White Knights  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

White Knights   

Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau has distinguished itself with cutting-edge reporting on everything from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to coal mine safety. Sadly, many of its best efforts have been ignored by the national newspapers and the networks. New owner McClatchy says it admires the work and wants it to continue in a merged bureau.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     


In recent months, the two dozen reporters and editors who constitute Knight Ridder's Washington bureau have labored under the threat of a corporate coup d'état. In November, Knight Ridder's three largest shareholders, unhappy with the stock price, demanded that the company be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The company complied, and this winter, at its corporate headquarters in San Jose, executives made economic presentations to prospective buyers. Some of those prospective buyers were newspaper companies of lesser journalistic stature than Knight Ridder, while others were simply leveraged buyout artists.

Had Knight Ridder fallen into the wrong hands, its Washington bureau could have been especially at risk. Unlike the company's 32 newspapers, the bureau makes no profit whatsoever, and it is expensive to run. To a Wall Street-oriented owner, it might have seemed completely dispensable. Furthermore, not just any owner would be comfortable with its muckraking style.

In its 10th-floor offices at 12th and G streets, these were real concerns. "Heck, if we're bought by somebody who doesn't think they need a Washington bureau, well, people like me, we're kind of out of work," Mark Seibel, the bureau's managing editor for international news, told me one day in February, as the two of us sat in his office speculating on the possibilities.

Things seem to be turning out better than that. On March 13, McClatchy, a newspaper chain much respected by journalists as well as by Wall Street, announced it was buying Knight Ridder. That afternoon, some nine hours after the announcement, McClatchy officials were standing in the middle of the bureau's newsroom, addressing a gathered crowd, giving assurances. The staff and its mission would be protected, promised Howard Weaver, McClatchy's vice president for news. The company had no plans to lay off any staffers in the Washington bureau or to close any of the Knight Ridder foreign bureaus it oversees, although Clark Hoyt, the bureau's top editor, was to be replaced by David Westphal, who heads McClatchy's own, much smaller D.C. bureau. The Knight Ridder and McClatchy Washington operations would be merged, Weaver explained. It would all happen by July 1.

Hoyt, 63, who will become a consultant to McClatchy, was totally supportive. "I believe that McClatchy's values are exactly in line with what our values have been," he told me following the meeting, "and I believe they very much want to keep and build on the kind of journalism that's been coming out of this place."

So what kind of journalism is that? With a new management about to be whistled aboard, now seems a good time to consider the question. During Hoyt's tenure, which began in 1999, the bureau has flowered into a formidable journalistic force, emphasizing hard-nosed, fact-based watchdog reporting. Its staff includes 16 national reporters and nine editors — not nearly enough to match the output of the Washington Post, the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times on a daily basis. (The New York Times' Washington bureau has 43 reporters.) And since none of Knight Ridder's newspapers serves the Washington or New York markets, the bureau's stories haven't been picked up nearly as often as they should be by TV, the news magazines and other outlets.

Still, Hoyt's people are out there every day competing against the big boys, and it is impressive how often they get good stories first, and get them right. Pound for pound, they might be the most seriously aggressive bunch of journalists in Washington.

Remember Michael D. Brown — "Brownie" — former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency? He resigned in disgrace last September over the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

Knight Ridder's Washington bureau came up with a unique and exclusive angle on the story. A team of its reporters discovered that the primary blame did not rest with Brown but rather with his boss, the secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. One of those reporters, Alison Young, learned this by reading a 426-page document, the National Response Plan, created by Homeland Security as a framework for action in events such as Katrina.

"When I set about my reporting," Young says, "I often want to know, 'What are the rules of the game?' So that you can judge, did people follow the rules?"

The rules in this case made clear that Brown's power to act on his own in any such catastrophe was limited. Before the storm, Chertoff was supposed to have designated someone (either himself, Brown or someone else) to direct and coordinate the entire federal response. Because he failed to do so until 36 hours after the storm had hit, there was bureaucratic confusion and delay.

Two weeks after the hurricane, with Brown's ineptitude still the big news of the day, Young and her colleagues wrote a story pinning the blame squarely on Chertoff. They quoted from a memo that seemed to show Chertoff was confused about what he was supposed to do.

