Getting behind the `Veil' - questions of press responsibility

WILLIAM CASEY and Bob Woodward have turned out to be the best example of a journalistic odd couple since David Stockman shared his misgivings about Reaganomics with William Greider and ended up in an article in The Atlantic. Mr. Casey, the late director of central intelligence, was a chief source for Watergate hero Woodward's new book, ``Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987.''

If nothing else, the ``Veil'' controversy illustrates the ineffable human impulse to talk, and talk, and keep on talking, and the way that impulse serves the press - and hence the public. The popular image may be one of high-decibel confrontation: Sam Donaldson yelling questions at the Camp David-bound President.

But the journalistic reality is, surprisingly often, the government official who can't resist telling what he knows - even to a representative of a newspaper he has often, and publicly, reviled.

The Woodward book does, however, raise questions. What is a reporter's - and a newspaper's - responsibility to get a story out in timely fashion?

Mr. Woodward's contract with the Washington Post allows him considerable latitude for independent research. Though many of his findings became Post stories, some were ``saved'' for his book.

One controversial episode involved an alleged hospital visit by Woodward to Casey.

Woodward asked whether Casey knew of the diversion to the Nicaraguan contras of profits from the clandestine arms sales to Iran. Casey nodded yes, Woodward said in the book, but now he has acknowledged having doubts as to Casey's lucidity during that encounter.

In fact, he has admitted that the interview ``did not pass the threshold test for a news story,'' and hence was not included in the Post's daily coverage at the time. So much for saving the big revelations for the book. But still - did Woodward and the Post violate public trust by holding off on a story that could have had some bearing on the Iran-contra hearings?

A journalist generally does have an implicit obligation to communicate with his or her editor when a major story is in the works.

Woodward seems to have satisfied that obligation by letting his editor, Ben Bradlee, in on his research. If the public trust was failed, Mr. Bradlee, who was willing to sit on parts of the CIA story, must share the responsibility.

Investigative reporting is not like covering the local Rotary club. A reporter may find his sources dry up once he starts publishing. And if the Bob Woodwards of the world aren't given the kind of freedom they want, and some opportunity for gain beyond their salaries, they may become less interested in digging out the stories everyone wants to read but not everyone can do.

That said, we would have preferred to see more of Woodward's material published sooner. Newspapering is a public trust. In an ideal world, there would be enough competing reporters on a particular hot story that no one could afford to think about saving the ``good stuff'' for a book.

Until we get to that point, let's hope that this incident doesn't send the wrong signals to other journalists.

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