Wash. Post conflicted on Krauthammer conflict

The controversy over syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer's role in offering private advice to Bush administration strategists and a Bush speechwriter while failing to disclose his role to readers and viewers grew this weekend with a series of articles examining the matter in The Washington Post, which syndicates Krauthammer's column. Krauthammer is also a FOX News contributor.

The controversy began when Post staff writers Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei reported January 22 that the White House process of preparing Bush's inaugural address included “consultation with a number of outside experts,” including Krauthammer and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. On January 24, Media Matters for America demonstrated that both Kristol and Krauthammer subsequently praised Bush's speech on FOX News Channel while failing to disclose their private consultations with White House officials. Kristol also wrote a laudatory article about the speech for The Weekly Standard without disclosing any private connection to it.

A January 29 Post article by staff writer and media critic Howard Kurtz quoted Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who publishes Krauthammer's column, as saying that the contention that Krauthammer consulted on the speech -- as reported January 22 by the Post's news department -- “is false”; Hiatt also wrote in a January 29 column that Krauthammer “has gotten a bum rap.” But Kurtz quoted Liz Spayd, the paper's assistant managing editor for national news, as saying: “We stand by the story we wrote. We have a firsthand source who says it was crystal clear a primary purpose of the meeting was to seek advice on both Bush's inaugural and State of the Union speeches.”

Kristol described to Kurtz a breakfast he had with Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, and presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, in November 2004 to discuss “themes for the second term and included in that, themes for the inaugural.” Kristol said the inaugural address was not discussed “concretely.” Wehner told Kurtz he may have discussed the speech with Kristol but wasn't sure.

Kurtz reported that the invitation to a January 10 White House meeting attended by Krauthammer said: “What should this administration do/say more of -- and what should it do/say less of? What are the key achievable goals we should aim for during the next four years?” Kurtz reported that Wehner, who attended the meeting along with Gerson, White House counselor Dan Bartlett, and White House senior adviser Karl Rove, among others, asked Krauthammer “to lead off the discussion on 'spreading liberty to the Middle East.'” Krauthammer described the meeting to Kurtz as “an informal, off-the-record discussion of U.S. Middle East policy. ... This meeting was not designed to be the exercise in speech preparation. Nor did I have that impression during the meeting itself that it was. If I had, I would have mentioned it when commenting on it.” Wehner told Kurtz the meeting was “pretty much divorced” from Bush's inaugural address.

On January 30, Post ombudsman Michael Getler weighed in, writing that “Krauthammer has since told the Post that the speech never came up at the meeting, that he did not consider himself to have been consulting in any way on it, and that if it had come up, he would have disclosed it.” Getler did not address the point that Post news editor Spayd was quoted in Kurtz's article the previous day as saying that the newspaper stands by its story that a “primary purpose of the meeting was to seek advice on both Bush's inaugural and State of the Union speeches.”

Krauthammer and Spayd can't both be correct, and Getler, while appearing to accept Krauthammer's statement, was apparently unwilling or unable to resolve the conflict.

Getler concluded: “If they [Krauthammer and Kristol] were involved in some fashion in helping shape the themes of the speech, and were then going to comment on it, they should have acknowledged their role or participation. Even better, in my view, would be for columnists, generally, to stay out of White House advisory deliberations. They have ample opportunity to lay out their thoughts in public.”

Leaving aside the January 22 Post report that Krauthammer consulted on the inaugural address, which he denies, the issue of the disclosure of the White House meeting and any advice Krauthammer may have given remains. Kurtz wrote that Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “said a columnist who offered the White House foreign-policy advice should disclose that when writing on the subject.” Rosenstiel told Kurtz: “If there is nothing wrong with doing it, there's nothing wrong with sharing it. ... Journalists owe their first allegiance to their audience.” Rosenstiel added that another “potential problem” is that “policymakers like to meet with journalists and ask their advice as a way of co-opting them.”

Kurtz's article confirmed that both Kristol and Krauthammer privately consulted with high White House officials about presidential policies and communications. Subsequently, both Kristol and Krauthammer have written and commented publicly on the administration without disclosure. For example, eleven days after meeting at the White House to discuss what Wehner called “spreading liberty in the Middle East,” Krauthammer wrote a January 21 column headlined “Tomorrow's Threat,” in which he argued: “The great project of the Bush administration -- the strengthening and spread of democracy -- is enjoying considerable success.”

Hiatt told Kurtz that “Post editorial board members are not permitted to offer politicians private advice,” but “obviously I have less ability to set rules for people who don't work for me.”

Krauthammer has yet to disclose his private meeting with top White House officials to his readers in his column -- syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group and published by Hiatt -- even as he continues to write about the administration, and the Post is apparently leaving the decision on whether to do so up to him.

Email Charles Krauthammer and ask him to disclose the White House meeting to his readers. Email Washington Post Writers Group Editorial Director/General Manager Alan Shearer and ask him to ask Krauthammer to disclose the White House meeting to his readers.