City Paper is not for tourists
Howard Kurtz this morning tells the tale of some high-stakes negotiations between Washington Post brass and the Pentagon over the paper’s fresh scoop on the war in Afghanistan. The story, by legendary Postie Bob Woodward, conveyed the dire assessment of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan: Without troop reinforcements, the campaign in Afghanistan will fail within a year.
That assessment came from a 66-page report obtained by Woodward. Over the weekend, Woodward and Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, along with other Post officials, held some tense discussions with Pentagon higher-ups about which parts of the report are suitable for public consumption and which parts could endanger operations on the ground in Afghanistan.
The two sides ultimately reached agreement on the particulars and the Post ran the story on Monday.
So here you have a newspaper discussing redactions of a critical document with government officials. Now there’s a process that calls for a little explanation from the executive editor, right?
No, wrong. When Kurtz asked Brauchli for comment on the negotiations, Brauchli declined. “I asked him for an interview and he declined to talk to me, perhaps because he knew Woodward had spoken to me,” says Kurtz. When asked whether he thought Brauchli’s input was pivotal to his story, Kurtz said, “It’s always good to have another participant when you’re writing about high-level meetings.”
Woodward shed some light on Brauchli’s silence: “He generally takes the position now that he’s not going to spend a lot of time talking about how stories are done or not done.”
Aha! That sounds a lot like the Brauchli Doctrine, which holds that newspapers spend too much time explaining themselves.
In this case, says Woodward, Brauchli essentially delegated the press-talking to him, with no resulting harm to public accountability: Since Woodward sat through the entire process, he was conversant with all the details of the negotiations—-and reports that Brauchli did a bang-up job in handling the defense establishment.
Brauchli didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment on why he didn’t comment.