm, fine.....they admit they screwed up this time. Is there any evidence they're planning to do anything to make sure they NOT screw up next time? I thought not.

Posted by: flory on August 12, 2004 06:52 AM

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Mea sorta, but not really culpa? Even if we credit this half-hearted attempt to say "we could have done better," why don't they start doing so now?

Charles

Posted by: charles on August 12, 2004 07:52 AM

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Something tells me that if Kerry should win the White House in the election this fall that the WaPo will quickly switch from administration enablers to administration critics. How convenient it will be for the GOP if the Post suddenly re-discovers its cojones when a Democratic administration comes into office. Watch carefully to see if this turns out to be the case.

Posted by: Mushinronsha on August 12, 2004 08:04 AM

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This is just more of the usual "mistakes were made" crap. They seem to want to forget that there wasn't a minority opposing the war beforehands, but a majority. One of the reasons that it turned into a majority after it started was the Post's relentess promotion of the war. I refuse to believe that they were fooled for a minute; they just thought they would never have to apologize for it because the war would go so well.

Posted by: Tim H. on August 12, 2004 08:33 AM

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I find the view that a paper is "inevitably the mouthpiece" of whatever the current administration is disheartening. Its refusing to admit the possibility of anything other than failure. Its a reporter's job to always have a critical view of the various interests involved in what government says, and to convey a sense of what those interests are to the reader. The quality of the arguments made by the players should determine how the story is told, not an appeal to the authority of the current administration because they automatically "know better." Otherwise we might as well read White House press releases rather than a newspaper.

Posted by: DC on August 12, 2004 09:04 AM

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Dana Priest hears from a group of intelligence officers “why didn’t the Post dig harder?”

Joby Warrick hears from “CIA guys who said, “Look, we know what we’re talking about but we can’t tell you.”"

Two explanations come to mind. The benign explanation is that the losers in the intelligence debate (who happened in this case to be right) are irritated at having lost, and are rubbing a reporter’s nose in it for not picking up the right story. The malign explanation is that there were good guys and bad guys in the intelligence community, and the bad guys won the Iraq weapons debate, assisted greatly by the Post and its fellow travellers. The WP, having now admitted to doing a bad job of getting the important news on the front page, can make amends very usefully by looking into whether the malign or the benign explanation is correct. But it won’t. Why? Because the Post is “inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.” We can just as well spend our time at the RNC and DNC websites. Or fishing. Or reading Pravda. Al Jezeera has higher standards of objectivity.

The WP’s admission that it didn’t manage to get the other side of the story on the front page very much is a colossal desplay of ass-covering. The Post buried contrary opinion when it bothered to seek out contrary opinion at all. That isn't just an "oops, my bad" situation. The Post looked the other way while a new rationale for war was built, while a rotating series of faulty arguments (faulty even under the untested new rationale) were offered, while Bush oversold the truly ambiguous information he had to support even his faulty arguments (and I'm being generous here - the insiders had a better chance of knowing the "facts" they offered the public and the UN were not facts than anybody else). How many opportunities to do a good job do these guys think they deserve before being asked to find alternative employment? People have died, others have been tortured, the US lost stature and influence in the world, terrorism is up, not down. The Post says "Oops?"

Posted by: kharris on August 12, 2004 09:15 AM

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"Something tells me that if Kerry should win the White House in the election this fall that the WaPo will quickly switch from administration enablers to administration critics. "

I tend to agree, but don't forget that the right-wing smear machine is already in full operation, feeding the so-called legitimate press as has been well documented by Brad, Conason, Franken et al. Don't imagine for a moment that they'll quiet down after Kerry takes the oath of office.

Posted by: Gregory on August 12, 2004 09:24 AM

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Brad,

Thank you for posting this article. The WaPo
is and has been much more reliable than the NYT and this
apology is much more heartfelt and much more
complete than the NYT's excuse for an excuse.

Craig

Posted by: Craig Nelson on August 12, 2004 09:26 AM

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DC, don't worry - I agree with the others, that they'll switch quite handily if Kerry wins. Just like in 2000, when 'change the tone in DC' meant 'treat Bush with kid gloves, even while aiming a few last-minute kicks at Clinton'.

