- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

Getting in front

So great is the competitive pressure to get out in front of a story we know is coming that we often try to write about a scheduled event before it happens. Carried to the extreme, this can mean that the event is already old news by the time it occurs.

So it was with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s announcement on Thursday that he was endorsing the U.S. view that elections in Iraq were not feasible before the scheduled June 30 turnover of sovereignty to Iraqis.

U.N. officials had already notified reporters at major news organizations on Wednesday that Mr. Annan and his special envoy for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, would be discussing their views on the subject at a meeting on Thursday of the Friends of Iraq, a group of diplomats representing 46 countries.

Our reporter, Sharon Behn, like her competitors, was also able to learn that Mr. Annan would comment only on the feasibility of elections before June 30, leaving his recommendations on alternative ways to proceed toward sovereignty until this week.

It was also leaked that Mr. Annan would say on Thursday that he did not believe elections were feasible in the short time before sovereignty is to be turned over to Iraqis.

Our two most important competitors, the New York Times and The Washington Post, both carried front-page stories above the fold on Thursday saying Mr. Annan would endorse the U.S. position at his meeting in New York that day.

We found that a little surprising, given that Mr. Annan’s views had been made known in mid-January, when we had carried a front-page story.

Nevertheless, we had thought our readers would be interested to hear what we had learned about the timing of the announcement and the decision to postpone recommendations on an alternative until this week. All those details were included in an article by Mrs. Behn on our World page.

The upshot was that, by the time Mr. Annan’s decision was formally announced on Thursday, it was already old news, and all of the papers relegated the story to inside pages in Friday’s editions.

A balanced picture

This newspaper has long enjoyed a good relationship with the government of Tunisia, largely because of the interest of our European correspondent Andrew Borowiec, who has written two books about the country.

Yet another book about Tunisia has just been published by syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who is a good friend to several of our staff members.

So it was no real surprise that the only interview with an American newspaper granted by Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before his visit to Washington last week went to Mr. Borowiec. The important thing was to handle it in a way that maintained appropriate distance and objectivity.

Mr. Borowiec has made clear in his books his deep respect for Tunisia’s success in developing a progressive civil society with solid economic progress, public education and opportunities for women to an extent that is unusual in the Arab world.

At the same time, he is well aware that Tunisia provides scant freedom to its political opponents or the press, problems of which we are regularly reminded by the various rights-monitoring groups and by the U.S. State Department’s annual survey on the subject.

Mr. Borowiec took care to address both the strengths and the shortcomings of Mr. Ben Ali’s governance in his article, which appeared with excerpts from the interview on the Briefing Page in Monday’s paper.

But he also took care to deal with some issues that we felt were more interesting for our readers: As incoming chairman of the Arab League, which will meet in Tunis next month, Mr. Ben Ali will have a great deal to say in the next year about the Arab approach to several problems of major interest to the United States.

These include the war on terrorism, the restoration of sovereignty in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all issues on which Mr. Ben Ali offered broad general support to the Bush administration’s approach.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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