Post gets it all wrong in Page One headline

The Washington Post yesterday said a quotation used in its lead Page One headline in Thursday’s paper — that the United States got it “almost all wrong” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — was not new and was incorrectly attributed to the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq.

In an article on Thursday, The Post identified Charles A. Duelfer, whom the Bush administration picked to complete a U.S. investigation of Iraq’s weapons programs, as the source of that remark.

The dispatch by Dana Priest and Walter Pincus reported that Mr. Duelfer, chairman of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, told a Senate panel on Wednesday: “We were almost all wrong [about Iraq].”

In a correction printed yesterday on Page A2, The Post said: “The statement, ‘We were almost all wrong.’ was actually made by Duelfer’s predecessor, David Kay, at a Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 28.”

Press critics quickly admonished the newspaper. “It’s remarkably circular that a headline featuring the quote ‘almost all wrong’ is itself almost all wrong,” said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Alluding to the age of the Kay quote, Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, said: “I thought The Washington Post was a newspaper, not a history book.”

Mr. Graham said the headline struck him as being “a partisan slasher headline” when he first read it Thursday morning and evidence that a presidential election is “just three weeks out.” That the quote was attributed to the wrong person and is nearly nine months old is “rather embarrassing.”

He noted that Newsweek “used the Kay quote on its cover” in an issue released soon after the former weapons inspector provided his congressional testimony in late January.

On the Senate floor on Thursday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, held up a copy of The Post and exclaimed, “Across the country, we see the newspapers with headlines like this morning’s Washington Post headline, ‘U.S. ‘Almost All Wrong’ on Weapons.’”

The report, which Mr. Duelfer delivered to two congressional committees on Wednesday, is the federal government’s most detailed assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

It concluded that the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the U.N. weapons inspections as part of a sanctions program ended Saddam’s weapons capability and his efforts to rebuild those programs.

In its Thursday story, The Post described Mr. Duelfer’s report as a document “that contradicts nearly every prewar assertion made by top administration officials.” Many other publications cast the report in a similar way.

However, many newspapers, including The Post, devoted less attention to the first line of the report’s Key Findings summary. The summary said Saddam “wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction when sanctions were lifted.” The report said Saddam was working secretly to restore Iraq’s ability to produce WMD.

The report concluded that Saddam remained a threat.

Mr. Felling said The Post should have put its correction for a front-page story on the front page.

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