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October 10, 2005

Readers' Rep: Paper Should Have Checked Story


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Dick Rogers, the readers' representative at the San Francisco Chronicle, criticizes the paper's coverage of Palestinian claims that President Bush said he was motivated by God to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, end tyranny in Iraq and create a Palestinian state.

His column notes that the allegation, leveled by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, is included in a BBC TV documentary entitled "Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs," which will air tonight in the UK, and in the U.S. on PBS. Despite the fact that the documentary has not yet aired, the BBC, so tickled by this charge, last week sent out a press release announcing the unsubstantiated claim.

And, unfortunately, on Friday the Chronicle printed the claims without challenge or fact-checking. For this, Rogers rightfully castigates:

When writing about controversy, the least a paper can do is to let readers hear from the subject of the coverage.

Yet there was no comment from the White House, and no indication that the paper had tried to get comment. By failing to give voice to the administration, the paper came across as unfair -- biased in some minds. Readers were left to wonder why there was such a big hole in the story.

It's not that no one from the Bush camp was talking. By around 9:15 a.m. Pacific time last Thursday, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan had responded during the daily White House briefing. That was more than 20 hours before The Chronicle had landed on most porches.

Here is the exchange, according to the White House Web site:

Q: Have you ever heard the president say that God told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and --

Mr. McClellan: No, and I've been in many meetings with him and never heard such a thing.

Q: Are you aware of the -- there's a BBC broadcast tonight that's quoting the Palestinian prime minister and foreign minister as saying that they were in a meeting with the president in June of '03, and there are some very detailed quotes here, saying that the president said to them, "God told me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan,' and I did," and then "God told me, 'George go and end the tyranny in the Iraq,' " and so forth and so on?

Mr. McClellan: No, that's absurd. He's never made such comments.

Q: Were you in the meeting when that took place?

Mr. McClellan: I've been in meetings with him with President Abbas; I didn't travel on that trip, if you're talking about to Jordan. But I've been in many meetings with the president with world leaders where he's talked about this.

Q: So you don't know about the June '03 meeting?

Mr. McClellan: No, I checked into that report and I stand by what I just said.

Decide for yourself whether the spokesman was covering for the president, whether Shaath was the one hearing voices or whether it's a tempest in a teapot. In any case, the official statement deserved to be part of the coverage.

"We screwed up," said Chronicle Executive Foreign-National Editor Andrew Ross.

Posted by TS at October 10, 2005 07:21 AM

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