THE PACK RAT TAKES ON THE CAPITAL GANGS

By: Alicia Mundy

Columnist Has Questions For Washington Papers


Is it bias against a competing paper? Sloppy reporting? Lack of
corporate memory? I don’t have an answer, but I have a lot of
questions about recent stories in The Washington Post and
The Washington Times.

The issue of their relatively strange coverage of certain stories
has been percolating with me for several months. One expects
differences in nuances, interpretation, and sourcing from our two
“local” papers.

But it has finally reached the point where their front pages
suggest that they are in two completely different cities, if not
time warps. And some stories indicate that the reporters and
editors have a historical archive that goes back only two years.

There’s too much meat to toss at readers in a single column, but
let’s take the story about the pardons issued by former President
Clinton shortly before he left office. On Jan. 21, in a Sunday
Post Page One piece by at least five reporters and another
four researchers, it was suggested that Clinton’s pardon list
(and this was before the incredible Marc Rich item was noted) was
shocking and unprecedented. The authors even mentioned Ronald
Reagan’s pardons, contrasting the lack of “surprises.”

But there was no mention of George Bush, the first one, who, on
his way out the door, pardoned several of the Iran-Contra
figures, a couple of whom had admitting lying to Congress or
prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and were fairly unrepentant. Checking
clips, I discovered several Post editorial pieces and
stories of late 1992 and early 1993 that excoriated Bush, with
fairly strong statements by Walsh and others suggesting the
pardons were undercutting the Constitution and may have been
helping save Bush himself from being further scrutinized for his
role in the scandal. It doesn’t matter whether you thought Iran-
Contra was terrible – what matters is that Bush’s last-
minute pardons shocked numerous Washington Republicans and
Democrats and raised new questions about Bush himself.

Now, a suspicious person might wonder if either no Post
editor or reporter remembered Bush’s final acts or, worse,
perhaps decided that there was no reason to get the paper off on
the wrong foot with the new president, George W. But rereading
the pardon story, it’s easy to understand why, at times,
Clinton’s staff complained that their boss was the victim of a
double standard in reporting.

That possible double standard was the subject of one vitriolic
discussion the night of the Inaugural balls. A Republican
conservative was holding court, complaining loudly that only
The Washington Times had run a front-page article about
the press’ review of Florida ballot that added six votes to
Bush’s lead over Al Gore. The Post, by comparison, had run
a tiny five-inch story well on the inside. “So there, that’s the
Post for you,” harrumphed the GOP contributor. He had a
point.

But so did another guest (i.e., me). The previous week, the
Post had run several Page One stories on the very
expensive mess being created by the addition of a second night of
pre-Inaugural parties, requested by the GOP. It was a Marie
Antoinette let-them-eat-cake situation.

Because many people attending the Texas Society Black Tie and
Boots Ball on Friday also wanted to go to the outside
entertainment that usually accompanies Inaugural festivities,
that entertainment had now been scheduled for Thursday, in the
middle of afternoon rush hour, on the National Mall, in the
center of Washington, against the wishes of the park police. At
least two bridges into the city from Virginia would have to be
closed to accommodate security for Bush’s caravan for four hours,
the length of rush hour. The federal government was either going
to have to send employees home at noon (costing hundreds of
millions) or tell employees to take annual leave, since they’d
otherwise be stuck in town for hours.

But the Times skillfully avoided Page One stories about
this, perhaps since it made fiscal conservatives look rather
profligate in their spending habits and their willingness to
disrupt the entire federal city to party. Instead, the
Times’ front page touted the wonderful parade floats being
built for the Inaugural – and the return of Robert E. Lee
figures.

There are always variations in coverage, quotes, and themes. But
it’s been noticeable recently that the Times front pages
don’t reflect reality as much as they do the imaginary landscape
of the right. Meanwhile, the Post’s front page, while
hardly left-wing, seems to reflect a jumble of agendas related to
payback, thank-yous, gathering new subscribers, smoothing things
over with enemies, and attempts to make new friends. Living and
working in Washington, I find myself turning to the Los
Angeles Times and The New York Times for my news (more
on that in a column to come).

At some point, it seems that, bias aside, the front pages of our
two Washington papers should be somewhat comparable in story
designation, no matter how different the views on their
respective Op-Ed pages. The Times is out in right field,
and the Post is out of focus.



Alicia Mundy’s “Pack Rat” column appears monthly in E&P. Mundy (Mundy007@aol.com) is Washington bureau chief for Mediaweek, a sister magazine.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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