The Seattle Times ran the story under the headline: "Was FEMA's Brown the fall guy?" The headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette declared: "Memo: Homeland Security Chief Delayed Federal Response." Readers throughout the country — in Kansas City, Miami, Newark, San Jose, Duluth, Wichita, Buffalo, Tulsa, Philadelphia — read this important story, because their newspapers picked it up from the Knight Ridder wires. But since it didn't make the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or the networks, Chertoff's role in the Katrina fiasco went largely unremarked in Washington — for nearly five months.

Fast-forward to February of this year: The Government Accountability Office and a select House committee issued separate reports, both basically confirming Knight Ridder's findings. At that point, the big, prestigious news outlets did write stories — and all of them treated the disclosure as something brand-new. The Post, for instance, said Chertoff had "largely escaped criticism after the storm."

"Maybe at their newspaper," Young said to me with a smile, "but not at Knight Ridder."

Reporters and editors at Knight Ridder's Washington bureau have grown used to having their scoops ignored. It's happened with a slew of their exclusive revelations — most glaringly, those dealing with President Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein had close ties with Al Qaeda and was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Knight Ridder was many months ahead of the pack in casting doubt on those claims. Yet its stories failed to make a dent in the national debate preceding the war.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was frustrating," says Hoyt.

It's not that the bureau's audience isn't large. Knight Ridder's 32 daily papers claim a combined circulation of more than 3.4 million daily and more than 5 million on Sundays. They include such prominent mastheads as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News and the Kansas City Star. The bureau's work also reaches more than 400 papers that subscribe to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. And its stories appear on its own Web site, www.krwashington.com. But the truth is, something can be the talk of Kansas City or Miami and still not make it into the national conversation. And that, very often, is how it has gone with Knight Ridder's most important stories. To look at the quality and variety of those stories, especially in the last two to three years, is to appreciate just how poorly the American people are served by the insularity and tunnel vision of Washington's journalistic in-crowd.

"There is some really significant reporting out there that simply isn't punching through to the public consciousness because it is not on television," press critic Kristina Borjesson writes in "Feet to the Fire," her 2005 book about news reporting after 9/11. "Here again, I must mention Knight Ridder. I wonder what would have happened if Knight Ridder's prewar reporting had hit the national airwaves at the same time that it was hitting newsstands in cities and towns outside of Washington and New York City."

The editor who oversees the Washington bureau's day-to-day newsgathering is Bureau Chief John Walcott. Walcott, 56, is an old Washington hand, having worked there at various times for Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report. His beats have included intelligence, the military, national security and foreign affairs, and he goes way back with some of Washington's top newsmakers, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. "I have known many of the players in this administration for 25 years or so," Walcott says.

His experience came in handy last May when the Downing Street memo surfaced. The memo was a briefing paper prepared in the summer of 2002 for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It said the Bush administration was preparing for war with Iraq and planned to use intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and his ties with terrorists as justification. The "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," the memo quoted Britain's chief of intelligence as saying.

Three years later, when the Times of London revealed the contents of this secret memo, it caused a sensation in Great Britain but at first went unreported by U.S. media. "My recollection is, I got an e-mail from a reader, I think in Wilkes-Barre [Pennsylvania], who pointed out the British story," Walcott says. "And I went and read the British story."

As it happened, Walcott and one of his reporters, Warren P. Strobel, had written a story of their own back in February 2002 saying that Bush had made a fundamental decision to overthrow Saddam. They were, to my knowledge, the first journalists to come out and say this. Their story, little noticed at the time, was published five months before the Downing Street memo was written.

So Walcott and Strobel were not shocked by what the memo said. "The British story," says Walcott, "was consistent with our understanding..and there were immediately two questions. First, was the memo authentic? And second, even if it was authentic, was it an accurate account of what had transpired?"

"I was able to talk to the British Embassy and a couple of other people," says Strobel, whose beat is foreign affairs, "to verify the authenticity of the memo itself. And John was able to talk to some people in the U.S. government and verify that the substantive contents of the memo were a reasonably accurate transcription of what had transpired. We were able to do that in a couple of hours." Except for one or two fleeting references, their story was the first account of the memo to appear in the American media.