Posted by: Barry on August 12, 2004 09:29 AM

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Shock & Awe !!!!!!!!!!!!

(You know what I mean)

Posted by: Dave S on August 12, 2004 09:35 AM

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Sounds to me like your title is wrong, Brad.

Sounds to me like your title ought to be: "Why oh why can't we have a better editorial staff at the Washington Post?"

Posted by: praktike on August 12, 2004 10:04 AM

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Sounds to me like your title is wrong, Brad.

Sounds to me like your title ought to be: "Why oh why can't we have a better editorial staff at the Washington Post?"

Posted by: praktike on August 12, 2004 10:11 AM

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So, you see, this is why Bush doesn't read the papers. Because they, you know, can't be trusted to tell the truth, and he wouldn't want to be mislead...

Posted by: Greg in WA on August 12, 2004 10:23 AM

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The WaPo is, and always was, a company paper in a company town.

You might as well scan the columns, say, the Nashville Tennesean for hard-hitting coverage of HCA.

They made a movie out of All the President's Men precisely because it was an anomaly.

No one ever got an Oscar for appearing in Dog Bites Man.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on August 12, 2004 10:37 AM

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Reconsiderations of attitude toward government policy are sprouting everywhere. Something of an offhand encomium to the early and extraordinary efforts of J. Bradford DeLong, among very few others. And perhaps a quadrennial passage in the health of our very messy Union. Seems almost near time to go easy, and start looking forward. At the harder part! Washington Post could start by re-strategizing the worldwide Muslim insurgency, soup to nuts.

Posted by: Lee A. on August 12, 2004 10:49 AM

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Is this being driven by readership worries? If more accurate info can be found on the blogs, why buy the WaPo?

Posted by: bakho on August 12, 2004 11:20 AM

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bakho,

Accurate information? We don't need no stinkin' accurate information. We need entertainment that validates our own prejudices, dressed up as news. Now stop fantasizing and get back to work.

Posted by: kharris on August 12, 2004 11:37 AM

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In response to the original question - Why don't we have a better press corps? - I had an interesting conversation with an elderly gentleman a couple of years ago who was a newspaper reporter for many years before he became editor of nationl magazine.

His view of the situation is that cub reporters aren't getting the training. He stated that as a young reporter his assignment was to go down to the police station on Fri and Sat night and see if a story presented itself. In the meantime he learned how the system worked, how to dig for the facts and learn to read people from all walks of life. Somewhere along the way it went from get the facts to get a story. And the rip and read mentality of the TV talking head is now in the print media also.

We now have a generation of editors and heads of news organizations that don't have the knowledge or inclination to present good balanced reporting - probably due to the pressure to be efficient and produce from the first day you are hired as a "reporter".

And that is my view as to why we don't have good reporting that everyone can trust to be accurate. I find it interesting that some comments here imply that Kerry doesn't or won't get a fair shot in the Washington Post where if you listen to the conservative side they have the same comments and fears that Bush doesn't get a fair shot. So maybe the media is doing its job if both sides think they are being wronged.

Posted by: JB on August 12, 2004 11:39 AM

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In response to the original question - Why don't we have a better press corps? - I had an interesting conversation with an elderly gentleman a couple of years ago who was a newspaper reporter for many years before he became editor of nationl magazine.

His view of the situation is that cub reporters aren't getting the training. He stated that as a young reporter his assignment was to go down to the police station on Fri and Sat night and see if a story presented itself. In the meantime he learned how the system worked, how to dig for the facts and learn to read people from all walks of life. Somewhere along the way it went from get the facts to get a story. And the rip and read mentality of the TV talking head is now in the print media also.

We now have a generation of editors and heads of news organizations that don't have the knowledge or inclination to present good balanced reporting - probably due to the pressure to be efficient and produce from the first day you are hired as a "reporter".

And that is my view as to why we don't have good reporting that everyone can trust to be accurate. I find it interesting that some comments here imply that Kerry doesn't or won't get a fair shot in the Washington Post where if you listen to the conservative side they have the same comments and fears that Bush doesn't get a fair shot. So maybe the media is doing its job if both sides think they are being wronged.

Posted by: JB on August 12, 2004 11:42 AM

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"Not front-paging stuff," huh.

