"Washington Post" Mortem

Article excerpt

December 29. A Monday. In the annual trough of the entre deux fetes, The Washington Post, like every other daily paper in the land, obviously hasn't got its starting team on the field. Bob Woodward and Len Downie are enjoying a well-deserved rest, and their otherwise eager pack of bloodhound reporters are all wassailing away with never a thought for the tax reform or child care initiatives that will soon be engaging their full attention. Probably they're not even thinking very much about the trials of Terry Nichols or Ted Kaczynski. So who is in charge? I imagine the editorial night watchman to be a very bright and even more earnest twenty-six-year-old determined to make, as they say, "a difference" --a guy or gal with that special Washington Post kind of humorless self-righteousness for whom Mrs. Graham must have to troll the journalism schools with a fine-mesh net every couple of years. He or she could not have had more than a year or two's worth of editorial experience. But just as our natural caution, diminished by the alcoholic relaxation of "the Holidays" often allows the true man (or, of course, woman) to emerge, so in the fatigue of the twilight of the year, with all its stars beclouded, the Post was never more itself.

For it is not just your garden-variety, do-gooding liberal who could have made up a front page like this one. It would never occur to Gore Vidal or Victor Navasky to think of such stuff as news (as in "news paper"), and my guess is that even Ellen Goodman or Frank Rich--even, God help us, Anna Quindlen -- would blush to own the news-judgment that put these four (of six) front-page stories above the fold. Reading from left to right we find, first (but not by any means for the first time) that life is hard for welfare mothers: "Trading Textbooks for Jobs: Welfare Changes Force Many to Leave College" Then we catch a glimpse of the hell for women that life in today's army has become: "A Male Prototype for Generals' Proteges: In Choosing Aides de Camp, Army's Leaders Nearly Always Exclude Female Officers" In the top right-hand column, that favorite Post source (who never takes a vacation), "Critics" is heard from, as in "us Issuing More Visas to Investors: Critics Say 1990 Statute Opens Path to Citizenship for Wealthy Foreigners" Finally, the top foreign news story of the day is that "For Many Immigrants, Canada's Racial `Mosaic' Pales at Top."

You might not have heard about it, but the American Society of Newspaper Editors is worried that you don't trust them--the editors, I mean--as much as you used to trust them. So worried are they, indeed, that they have (inevitably) "launched" a two-year study of the subject, and it was in conjunction with this that the same day's New York Times reported on a traveling "Committee of Concerned Journalists" who had come to Columbia University to ask "Can Journalism Be Impartial?" Journalists, concerned and otherwise, are always asking this question, and always answering with a qualified "yes." It makes them feel good and conscientious and even self-critical. "My God" they think, waking from their self-satisfaction with a start, "can it be that I might really be `biased' after all?" But then they reflect that, if they were, they wouldn't be asking the question, and so they go back to sleep, comfortable in the conviction, so necessary to their work, that they are not as other men. Their high-mindedness, they are sure, is a prophylactic against bias.

Thus the audience at Columbia heard Louis D. Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, insisting, according to the Times report, that he and his colleagues "strive for coverage that aims as much as possible to present the reader with enough information to make up his or her own mind. That's our fine ideal.... We strive for coverage that is not distorted by the feelings and biases of the writers and editors--by their ideology, their politics, their religion, their tastes, their personal grudges. …