Tish Wells, the bureau's news researcher and Web editor, recalls that the Knight Ridder story didn't get much attention at first, "and we were sitting there going, 'Come on, guys, look at it!'" After a few days, the Post ran a story on the memo by Walter Pincus, buried inside the A section, and a smattering of other papers followed up in the coming weeks. (See "A Story at Last," Web Special, and Full Court Press, August/September 2005.) The TV networks stayed silent on the subject for another month or longer. In the interim, bloggers who had picked up the story from overseas Web sites started complaining about the lack of U.S. coverage. To many of them, the blackout confirmed their suspicions that the U.S. media were in cahoots with the Bush administration on the Iraq war.

Wells says the bloggers "started to do an orchestrated campaign. We kept getting letters and e-mails: 'Why didn't the mainstream media do anything on this?' And we sat there and wrote very patiently back to each one of them: 'We did do this, and here is the link to it on our Web site.'"

The Downing Street memo story was one of a long string of Knight Ridder's pieces about the intelligence claims leading up to the war. More than 80 stories, with links, are listed on its Web site. The bureau's reporting on this subject attracted scant notice until early 2004, by which time the false claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction had become an issue. A number of reporters — especially Judith Miller of the New York Times — were criticized for blindly accepting the administration's false statements (see "Miller Brouhaha," August/September 2003). One of Miller's critics, Michael Massing, seems to have been the first writer to acknowledge Knight Ridder's groundbreaking work. In a February 26, 2004, article in The New York Review of Books, Massing wrote that Knight Ridder had been "almost alone among national news organizations" in taking a hard look at the administration's justifications for war.

Massing cited, for example, a September 2002 story by Knight Ridder's national security reporter, Jonathan S. Landay, that said senior U.S. officials familiar with intelligence on Iraq had "detected no alarming increase" in the threat to America posed by Saddam. This was at a time when Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were claiming Iraq might soon be able to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons.

In October 2002, Landay and Strobel teamed up to write an even stronger story, also cited by Massing. It said there was a bitter feud within the government over the intelligence claims. Professional military and intelligence officers, it said, feared that administration hawks were "shaping intelligence analyses to support their case for invading Iraq." The story went on to say that much of the hawks' controversial data was being supplied by the Iraqi National Congress, an expatriate organization, and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who saw himself as a potential successor to Saddam. It also dealt with Iraq's alleged (but later discredited) ties to Al Qaeda.

This story ran three months before President Bush, in his State of the Union address, delivered an ultimatum to Iraq, and nearly five months before the U.S. launched its invasion. Judged by what we now know, and compared with what was running in the rest of the media, the story was a genuine tour de force.

Borjesson's book gives a fuller account of Knight Ridder's reporting on Iraq. "Knight Ridder took the lead before any other news outlet and continues to break new ground," she wrote. In 2004, the Washington Press Club Foundation honored Landay and Strobel for their coverage of the intelligence issues leading up to the war (see "Going It Alone" and Full Court Press, August/September 2004). And last year, Landay, Strobel and Walcott won a National Headliner Award for their coverage of how the Bush administration went to war in Iraq. Landay and Wells also received a Mongerson Prize Award of Distinction for a story chronicling how Chalabi and his group had deceived journalists. The reporters cited 108 separate stories in the U.S. media containing false information that could be traced back to the Chalabi group. (Chalabi was one of Judith Miller's main sources.)

Such recognition was good for the bureau's morale. And there were other signs that its reputation was spreading. One day as I was sitting in Walcott's office, talking with him about this very matter, an editor walked in and tossed a copy of Playboy onto Walcott's desk. The editor had marked a passage quoting Al Franken as saying Knight Ridder had out-reported the Times and the Post in the months leading up to the war.

Tish Wells says that seven years ago, when she first came to work for the bureau, she would call a government official and say, "I'm calling from the Knight Ridder Newspapers," and the official would say, "What?" And she would have to say, "Well, we own the Miami Herald and like that," and then they would understand. "But now," she says, "I can say I'm calling from the Knight Ridder Newspapers and people know who we are."

When I ask Walcott about the bureau's philosophy, he says, "It's an impulse, when you're told something, not simply to write it down and report it but to ask whether it's true. The whole truth. And that's an impulse that I think rightly covers everything everybody here does."