Well, that partially explains my uncanny feeling of living in an alternative news reality for the past several years.

I haven't touched a paper copy of the Washington Post since I lived in Baltimore, but I have been using Google news search since it's been available, and running searchs on keywords like: cheney pressured cia, or intelligence cooked. Granted, this isn't what you get by being neutral, but by starting out suspicious.

Yes, Pincus articles came up. Lots of Knight Ridder articles came up (Krugman was on KQED forum today and commented that Knight Ridder did a better job). If I use the same kinds of keywords now, I can easily find evidence of these articles from back in Oct. 2002:
http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2002/msg01796.html


Posted by: Paul Callahan on August 12, 2004 11:59 AM

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Frankly this whole phenomenon was something I noticed at the time, not just in the Post, but elsewhere. The administration would would come up with some startling new claim or "evidence" which would make front page headlines for a couple of days and get lots of TV coverage. Very shortly thereafter would come debunking articles, which looked at the claims more closely, and found them wanting, but these stories were buried in the back and then quickly sunk without a trace. It was making me crazy. For these reason it was hardly a shock when the more recent accusations of weak intelligence became official. Paul is right, the stories wre out there. No one needed access to classified intelligence briefs to see just how weak the case really was.

Posted by: quartz on August 12, 2004 12:43 PM

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bakho wrote, "If more accurate info can be found on the blogs, why buy the WaPo?"

Don't forget---the WaPo does original reporting. Blogs---much as I love them---mostly don't.

While the WaPo's editorial page is execrable, and while the editors who decided on downplaying e.g. Pincus's stories would resign if they had a shred of honor, it's still a pretty good paper. Their coverage up to and after the war was far better than the NY Times'. (NY Times has a better opinion section and more interesting biz section, but on Iraq and federal budget issues, WaPo is better.)

In the final analysis, I think the IF Stone model (rely on documents, not BS put out by sources) is better, of course.

Posted by: liberal on August 12, 2004 12:57 PM

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Speaking of Pincus, doesn't he know who outed Plame? Why not run that story? That would be a fine piece of original reporting.

Posted by: bakho on August 12, 2004 02:11 PM

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I worked at as a newspaperman for 34 years 10 as an executive editor. If I had to print a story like the Post did today I would have also resigned. This is not a one day mistake it was day after day.
Also it's correct that the Post is the only paper of the big four that is losing readership and they stated "they can't figure why."
Maybe they should read their story again and see if they can find a clue.

Posted by: hal on August 12, 2004 04:06 PM

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I worked at as a newspaperman for 34 years 10 as an executive editor. If I had to print a story like the Post did today I would have also resigned. This is not a one day mistake it was day after day.
Also it's correct that the Post is the only paper of the big four that is losing readership and they stated "they can't figure why."
Maybe they should read their story again and see if they can find a clue.

Posted by: hal on August 12, 2004 04:07 PM

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I am surprised at the level of helpless fury this story caused in me, after all this time. What a half-assed apology for a collossal failure to do their job. The part where they they spiked the "Doubts" story . . . sickening.

Posted by: Emma Anne on August 12, 2004 05:14 PM

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JB said: " I find it interesting that some comments here imply that Kerry doesn't or won't get a fair shot in the Washington Post where if you listen to the conservative side they have the same comments and fears that Bush doesn't get a fair shot. So maybe the media is doing its job if both sides think they are being wronged."

No JB, I don't agree. If conservatives are screaming that Vince Foster was murdered, and Democrats are saying " the poor guy killed himself. Leave him alone," the truth is *not* somewhere in the middle. And the media is not doing it's job when it pretends it is. SOmetimes one side really is being wronged.

Posted by: Emma Anne on August 12, 2004 05:20 PM

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Emma,

The "fallacy of the middle ground" is among the most attractive of errors for those of good will who lack information. Understanding this tendency toward giving weight to both sides comes in handy if you are a propogandist. Get way out on the fringe (tax cuts for the rich as a jobs program, Iraqi mushroom clouds in the US, Clinton routinely broke the law) and then when objective, well informed people state their views, look for the public to assume that the truth lies somewhere between the truth and the lies.

Did you catch O'Rielly and Krugman on Russert's show? Perfect example.

