- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

Syria and Lebanon

We journalists are easily amused at times, getting puffed up by small scoops that might not seem like much to a broader public. Luckily, we have tough-minded people like our night editor Gus Constantine around to bring us back to earth.

So it was on Wednesday evening when Mr. Constantine looked at our top foreign story of the day, saying U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was sending an envoy to Damascus to press for a firm timetable for Syria’s troop withdrawal from Lebanon.

This was little more than a calendar item, Mr. Constantine argued. Why was it going on the front page when a big pro-government rally in Damascus and a decision to reappoint the recently resigned prime minister of Lebanon were going inside?

The short answer is that the envoy story had not been reported anywhere while the Damascus rally and events in Lebanon would be old news to TV viewers and Internet users by morning. The long answer is that a lot of reporters and editors had time, energy and ego invested in the U.N. story.

The idea germinated in our 11 a.m. news meeting, where a senior editor called attention to some quotes buried in that morning’s paper.

In an interview with CNN, the Syrian ambassador to Washington had appeared to accede unconditionally to President Bush’s demand for a complete troop pullout by the end of May. But nothing of the kind had been reported from Damascus; was the ambassador speaking out of turn or had the policy actually changed?

The first step was to ask the Syrians, but we had no luck reaching anyone who could talk.

The first time reporter Sharon Behn phoned the embassy here, she was told the ambassador would call her back. The second time she was told he was out of cell-phone contact, and the third time she was told he was on a flight to San Diego. Our freelance correspondent in Damascus had no better luck.

Pieces of a puzzle

We asked State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev to get a comment from the department spokesman. At worst, I thought, we could point out the contradiction between the official statements from Damascus and Washington and say the State Department was examining them.

Meanwhile, we were pursuing something seemingly unrelated: An unsolicited e-mail from an online organization called the Debka-file claimed that U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, at U.S. request, was about to travel through Europe and the Middle East to drum up support for sanctions on Syria.

Mr. Kralev was able to confirm one element of the report — that Mr. Larsen had discussed plans for a trip to the region during meetings Friday with officials at the State Department and National Security Council.

U.N. reporter Betsy Pisik in New York did better: She found some little-noticed quotes from Mr. Annan, speaking that day in Spain, saying Mr. Larsen would ask for a timetable for Syria’s withdrawal at a meeting with the Syrian president on Saturday.

The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when I finally reached a contact at a Middle East embassy. The diplomat knew nothing about Mr. Larsen’s plans, but he said that leaders in the region were upset about the “mixed signals” coming from the Syrians. He specifically mentioned the contradictory remarks by the ambassador and officials in Damascus.

We now had Middle East leaders and the United Nations showing concern about the mixed signals and an envoy headed to Damascus to try to sort it out. Mrs. Behn pieced it all together and our senior editors splashed it on Thursday’s front page.

OK, even if it wasn’t the biggest scoop of all time, it was ours, and it was important enough for our competition, The Washington Post, to put its own version of the story at the top of its front page a day later.

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

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