December 20, 2006 | Scripps Howard News Service

Correspondence Course

How often have you heard journalists tell politicians they should admit their mistakes rather than equivocate or cover up? So when a major mainstream newspaper makes an error how is it handled?

On Sunday, Dec. 10, the Outlook section of the Washington Post ran a story on the Baker/Hamilton Commission and the debate within the “expert advisory group” over whether President Bush should “reach out to Iran and Syria.”

The Post reported that while the White House has long rejected this approach, “nearly all of the 44 experts who worked on the report supported it. However, two conservative holdouts — Clifford May, a former Republican National Committee spokesman, and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute — needed some extra convincing. In a series of e-mails, James Dobbins, a former diplomat and the chief architect of Afghan reconciliation (now at Rand Corp.) made his case. … In the end, May was won over but Gerecht was not.”

Well, no, actually I was not won over. I think that becomes apparent in the leaked email exchange the Post also ran.

For example, I asked Dobbins if American diplomats sitting down with Iranians would hold both “carrots and sticks.” What would we offer them? And would there be “an implicit threat of dire consequences should they interpret American outreach as desperation?”

Dobbins responded that the “carrots are a stable Iraq, friendly to Iran, and subject to Iranian influence, although by no means a client state, and a de-escalation in American efforts to de-stabilize and de-legitimize the regime in Teheran. The sticks are largely the reverse, i.e. civil war in Iraq, increased restiveness on the part of minorities in Iran, and continued hostility from Washington.”

I replied: “That sounds like not enough carrots to make a salad, too few sticks for a bonfire.”

I didn’t ask the Post for a correction. But I did write a brief letter to the editor in an attempt to set the record straight. I also registered a second complaint; The article identified me only as “a former Republican National Committee spokesman” despite the fact that for the past five years I have directed a bipartisan foreign policy institute, that I serve as well on the board of the Committee on the Present Danger, also a bipartisan foreign policy group, and that I’m a former New York Times foreign correspondent. Gerecht’s relevant credentials – he’s a former CIA operative in the Middle East – also were omitted.

When I opened the Outlook section on Sunday, my letter wasn’t there. I approached the Post’s Ombudsman. I said that while this wasn’t a big deal, Post readers were misled about my position (though the respected blogger Paul Mirengoff at Powerline quickly and accurately sorted fact from spin for his readers). Shouldn’t the Post want to get the story right? She replied: “The author of the piece disagrees with your letter.”

I wrote back:  “She maintains that I was indeed ‘won over’ … that I was persuaded and that I changed my views? How would she know that? And how could I be unaware of it? For her to be right, wouldn’t she need not just the skills of a reporter but also the powers of a psychic? And for me to be wrong, would I not have to be an amnesiac?”

Finally, in an effort to make an annoyance go away, I was informed that my letter probably would run on a Saturday “Free For All” page, a space where readers are permitted to figuratively stand on soap boxes and shout opinions, however cranky, bizarre or eccentric. I said I hardly thought that the appropriate way to correct a mischaracterization of views held by someone on a commission reporting to the White House.

Most readers of the Post’s Sunday Outlook section are unlikely to see my letter. They won’t know the whole story. But you do, and that’s some consolation.

 Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.