Posted by: kharris on August 12, 2004 05:42 PM

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"The administration would would come up with some startling new claim or "evidence" which would make front page headlines for a couple of days and get lots of TV coverage. Very shortly thereafter would come debunking articles, which looked at the claims more closely, and found them wanting, but these stories were buried in the back and then quickly sunk without a trace."

So the Bush administration gets tired of waiting for OBL to attack in time for the election and decides to go ahead and do it themselves. After all, killing a few Americans at home isn't much different than killing them abroad when it's for a good cause and has God's sanction. The administration makes its claims about the nature of the attack which are dutifully printed by the media. Bush is re-elected by the time the "debunking articles" appear but they are "buried in the back and then quickly sink without a trace". Business as usual.

Posted by: OffCourse on August 12, 2004 05:56 PM

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The problem of not wanting to make a real judgment may be generic. How many of you have sat on tenure committees or hiring committees listening to colleagues who clearly were unable to make a decision based on their own deep study of the person's record and personal knowledge of her performance? It's an abdication of responsibility. That's the root of the problem. A few pushers get what they want because the rest prefer a quiet life. I imagine it's the same in big time journalism.

Posted by: Knut Wicksell on August 12, 2004 07:17 PM

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kharris - thanks for "fallacy of the middle ground." I'm glad to put a name to it.

Posted by: Emma Anne on August 12, 2004 07:43 PM

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"The "fallacy of the middle ground" is among the most attractive of errors for those of good will who lack information. Understanding this tendency toward giving weight to both sides comes in handy if you are a propogandist. Get way out on the fringe (tax cuts for the rich as a jobs program, Iraqi mushroom clouds in the US, Clinton routinely broke the law) and then when objective, well informed people state their views, look for the public to assume that the truth lies somewhere between the truth and the lies."

I've been saying this for a while too. The only response I know is for the liberal side to stop trying to hide and undermine its extremists. Let Moore be Moore. Let Chomsky be Chomsky. Let Cockburn debate Hannity and see where the middle-grounders end up. No political movement ever went anywhere without extremists.

Posted by: Martin Bento on August 12, 2004 10:50 PM

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bakho wrote, "Speaking of Pincus, doesn't he know who outed Plame? Why not run that story? That would be a fine piece of original reporting."

He might. Probably the journalist's code about not revealing sources. Not that I agree with that.

Speaking of Pincus, I'm rereading the Kurtz piece in the Post, and P is quoted as saying, "The main thing people forget to do is read documents."

AMEN. This is the point I was making re "IF Stone"-style journalism.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:44 AM

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bakho wrote, "Speaking of Pincus, doesn't he know who outed Plame? Why not run that story? That would be a fine piece of original reporting."

He might. Probably the journalist's code about not revealing sources. Not that I agree with that.

Speaking of Pincus, I'm rereading the Kurtz piece in the Post, and P is quoted as saying, "The main thing people forget to do is read documents."

AMEN. This is the point I was making re "IF Stone"-style journalism.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:45 AM

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bakho wrote, "Speaking of Pincus, doesn't he know who outed Plame? Why not run that story? That would be a fine piece of original reporting."

He might. Probably the journalist's code about not revealing sources. Not that I agree with that.

Speaking of Pincus, I'm rereading the Kurtz piece in the Post, and P is quoted as saying, "The main thing people forget to do is read documents."

AMEN. This is the point I was making re "IF Stone"-style journalism.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:45 AM

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bakho wrote, "Speaking of Pincus, doesn't he know who outed Plame? Why not run that story? That would be a fine piece of original reporting."

He might. Probably the journalist's code about not revealing sources. Not that I agree with that.

Speaking of Pincus, I'm rereading the Kurtz piece in the Post, and P is quoted as saying, "The main thing people forget to do is read documents."

AMEN. This is the point I was making re "IF Stone"-style journalism.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:46 AM

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Hmm...seems like my tried-and-true method of avoiding multiple posts has failed. Must be all the web traffic at 7:48 am EDT.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:51 AM

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Hmm...seems like my tried-and-true method of avoiding multiple posts has failed. Must be all the web traffic at 7:48 am EDT.

Posted by: liberal on August 13, 2004 04:53 AM

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