A story on the front page of yesterday's New York Times was startling: The Bush administration ignored urgent warnings from the military in 2003 that thousands of additional troops were needed in Iraq, and the article also described the White House as riven by disagreement over the conduct of the war.
The problem with the story was that it should have appeared first in The Washington Post.
The scoop in the Times - and a similar story in the New York Daily News - was based on a new book, State of Denial, by Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Post and famous as half of the duo that unraveled the Watergate scandal. The book, scheduled for publication Monday, was not made available by its publisher, Simon & Schuster, for advance coverage. The Times and the Daily News obtained the text independently.
At The Post, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said he was not overly concerned that his paper had been beaten on such a big story, even though one of his top editors produced it, and proceeded with his plan to run long excerpts from Woodward's book tomorrow and Monday.
"It's a game we play, too," Downie said, referring to journalism's race for exclusives. "We've broken stories about other people's books in our paper. We're happy where we are."
But, in response to the surprise of seeing the State of Denial stories in the other two papers yesterday morning, editors and reporters at The Post scrambled to post a story about the book on the paper's Web site shortly before 11 a.m.
A Post reporter, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter, wrote in an e-mail: "The consensus in the newsroom is that the Post made a dumb move by sitting on the book and giving others a chance to scoop us."
The early revelations about the book's contents, which prompted a flurry of questions at a White House news briefing yesterday, recalled similar controversies over other books by Woodward. He has been accused of withholding important discoveries for his books rather than have them first appear in the newspaper he works for.
The result has been that The Post, on occasion, has been scooped by Woodward.
In The Commanders (1991), Woodward revealed that Colin L. Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had opposed Operation Desert Storm, and yet Woodward held onto the information until after Congress had approved a war resolution. Critics said that earlier knowledge of Powell's opposition might have altered the vote.
In Veil (1987), Woodward wrote that former CIA Director William J. Casey knew that Reagan underlings were selling weapons to the contras, but Woodward kept quiet about it until after a congressional investigation.
"I think Bob Woodward is concerned about Bob Woodward and not for The Washington Post," said Adrian Havill, author of an unflattering 1993 biography of Woodward and his Watergate partner, Carl Bernstein, titled Deep Truth. "He thinks The Post owes him more than he owes them."
Woodward did not respond to a request for comment.
Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, published by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said that if there was an agreement with Simon & Schuster to hold off on running the State of Denial excerpts in the paper until just before the book's publication, then clearly The Post has suffered in light of the competing stories elsewhere.
"It does seem as though he's serving two masters," Naureckas said. "The Post doesn't always come first."
David E. Sanger, who covers the White House for The Times and who wrote yesterday's story, gave credit for the scoop to Julie Bosman. She has been on the paper's publishing beat only since Monday. Bosman, who is based in New York, obtained a copy of Woodward's book Thursday morning through a source on her beat and paid "retail price" for it, as Sanger wrote. By the end of the day, Sanger and two other reporters in Washington, Mark Mazzetti and David Johnston, had read faxed pages of the book and assembled the story - "full of wonderful, rich detail," Sanger said - on deadline.
Laughing, Sanger corrected The Post's media writer, Howard Kurtz, who had written online yesterday morning that it was Sanger who had purchased the book.
"He should know me well enough to know that I'm not that enterprising," Sanger said.
In the Washington bureau of the Daily News, reporter Richard Sisk said he'd had "no contact with anyone at Simon & Schuster" to obtain the Woodward book. Instead, several staff members went to bookstores in Washington and New York to see whether any copies had arrived. One struck gold Thursday in New York with an audio copy on compact disk.
"We had five people listening and scribbling away as fast as they could," Sisk said. "Thank God we all used to work for the wires."
Terry Michael, founder and director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, played down the significance of The Post losing its exclusive.
"It may be a small embarrassment inside the newsroom, but I don't know how it makes a difference to the readers," Michael said. "Anything Woodward does, and no matter where it appears, accrues to the benefit of The Post, because he's the public face of The Post. They probably don't know whether to put him on the news budget or the advertising budget."