- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

An Israel connection

We would love to see The Washington Times dominate the region the way our cross-town competitor does, but in the meantime we understand we are trying to sell our newspaper to a lot of people who also read The Post.

With that in mind, our senior editors regularly stress that we should put the bulk of our energy and resources into finding and developing stories that will not appear anywhere else. If both front pages offer the same package of stories, we reason, there will be no reason for anyone to buy both papers.

That challenge has been especially difficult in covering the school hostage tragedy in Beslam, Russia. The Post’s very fine Moscow-based reporter Peter Baker — who incidentally began his career over here — rushed to Beslam on the first day of the crisis and began filing a series of excellent stories.

We, meanwhile, have not had a reporter of our own there and have relied on the wire agencies. These do excellent work but, because they have to write stories that can appear in hundreds of papers simultaneously, seldom stray from straight middle-of-the-road reporting.

By Monday, we had gone through three days of searing descriptive accounts about the grisly scenes of dead children and their anguished, heart-broken parents, and I was looking for something else.

I found it in an e-mail from free-lance correspondent Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem. Unsolicited, he had filed an article saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday night to accept help from Israel in fighting terrorism.

This was something we had never seen before. As Mr. Rabinovich explained in his story, Russia had rebuffed all previous such offers from Israel for fear of antagonizing its Arab allies in the region. It suggested Mr. Putin was more deeply worried by the Beslam attack than by previous Chechen terrorism and that a long-term Middle East realignment could be in the works.

Two valid stories

There was still some work to be done. There had been several developments in the hours since Mr. Rabinovich had filed his story, including a visit to Jerusalem by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in which he and his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, had formalized the promise of cooperation in a written memorandum.

There were also developments in Russia, including the expected accounts of funeral processions through rain-filled streets and of tearful parents grimly burying their children.

The wire reports from Russia had a few other new twists, including evidence that the attackers had been planning the attack for months and had spent the summer smuggling weapons and explosives into the school while disguised as construction workers.

There was also a report that some of the attackers had been upset and argued with their leaders when they realized that their hostages were children. But the account was coming from a lawyer representing a captured hostage-taker and seemed a bit self-serving to be taken at face value.

An editor scooped up all the fresh information from the wires and worked it into Mr. Rabinovich’s story, taking care to use our own words so we could preserve the Jerusalem reporter’s byline while crediting the wire agencies at the bottom of the story.

That was the story that ran on Tuesday’s front page under a headline that read, “Israel will aid Russia in fight on terror.” It was an angle that did not appear in any other newspaper that I saw.

Across town meanwhile, Mr. Baker of The Post had done his usual good work, backing up the stories of an argument among the hostage-takers with the first report I saw anywhere that it had been recorded on a videotape.

Two papers, two very different and equally valid stories. I was happy to settle for that.

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

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