- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

Posing questions

Some news events are just obviously going to be big stories: An earthquake in Indonesia kills thousands; an airliner filled with Americans crashes; a series of terrorist bombs explode in the heart of London.

Other events are not so obviously dramatic, but become top stories because they represent major policy shifts that have the potential to affect the fate of nations. The Bush administration’s announcement last week of a conditional offer to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programs is an example.

Still other stories spring from the observations and curiosity of our reporters and editors. These are not things we make up; we try, rather, to notice and inquire about trends and developments before any of our competitors write about them.

Often a reporter or freelancer will come to me and say he has noticed this or that trend and would like to write about it. I say yes or no depending on whether the trend seems interesting and whether the reporter has persuasive evidence that it is happening.

Other story ideas spring from my own daily monitoring of the news wires, television and radio reports, and our own and competing newspapers. In those cases, I try always to propose the story idea to a reporter in the form of a question.

In the coverage of Wednesday’s U.S. offer to talk with Iran, for example, I noticed somewhere a suggestion that Germany’s new chancellor, Angela Merkel, had pressed particularly hard for the United States to take this step.

A day later, over lunch, I began thinking that Mrs. Merkel had enjoyed a very successful visit to Washington in mid-January. One of the newest players on the world scene might well have played a key role in getting the Bush administration to shift its policy on what will surely be a huge issue in the months ahead. Or not.

I spoke to one of our reporters in Washington. He, too, had heard that Mrs. Merkel had been very vocal in pushing for the policy shift, and agreed that her Washington visit had been judged a great success. But he didn’t know much more.

What do you hear?

Next, I decided to ask David Crossland, our freelance correspondent in Germany, what he was hearing. Again, I didn’t want to prejudge the issue, but pose a series of questions that would steer him toward the story I was looking for. Here’s what I wrote:

“I was wondering if there might be a story to be done on Angela Merkel’s role in persuading the Americans to offer talks with Iran, and more broadly in setting the overall strategy.

“We have heard she was the most vocal of the Europeans in pushing Condi Rice for the policy shift. She also got a lot of face time with Bush and Condi in Washington. I wonder if she has established some kind of rapport with Condi, or there is something that makes the Americans willing to trust her judgment? That would be surprising, since she has little experience I know of in international diplomacy.

“How big a role is she playing in determining this package of ‘carrots and sticks’ being worked out in Vienna today? How important will she be in future as this business plays out?

“Are you hearing anything that would make a story, or perhaps contribute to one if we tried to do it from here with American sources?”

I am waiting to hear back from the correspondent in Germany.

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

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