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What syndicates owe to their editors.

Kenneth I. Juster is an op-ed page editor's dream contributor.

His copy is clean, clear, lively, succinct. He has impressive credentials. And he has something worthwhile and original to say.

What he had to say in a recent op-ed piece, however, ran on no op-ed pages even though it corrected the record on an important public issue. Not for want of trying.

Juster was counselor of the State Department in the latter part of the Bush administration. During his stint at State, he had access to much of the material relevant to charges then rampant in the press that the administration had secretly armed Saddam Hussein.

Juster left the department in 1993 to further research "Iraq-gate." An article by Juster, "The Myth of Iraqgate," appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Foreign Policy.

In the article, he demonstrated how the "central tenet" of press coverage - that U.S. agricultural assistance to Iraq was perverted to arm Saddam - was based on a total misunderstanding and misreporting of the aid program. Juster showed convincingly that the program did not lend itself to the misuse alleged. Among his targets: New York Times columnist William Satire, who had written more than 20 columns on Iraqgate.

Juster's Foreign Policy piece went largely unnoticed in the mainstream press. When Satire wrote still another "Iraqgate scandal" column on February 20, 1995, Juster promptly sent to the Times' op-ed page a tightly written 800-word response to the column's "factual errors and unfounded accusations." He was told that the Times does not print rebuttals, and he was advised to submit it as a letter to the editor. That, too, was rejected until Juster protested to publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

Finally, on March 20, a month after Safire's column, the Times ran a 280-word letter from Juster. Missing from the six-paragraph letter were many of the factual corrections that were in Juster's original op-ed piece. Missing also was any identification of Juster.

Safire's column is distributed to hundreds of clients of the New York Times News Service. Juster realized that a letter in the Times would not reach many of the editors who ran Safire's February 20 column - not to mention the column's readers - so on March 15 he wrote to the New York Times Syndicate:

"Newspaper editors around the Country who ran the Satire column have never been given the opportunity to see it rebutted and to decide whether they want to run such a rebuttal. Accordingly, I urge you to distribute the attached column . . . so that the editors of those papers can decide whether they wish to carry a response to the Satire column. Otherwise, you will inadvertently be denying editors . . . the opportunity to see - and run - a response to something that they chose to run in the first place, without perhaps knowing of the opposing point of view."

Five weeks later Juster was told, "We would be happy to consider a piece by you. However, it would not suit our needs if the article were a rebuttal to a piece in the Times." The letter explained that the New York Times News Service distributes Times columnists whereas the New York Times Syndicate distributes a variety of material and serves many clients who don't subscribe to the news service, hence never saw the Safire column.

Even if Juster had knocked on the news service's door, however, it would have availed him little. Peggy Walsh, executive editor of the news service, says the service originates no material; it simply is a conduit for Times copy. Therefore, there's no way for a rebuttal to run on the wire.

As for letters published in the Times, a supervising editor is supposed to check for letters to put on the wire; such letters would be called to Walsh's attention, but "it almost never happens."

As for complaints about a column, Walsh would refer them to the columnist. Would the news service make a list of clients available to complainants who wish to distribute rebuttals? That, too, is a no-no at the Times.

Juster's run-around is a reminder of how syndicates and news services at times shun responsibility for helping to set the record straight, even when the source is a responsible person without a partisan or self-serving ax to grind. (Although Juster served in a Republican administration, he also had worked in the Carter National Security Council; nor did he have a hand in U.S. policy toward Iraq prior to the Gulf war.)

The losers, of course, are editors who choose to use a particular column but are denied the option to decide whether to run a rebuttal. And, to be sure, their readers.

Interviews at several news services and syndicates reveal a mixed picture. Diana B. Loevy, editorial director of United Media, says that rebuttals would be forwarded to the columnist, and if the complainant were upset, she'd explore with the columnist the best response. It's "unlikely," says Loevy, that the syndicate would distribute a rebuttal even if a person attacked in a column sought to reply. Asked if United Media would reveal its list of clients, Loevy's response: "Absolutely no."

