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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Saturday, June 29, 2002
10:43 PM

The Raven Flies At Midnight, Part Three... MediaMinded notes a fascinating Jack Shafer column at Slate explaining why Walter Pincus on June 24 downplays the significance of Walter Pincus on June 20 when Walter Pincus the First had a page-one story about NSA communications that could have warned us about Sept.11. In short, it's source-protection, Shafer says.

Now, downplaying the significance of scoops is common practice among newspapers that are scooped, as Shafer explains:

Nearly every publication enjoys pissing on other publications' scoops, ignoring them if they can or by saying, "We had that in the 27th paragraph of a news story 18 months ago." In the case of the NSA intercept story, the Post couldn't very well ignore Ensor's [CNN] scoop because he extracted it from the joint Senate-House intelligence committee, a venue the Post considers its backyard.

So Pincus followed up with his story, and his sources may have been feeling some pressure. So Pincus runs his first story through the shredder, according to Shafer:

In fact, the intercepts story was so ancient, he writes, that the Washington Times had it 11 days after the attack, when it reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had "detected discussions between Osama bin Laden's lieutenants of an impending 'big attack' " on Sept. 10.

Now, there's nothing more injurious to Washington Post pride than to credit the Washington Times underdogs with breaking a story. That Pincus gives such generous credit to convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Times indicates his desperation to kiss the story off.

Pincus' denigration of his own journalism becomes understandable only when you remember that national security reporters live and die by leaks from government sources. When the vice president declares a general war on leakers, he's really declaring a war on Walter Pincus. To preserve and protect current and future sources, Pincus mounted a counteroffensive that required him to trash his original story.

I don't know about trashing, but Shafer has insights here that totally escaped me.


I still think there's a huge difference between what the earlier stories by the Washington Times and others said about generalized warnings before the attack and the CNN-driven Post version, which quoted exact, coded language: "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." That's big, and stupid to release publicly, and I sure hope the fools responsible cut it out.

I blogged this in The Raven Flies at Midnight and The Raven Flies At Midnight, part Deux on June 24, still on this page.

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