Last Sunday, the Outlook section published the letter of resignation written on Feb. 27 by career diplomat John Brady Kiesling, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Kiesling resigned because, he said, he no longer believed “that by upholding the policies of my president I was also upholding the interests of the American people and the world.”
Whatever one’s view of the need for war, this was a powerful recitation of dissent. Before the letter was published in Outlook, quite a few people wrote to say they had read accounts of it in other newspapers and on the Internet, and they asked why The Post had not done a story on it. The only mention in The Post had been two sentences in Al Kamen’s “In the Loop” column on March 5.
In the grand scheme of things, the resignation of a diplomat, which is rare but not unprecedented, is just one small blip. What makes The Post’s treatment of it noteworthy, however, is that it is part of a perplexing flaw in coverage that has persisted throughout this long run-up to a controversial war and that contrasts with the many fine reporting efforts the paper makes from here and abroad to record and illuminate what is hap- pening.
It was more than a year ago that the Bush administration shifted its public focus from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. By the end of summer, as the administration made known its strategy for preemptive war and signs of a military buildup began to appear, signs of dissent also emerged.
But looking back over Sunday ombudsman columns and reader challenges during that time and up through today, there is a pattern in the news pages of missing, underplaying or being late on various blips with respect to public voices of dissent or uncertainty.
They started last August with the failure to record promptly the doubts of then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and of Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush’s national security adviser. The first public hearings on the implications of war, held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, got just a few paragraphs at the end of stories. In September, there was no spot coverage of the testimony of three retired four-star generals before the Senate Armed Services Committee warning against an attack without exhausting diplomatic options and gaining United Nations backing. Soon after, a widely reported speech by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) got one line in The Post, and large antiwar rallies in London and Rome went unreported the next day. In October, when more than 100,000 people gathered in Washington to protest war, the paper put the story in the Metro section. Then came complaints that a major speech by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of the few senators who has taken a strong antiwar position, was missed and that the story about the most recent bin Laden audiotape failed to point out bin Laden’s description of Iraqi leaders as “infidels.” An overflow town meeting on war policy in Alexandria was missed. A rare story last month estimating the cost of the war, which was front-page news elsewhere, ran on Page A19. The congressional testimony the following day of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who discounted those cost estimates and who described as “wildly off the mark” previous testimony by the Army chief of staff that hundreds of thousands of troops might be needed for occupation duty, was not reported.
What, if anything, does this add up to? It does not mean Post news coverage is biased, although too many readers say they believe it is. They note lapses in news coverage and then assume that the paper’s strong editorial and op-ed page stances are influencing that coverage. I am very confident that Post news coverage is straight, tough and fair, and that the wall between news and editorial is solid. The paper routinely contributes enterprising reporting on issues that challenge policy. For example, The Post was the first to reveal early doubts about the Iraq mission among some top active-duty military leaders.
Yet a story of this magnitude and breadth demands experienced, alert, overall guidance of coverage every day. It means not taking your eye off daily developments while working on those more enterprising efforts.
When the question is whether to go to war, when an administration can command attention any time it wants, and when military momentum is building to a point where war seems inevitable, the responsibility to be all that you can be, as the Army used to say, and to put stories before the public when they happen is much larger than the individual blips.