Alan Shearer, editorial director of the Washington Post Writers Group, works with columnists on complaints about errors and distributes corrections. Shearer would "absolutely not" circulate replies, nor would he disclose his client list.

The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service is limited to the content of the Post-owned and Times Mirror papers. If a rebuttal gets past gate-keepers at those publications, it can move on the wire. The Post's op-ed page runs rebuttals but the L.A. Times' page does not. Al Leeds, president of the service, says he would furnish client lists in "serious cases" to enable complainants to circulate their own replies.

Gannett News Service's Robert Ritter says he would put a rebuttal on his wire provided the writer is an authority, is credible, and has a legitimate point of view. Ritter believes the arguments against revealing client lists "don't hold water." He's happy to divulge the Gannett list, says Ritter, because it "helps create the kind of forum papers should provide."

The Los Angeles Times Syndicate (Henry Kissinger, Cal Thomas, Jesse Jackson) will correct factual errors and so advises columnists. Steve Christensen, the syndicate's general manager, has no problem distributing a reply from a person named in a column, provided the subject "makes a credible case." Christensen would offer others who seek to rebut the names of a half-dozen major subscribers, but not the full list.

In a sense, this is deja vu all over again. In 1977, NCEW joined forces with American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors Association, and Society of Professional Journalists to form an ad hoc committee to urge syndicates and news services to formulate policies in two areas: conflict of interest standards for contributors, and distribution of replies by persons attacked in syndicated columns.

The joint effort resulted in part from realization that the widespread practice by syndicates of keeping client lists secret - a practice still alive and well - effectively blocked access to editors by complainants. In all, 11 syndicates and news services in 1977 produced policy statements, some comprehensive and explicit, others skimpy and vague. (See The Masthead, Winter 1977.)

Some of those syndicates have gone out of business and others have merged. Many of the executives now in charge said they were unaware of the '77 policies. And slippage is evident at a number of the syndicates. The Washington Post Writers Group, for instance, in 1977 said it will "make available to responsible persons and organizations the client list of newspapers subscribing to any Writers Group columnist or cartoonist, so that that person or organization can have an effective right of reply." The syndicate's current head renounces that policy.

Likewise, the Newspaper Enterprise Association and United Feature Syndicate, since merged to form United Media, each expressed willingness in 1977 to circulate to clients replies that had merit. Nowadays, that's unlikely, regardless of whether the person seeking to reply was attacked in a column or, like Juster, simply an informed citizen interested in setting the record straight.

Back then, NCEW and the other journalism groups focused on rebuttals by targets of criticism in the belief that they had the most compelling case for an opportunity to reply. They still do. But editors who run a column also are entitled to know about others who take serious factual issue with that column.

If a syndicate refuses to divulge its client list ("competitive reasons" is the usual explanation) or refuses to distribute rebuttals, it has a readily available alternative: simply post an advisory to editors, when warranted, that So-and-So disputes a particular column and can be reached at Such-and-Such. Advisories are out of the question, however, if a syndicate or news service regards this as brokering additional material "not in the contract."

In the 1977 meetings with syndicate representatives, the journalism groups insisted that syndicates have journalistic obligations to editors, not simply a business relationship. At the minimum, that means helping provide access to editors.

Of course, it's no favor to editors to inundate them with material from crackpots or hucksters. But neither is it a service to shield them from the likes of Kenneth Juster. Nor does a syndicate fulfill its journalistic obligation to clients by allowing columnists to put the kibosh on complaints by critics.

Some syndicates and news services need to be reminded that editors are more than just business customers, and the services more than simply go-betweens and conduits. An excessively narrow view of the relationship easily can deny editors their "right to know" about material relevant to their work.

A couple of decades after NCEW helped force syndicates to examine their policies, the time seems ripe for fresh dialogue about exactly what syndicates owe to op-ed and editorial-page editors.

NCEW life member Gilbert Cranberg, former editor of the Des Moines Register's editorial pages, is George H. Gallup Professor at the University of Iowa. He chaired the 1977 Ad Hoc Committee on Syndicate Standards.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cranberg, Gilbert
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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