The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The WaPo PDB report conundrum- the point the ombud missed

The finely chiselled exposé died in the crash yesterday. However...

Cutting to the chase: the top WaPo news story (April 11) on the August 6 PDB - by top bananas Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus - was seriously flawed as a work of journalism; and ombud Michael Getler, prompted by a bunch of reader complaints, was all over it at the weekend (April 18).

Now, the fault with bad material in a news outlet is always that of the editors. How many people actually read the Milbank and Pincus piece? No substitute for alert and knowledgeable eyes on the page.

One point, however, is left only partly digested. The lede - an immediate lede, betokening a hard news story - is seriously deficient:
President Bush was warned a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the FBI had information that terrorists might be preparing for a hijacking in the United States and might be targeting a building in Lower Manhattan.

The information was included in a written Aug. 6, 2001, briefing to Bush...

The text of the PDB (the second graf of Milbank-Pincus indicates that the lede is referring to the PDB itself) mentions (second page) buildings and New York as the location.

The Milbank and Pincus piece later on refers to the intelligence to which the statement refers: a single incident in relation to the Federal Court House in Foley Square.

Now, it's not established (so far as I know) one way or the other that the briefer accompanying the August 6 PDB told Bush that the PDB reference to buildings in New York was based on the Foley Square incident alone.

But, in the PDB itself, there's no support for the statement in Milbank and Pincus' lede.

Now, WaPo publishes tens of thousands of pieces each year. Milbank-Pincus must have been in the top 100 for 2004; you'd therefore expect it to have been edited to the nth degree.

The question unanswered is, How did Lower Manhattan get into the lede? On the face of it, as a reporting job, it's easy-peasy: just précis the text. The fact that Milbank-Pincus had Foley Square in their minds surely wouldn't have confused them - both of them - enough to make such a gaffe, surely?

Which implies that their copy was changed by some over-eager copy-editor. And wasn't checked by his slot - or anyone higher up the editorial hierarchy.

I'm curious to know how many people - and at what level - actually read the Milbank-Pincus piece before publication. Presumably, most, if not all, of those had read the PDB before reading the piece: how come none of them spotted the fubar?

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