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A lapse on National Guard story

THE CBS document drama has generated a new wave of media reflection, with plenty of criticism to go around.

No one, not even the paper's toughest critic, is suggesting the Globe did anything remotely as lamentable as CBS did when it broadcast unverifiable memos detailing George Bush's National Guard lapses in 1972 and 1973.

But some readers say the Globe erred on a smaller scale by writing about the memos without first confirming they were real and, later, by being too slow to report inconsistencies and doubts as they quickly surfaced on the Web and in other papers.

"As ABC News, USA Today, and The Washington Post gradually catch up on the analysis already performed and published across the Internet, the Globe . . . amazingly . . . continues to ignore the doubtful nature of those documents . . . ," complained Paul Levitt of Brookline three days after the CBS story broke.

That was the day the Globe's Page 1 story on the memos carried the unfortunate headline: "Authenticity backed on Bush documents." That headline overstated the story and was later the subject of a Page A2 correction, but not before critics said it reflected the paper's lack of due skepticism about the memos.

"My friends who rely only on the Globe and NPR for their news have little or no idea what is going on . . . ," complained Scott Offen, a reader from Newton, unsatisfied with the two skeptics quoted in the Saturday story. "By Saturday at the latest the Globe should have had a story about the hullabaloo."

By Sunday it did, with a Page A29 story headlined, "New doubt cast on Guard documents." But as the week proceeded, the paper missed at least one other opportunity to give readers the latest on how CBS's initial evaluation of the memos fell short.

The saga continued last week as some readers called on the Globe to more thoroughly investigate a reported telephone call between the Kerry campaign and the network's "source."

There is much to sort out.

I do not agree with readers who say the Globe should have held off writing about the CBS broadcast until it made its own verification. The Globe had no reason at that point to doubt the network's judgment. And newspapers routinely report important news generated by other media outlets as a way of keeping readers informed. That's their job.

But I do think that in the week after the initial CBS broadcast, the paper could have better reflected the emerging doubts, either by publishing available wire service stories or, better yet, developing its own. The Globe has a history of being out front on researching the candidates' military backgrounds, and it wasn't on this shifting story.

"We should have put more of our own investigative effort into that Friday story," reflects Mark Morrow, a deputy managing editor who has edited stories on Bush's military background. As it was, that Friday paper covered emerging doubts about the memos in a single paragraph in late editions, based on The Washington Post's reporting. As for publishing more the next day, Morrow says, "we should have."

John Yemma, the deputy managing editor overseeing political coverage, says that, in retrospect, the paper was "not vigilant enough" in monitoring the wires for updates on the story. National political editors naturally focus on the race and the issues at stake on Election Day, he says, and "we were too slow to respond when the media itself became the story."

Some readers last week said the Globe has a "liberal bias" that made it too slow to report the collapse of the memos' credibility. I blame more common workplace faults having to do with "workflow" and "communication." Still, there's a price.

"Precisely because the Globe is Kerry's home town paper," says Offen, the reader from Newton, "it has an obligation to be out front so that no one could accuse it of bias."

By way of explanation . . .
The Globe did not run the "Boondocks" comic strip that artist Aaron McGruder drew for last week because, as an editor's note explained Monday, the strip "did not meet the Globe's standards." A Boondocks rerun appeared in its place. Some readers who went online to see what they were missing said they disagreed with the Globe's call.

"I don't understand how you can censor a comic strip . . . ," said Gail Rothenberg. Said Steve Knapp, "Intelligent readers can understand and enjoy social satire when presented with it."

The satire in question involves the use an asterisked version of the N-word, and a plot built around job-seekers participating in a reality TV show titled: "Can a `N***A' get a job?!"

Why did the Globe pull the strip?

"The use of a racial epithet is something we try to avoid," said Michael Larkin, deputy managing editor for news operations. Blanking out just the offending word would have obscured the satiric point, he said. "Beyond that, in dealing with a very complex issue the strips were relying on stereotypes that, in the editors' judgment, were likely to offend some readers."

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or 929-3022. E-mail: 

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