BOB GARFIELD: It was just a little story. About 900 words at the bottom of Page A19 of Tuesday's Washington Post. The innocuous headline: "Bush Ties Attack in Saudi Arabia to Iraqi Elections." But the story beneath was quite unusual, because instead of simply parroting the president's assertion, or perhaps including a perfunctory opposing view, the piece systematically debunked the notion that last week's attack on the American consulate in Jeddah was an attempt to disrupt the Iraqi election scheduled for January. As one of our occasional looks into the anatomy of a story, we asked Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker to join us. Peter, welcome to OTM.
PETER BAKER: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You're just back on the White House beat, which you covered from 1996 to 1999, before stints in Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, and you barely have your bags unpacked, and the president draws this connection. What happened next?
PETER BAKER: Well, clearly, he's focused on what's happening in Iraq, and he sees everything through that prism, but people who spend time in Saudi Arabia see that yes, it was an attack on a U.S. facility, but that the mosaic of animosities, hatred, history and politics in Saudi Arabia go far, far beyond the U.S. involvement in the Kingdom. So, I called some experts and asked them to reflect on this and think about what the president had said, and they offered contrary views.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, fine. That's a far cry from what we on this show see as the compulsion in the media to pre-empt accusations of liberal bias by giving equal time and equal weight to two sides of any question, irrespective of whether truth is served by this kind of artificial balance.
PETER BAKER: That's, in some ways, a weakness of modern American journalism, but the fact of the matter is I know that every day I write a story, it's going to appear in the paper under my byline. I'm accountable for it. If I've been unfair, if I've been inaccurate, if I've gotten the wrong context or wrong judgment, then people are going to call me on it. That's not a liberal/conservative thing. That's a reader/reporter thing.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now you were covering the Clinton White House, and you know very well that whenever a negative story came out about the president, there were howls that, you know, the press was not objective and that they were unfairly attacking the president. That's certainly true of the current administration. Knowing that, someone in the White House press office picked up your paper and, and said -here it is - proof positive - the smoking gun - this Peter Baker here came back from the Middle East with an agenda.
PETER BAKER: Well, I certainly have no agenda to attack the president. The issue is: what degree are reporters of the White House stenographers as opposed to reporters who are trying to actually present a full, completely realized story? It's, it's a perennial tension for White House reporters. You know, I'm looking forward to dealing with professionals who understand that we have different interests, but that that doesn't mean we can't find ways of, you know, working together and presenting information as completely and fully as we can.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Rodney King. Why can't [LAUGHTER] we all just get along? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PETER BAKER: Why can't we get along? [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, thanks so much.
PETER BAKER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Baker, just returned from four years overseas, is a White House correspondent for the Washington Post.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the American blockbuster -- threat or menace? And when Hollywood calls, don't hang up -- it costs somebody money.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]