- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

Putin’s threat

One of the most dramatic stories to appear last week was a threat by Russian President Vladimir Putin to re-target some of his nation’s nuclear missiles on Europe.

“If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory, we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe,” Mr. Putin was quoted as saying. “It is up to our military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles.”

The threat, which was reported as the lead story in our Monday paper, reverberated for days, getting mentioned repeatedly in coverage of the G-8 summit in Germany.

When, on Thursday, Mr. Putin told President Bush he would be willing to go along with a missile defense shield based in Azerbaijan, the carrot he offered was that he would drop the threat against Europe.

So why was the threat not even mentioned on Monday in either of the nation’s premier newspapers, The Washington Post and the New York Times?

Even with weekend staffers in charge while their front-line editors enjoyed one of the last fine spring weekends before summer, I can’t imagine they failed to notice it.

The story was widely reported on the cable news stations and wire agencies, with the Associated Press moving regular updates. It got plenty of attention on the hourly radio news bulletins.

More likely, I suspect, the industry pace-setters were just too proud to publish a story that did not come from one of their own reporters.

Mr. Putin reportedly made the threat in an interview with a group of European reporters. It was to have been embargoed until Monday but the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, released it prematurely on Sunday, according to one online account.

The Associated Press, unable to reach Mr. Putin to confirm the remarks, did what wire reporters are trained to do: They picked it up with attribution to one of the originating newspapers — Italy’s Corriere della Sera.

Matter of survival

In this newspaper, we carried a version of the story that was syndicated by the London Daily Telegraph, which said Mr. Putin had been speaking in Moscow “to reporters from G-8 countries.” It was not clear whether their reporter was one of them.

The AP quoted Corriere della Sera saying reporters from all of the G-8 countries were included, but if there was an American present, I don’t know who it was. The Post and the New York Times, apparently, were not invited.

Every newspaper places a premium on its own reporting. We all prefer to have a staff byline on a front page story rather than carry a wire service report.

This is partly a matter of prestige: It costs millions of dollars a year to maintain a network of overseas bureaus, and editors want to have something to show for all that money. To use the wire is to admit that your own reporter couldn’t get the story.

It is also a matter of survival: In the Internet age, our readers have access to the wire agencies at the same time we do. If we cannot bring something exclusive to a story, there is no reason for anyone to read us.

But some stories are big enough, and important enough, that any newspaper just has to have them if it expects to be taken seriously. And this was one of them.

This was a case in which our inability to maintain a big network of staff bureaus worked in our favor. We long ago decided that if the competition wouldn’t publish the work of the wire reporters, we would treat them proudly as our own.

So there was no hand-wringing here over whether to use the story or not, no effort to reach a reporter in Europe on a Sunday evening to demand that he match the wire report.

We simply compared what was being offered by the wire services and syndicates and picked the best story. And it turned out that if you didn’t read The Washington Times on Monday morning, you missed the big story of the day.

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

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