Hoyt describes it more simply as "just good old-fashioned reporting. And we're able to do this in some respect because this is a bureau that's written for outsiders," by which he means people outside of Washington and the country's power elite — people reading local newspapers. "We're very mindful of who our audience is."

Reporter Seth Borenstein, who worked in the bureau for almost eight years (he left in March to join the Associated Press), says, "The other bureaus, it's almost like they trade their souls for access. 'Oh boy, if I can get on the plane with so-and-so, with this Cabinet official or that Cabinet official, and get the anonymous quote.'" He says Knight Ridder doesn't do that. It is "not seduced by the access."

Besides its Washington operations, the bureau also oversees 10 foreign bureaus, including a very productive one in Baghdad consisting of two reporters plus an Iraqi support staff of roughly a dozen people — drivers, translators and the like. A few of the Iraqis also function as reporters.

One day in early February, as I was doing research for this article, the Associated Press, National Public Radio, ABC News and others began reporting that Sunni Arabs in Iraq were being abducted from their homes and murdered by men dressed in police uniforms. The story sounded familiar. Checking my notes and documents, I soon realized why. I'd already read all about it in the Knight Ridder archives. A story out of Baghdad — almost exactly one year earlier — had said Shiite assassins were systematically killing former Baathists "in a wave of violence that..threatens to escalate into civil war."

The story, by Hannah Allam, said Shiite politicians were looking the other way, and the U.S. military was preoccupied with more pressing concerns. The following June, reporters Tom Lasseter and Yasser Salihee, also with Knight Ridder's Baghdad bureau, advanced the story. They wrote that soon after the new Shiite-led government took office, the bodies of Sunni Muslim men began turning up at the capital's central morgue. Many had been blindfolded, their hands had been tied or handcuffed behind them, and they appeared to have been tortured. Many had died of a single bullet to the head.

From records and interviews with family members and Iraqi officials, Lasseter and Salihee found more than 30 examples of this type of killing in less than a week. Eyewitnesses said many of the dead had been abducted by large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings.

The abductors wore police uniforms and bulletproof vests, carried expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and used sophisticated radio equipment, witnesses said.

Iraqi officials denied any involvement, and U.S. officials said they thought the murders were the work of insurgents posing as police. If that were so, Lasseter and Salihee wrote, it raised troubling questions as to how insurgents were getting their hands on such expensive new police equipment — especially the Toyotas, which the story said cost more than $55,000 apiece and were hard to come by in Iraq. An alternative theory was that the police, almost exclusively Shiites, had begun to take extralegal revenge on their Sunni rivals. Whichever was true, the director of Baghdad's central morgue told the reporters he was seeing 700 to 800 suspicious deaths a month.

"Everyone else came out with that story in November," says Steven Butler, the Knight Ridder bureau's foreign editor until the end of March. "And they were good stories, too, but in the shuffle I had to e-mail a couple of people, saying, 'You know, those guys are five months late on the story.'" The death squad story was one of a series of Knight Ridder revelations over the past year indicating that Iraq might be sliding into sectarian civil war.

One of the reporters on the death squad story, Salihee, was among several Iraqis who joined Knight Ridder's Baghdad bureau after the U.S. invasion. "He was a medical doctor who started working as a translator and then turned out to be quite a good reporter," says Mark Seibel. On June 24, a few days before the death squad story ran, Salihee was killed. He went out one day to buy gasoline, so he could take his wife and daughter swimming, and was shot. He was 30 years old.

Not all of Knight Ridder's stories have been consigned to oblivion. Many have had an immediate, positive impact. Following a January 2 coal mine explosion that caused the deaths of 12 miners in West Virginia, Borenstein teamed with two reporters from Knight Ridder's Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky to examine the federal government's mine safety enforcement record. The resulting story said the Bush administration had been much more lenient than its predecessor toward mining companies with serious safety violations. The number of fines over $10,000 had dropped by nearly 10 percent, the story said, and the dollar amounts of those penalties was 43 percent lower, adjusted for inflation. Also, the budget and staff for enforcement had been reduced.

Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration disputed those findings. "They posted on their Web site this big thing saying how we're wrong," Borenstein says. "Finally their data person sent us the spreadsheet that they used, and we used their spreadsheet and did the same analysis. We took their data, used their parameters, did the same calculations." They found exactly the same drop in fines — 43 percent. As a further check, he says, Knight Ridder asked four different statistics experts to review their databases and analyses, "and all said Knight Ridder's analysis is correct."

