What Does It Take to Make Page One Around Here?

Last night, more than two years after the fact, the White House backed off from a statement made by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address that “diagrams of American nuclear power plants” were among “our discoveries in Afghanistan [that] confirmed our worst fears” — but you’d have to have an eagle eye to find that news in a couple of the nation’s most prominent newspapers today.

The White House was forced to retreat from the two-year-old presidential assertion late yesterday after liberal environmental group Greenpeace released a letter from an official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that cast doubt on the claim.

The Wall Street Journal did have the good sense to report the news on its prominent Politics & Policy page (A4) this morning, with reporters Robert Block and Greg Hitt writing (subscription required) that the White House now says the concerns highlighted by Mr. Bush were based not on plant diagrams actually found in Afghanistan — there were none — but on a variety of intelligence developed before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

As a White House spokesman delicately told The Journal, “there’s no additional basis for the language in the speech that we have found.”

The Boston Globe ran the story on A3 but framed it as a simple he-said, she-said, with the headline, “Nuclear Groups Question Terrorist Threat” and the subhead, “Contend NRC official, Bush’s address offer divergent appraisals” and without the benefit of a delicately worded quote from an administration official (the White House press office didn’t return the Globe’s calls seeking comment).

But if you’re a New York Times reader, you didn’t get wind of this news unless you found your way to a two-column story at the bottom of page A22, where Matthew L. Wald writes that “the President was probably wrong” when he said that American forces had found blueprints for American nuclear power plants in Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan.

Not only does the Times bury the story on the A-section’s third-to-last page, it buries it a second time with a headline that seems to miss the point: “Nuclear Official Says Bush Erred on Details of Threat to Reactors.”

Here, by contrast, is The Wall Street Journal headline: “White House Backs Away From Bush ‘02 Nuclear-Terror Warning.”

Perhaps the headline reads that way because Wald treats the news as evidence that citizens need not be concerned about the vulnerability of nuclear reactors, rather than as the third time that the administration has stepped away from one assertion or another in a State of the Union address (remember “weapons of mass destruction” and the claim that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”?)

Still, even Wald’s murky story is a better deal than readers of the paper-and-ink version of The Washington Post got. They got nothing. In fact, the only reference you’ll find to the White House peelback in either The Post or at washingtonpost.com is in Dan Froomkin’s online only “White House Briefing” column — where Froomkin links to the Journal and Times versions of the story.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.