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Today's Murtha Story: Guilt by Association?

By Andy Alexander

The morning's e-mails and calls brought some protests over today's front-page story about a firm, owned by the nephew Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., getting $4 million in Pentagon work without competitive bidding. Murtha, of course, is the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Much has been written about his ability to steer Pentagon work to companies in his congressional district.

Reader Michael O'Bannon echoed a number of others in writing that the story "is not in keeping with the normal journalistic standards of the Washington Post. Middle of the front page, the headline reads 'Murtha Nephew Received Millions in Contracts.' The full implication is that there were at least earmarks steering the money to the nephew, if not out and out fraud. It is only much later in the article that it is stated that there were no earmarks involved, and no claim of illegality. This is sensational journalism at its worst."

He added: "I am all for hard driving journalism that would uncover facts and go after him. However, going after third parties with innuendo and implication is neither fair nor good journalism. There is no indication that the nephew has done anything other than performing well and becoming an asset to his customers. The implications otherwise, in the absence of actual facts, is appalling."

I asked for a response from Carol Leonnig, who co-authored the story with Alice Crites. Leonnig said The Post, "in its role as watchdog over public funds and public officials, properly should be scrutinizing how a nephew of one of the most powerful members of Congress is benefiting from millions of dollars in federal contracts, and that readers should know that (the nephew's) company received those contracts without any competing bidders from the Defense Department at the same time that his uncle, Rep. John Murtha, is one of the last words on the Defense Department budget, as chairman of the House Defense Appropriations committee."

She added that earmarks "are a major part of Jack Murtha's practice in Congress, but they have little role in this story. There is no implication that earmarks are being steered to Bob Murtha's company. Indeed we say there is no evidence of that."

My take: The story is balanced and fair. The nephew has his say, insisting his Glen Burnie firm got the work on merit. And Leonnig is correct that the piece says explicitly that there's "no evidence" the nephew's firm "received direct congressional earmarks," although that comes late in the story.

I would have objected to the Page One placement were it not for the fact that Murtha is at the center of controversy over the volume of Pentagon work steered to those with ties to him. One measure of reader interest is the online comments accompanying the story. There were roughly 550 by mid-afternoon, many of them critical of Murtha.

You be the editor. Fair, or foul?

By Andy Alexander  | May 5, 2009; 2:34 PM ET
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Fair. Let's see more of this, what newspapers are supposed to do.

Posted by: capsfan77 | May 5, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

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