The bureau wrote a story explaining all of that. Meanwhile, another mine accident, also in West Virginia, killed two more miners on January 22. At that point, prominent senators began to complain about MSHA's lax policies and inadequate fines, and on February 16 federal regulators announced plans to levy higher fines as a way to improve mine safety.

In March 2005, Knight Ridder reporters Chris Adams and Alison Young published a package of stories showing that tens of thousands of veterans returning from America's wars have had to fight their government to win the disability benefits to which they are entitled. In the past decade, several thousand veterans died before their cases were resolved, Adams and Young wrote. (Young has since left the bureau to join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) One man, a World War II vet wounded in Italy, was still fighting for his rightful benefits when he died in 2002. A judge acknowledged that it's likely the man would eventually have won his case had he lived.

This piece of reportorial enterprise was based on interviews with veterans and their families and on internal records of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The reporters had to sue the agency in federal court to get many of the records. The project got front-page play in the Miami Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, the Cincinnati Enquirer and other papers.

Days after the stories ran, members of Congress grilled the VA about the excessive delays. Nine days after that, the VA sent a memo to all 57 of its regional office directors, telling them to "read the articles, digest the underlying message and then take action."

Legislation was introduced requiring the VA to actively seek out those veterans who should be getting disability benefits but aren't. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. As this article goes to press, the two reporters are about to receive the Scripps Howard Foundation's National Journalism Award for Washington Reporting.

When the bureau's consumer economics reporter, Tony Pugh, broke a story about the Medicare drug bill two years ago, the rest of the media jumped on it quickly. The drug bill had squeaked through Congress largely because the Bush administration had promised hesitant Republican lawmakers it would cost no more than $395 billion in the first 10 years. Pugh reported that the administration had misled those lawmakers. The government's chief Medicare actuary, he wrote, had been warned that he would be fired if he told lawmakers the true cost estimate, which was $551 billion.

It is clear that the bill would not have passed the House if that price estimate had been known. "I think that was a story of such obvious importance, and it was on a subject that a lot of people at the Times and elsewhere were paying attention to," Walcott says. "And what was stunning about it was the White House trying to conceal the numbers even from other Republicans. And I know that story did cause some consternation from other news organizations that didn't have it. And they were quite open in their praise of Tony in getting it. That was a story that was noticed immediately and widely."

Now, into this ambitious, high-powered reporting culture, steps McClatchy. While it has a reputation for quality journalism, it has never before run an operation like Knight Ridder's Washington bureau. McClatchy's own D.C. bureau, rather than competing with the major national news operations, has concentrated on stories of regional interest to its papers. Nor has McClatchy ever run a system of foreign bureaus like Knight Ridder's. It will have a lot to learn.

But it does have one huge organizational strength that Knight Ridder lacked: two classes of stock, which makes it less vulnerable to a hostile takeover by non-journalistic interests.

Hours after the sale was announced, two key McClatchy officials, Howard Weaver and David Westphal, showed up at 12th and G streets to introduce themselves. When the meeting was over, bureau staffers seemed optimistic. They told me they thought the McClatchy acquisition was the best possible outcome. They seemed convinced that McClatchy would support and encourage their kind of journalism.

Weaver and Westphal certainly tried to make that point. Both showed a familiarity with the bureau's work, singling out specific examples such as the stories on Iraq intelligence and mine safety. They also praised the bureau's foreign coverage, particularly from Iraq. They told the staff these were just the kind of things McClatchy wants them to keep on doing.

Westphal, who will become chief of the combined bureau, told me later he thought the presentation had gone well. "The underlying reality," he says, "is that McClatchy acquires the Washington operation with enormous admiration and respect for the work that has gone on here."

Hoyt says he thought their message "was met with great relief and happiness" by the staff. And speaking for himself, he says, "I'm very delighted by this."

Senior writer Charles Layton wrote about the drive to force Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale in AJR's February/March issue. He was a reporter and editor for Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer for 22 years, leaving the paper in 1996. Editorial assistant Jessica Meyers contributed research to this report.

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