Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

  More evidence on the timing of the Post's Cheney series

On Sunday I pointed to evidence suggesting that the Washington Post series on Dick Cheney was researched and perhaps more or less completed long before it ever saw print. In the comments section of that post, on Monday, I added some further evidence. In particular, one of the two authors of the series, Jo Becker, suddenly showed up writing for the NY Times that very day. Now I've discovered something equally mysterious about her disappearance from the Post.

It turns out that Jo Becker has published nothing under her own by-line in the Washington Post since May 15, 2006. Up until that point, she has regular articles (often paired with Charles Babcock or other well-known Post reporters). Then, suddenly in May 2006, nothing further aside from a single article from June 23, 2006, authored by others, where Becker is acknowledged as a "staff writer" who contributed to the report.

The next time her name appeared in print in the Washington Post, as far as I can tell, was on June 24, 2007 with the first part in the Cheney series. (I'm excluding this reference on line to a series she co-authored in 2005.)

Neither the Google nor the Washington Post search engines know of any WaPo articles by Jo Becker between May 15, 2006 and June 24, 2007. On June 25, 2007 her first article at the NY Times appeared.

It's possible that Becker went on a leave of absence last May. But given that she shows up as a "staff writer" in June 2006, I think it's more likely that she was working on a big project starting last spring.

Did it really take two reporters fully 13 months to produce this series on Cheney? I can't imagine that it did. I'm drawn back to my inference that this series may have been largely complete a half year (or more) ago.

On Monday, in an on-line chat at the WaPo website, Barton Gellman immediately chose to address the question of when the series was composed. He appeared to want to get the issue out of the way, and his response struck some as defensive if not evasive:

It took about a year for Jo Becker and me to report and write this. Obviously we accumulated a lot more information than fits into (only!) 14 open pages of the newspaper. There's so much to this package -- main stories, sidebars, graphics, interactives -- that it won't be finished until the final tweaks in day 4. There were mature drafts of the stories a few weeks ago, but producing all the add-ons and final refinements took some time. We didn't want to rush it unless we had to.

I don't see why Gellman felt the need to justify "a few weeks" of tweaking, if the five-part series really took "about a year" to write.

Then, a little later, there was this curious exchange:

Milpitas, Calif.: What got you started on this series now, rather than, say, five years ago?

Barton Gellman: Been busy with other things. ;-)

(See link to my home page above.)

I'd love to have tackled this in 03-04, when it was clear that Cheney loomed unusually large for a vice president, but (1) there was a war on, and we had our hands full with that and (2) the VP is a hard target. It's always easier to look back and reconstruct, because far more information becomes available over time, so Jo and I could not have learned half this much had we tried to do it when you suggest.

Gellman seems to be saying that the series turned out better than it would have been, had it been written in 2003, because more info become available over time. Doesn't that usually happen: there's more to report about a politician the longer he remains in office?

I think many of us would have very much liked to have had in 2003 whatever info that was current as of 2003, rather than in 2007.

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