September 06, 2004

Washington Post Suggests Sticking to What Was Actually Said, At Least In Some Cases

Here's what the Washington Post's ombudsman has to say about the Post's page one headline the other day:

"Cheney Calls Kerry Unfit," read the big, front-page headline over a story in Thursday's Post about attacks on the Democratic challenger at the Republican convention in speeches by Vice President Cheney and Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia.

"Unfit" is a powerful, personally damning word; it has become even more explosive in the past several weeks because it is in the title of a best-selling book, "Unfit For Command" by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi. The book is the cornerstone of a nationwide effort by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to challenge Sen. John F. Kerry's war record.

The problem is that Cheney never used the word "unfit." Yet the headline can be seen as reinforcing the Swift boat challengers' attack. The headline writer no doubt drew inspiration from the first paragraph of the story by reporter John F. Harris, who wrote that Cheney "reached back decades" into Kerry's life, "arguing in taunting language that the Democratic presidential nominee has demonstrated through his public statements and votes that he is unfit to be commander in chief in an age of terrorism."

You could draw that conclusion from listening to what Cheney did say. But that, in my view and those of some readers, was a poor choice of words and headline. The headline went beyond what Cheney said and then spread the characterization across the front page.

But lest you think that a new leaf has been turned over at the Washington Post:

In a campaign as volatile as this, it seems to me to be best to stick with what was said and leave the interpretation for readers.

Something to keep in mind for everything other than volatile campaigns, I guess.

Posted by Charles Austin at September 6, 2004 04:18 PM