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Late last month, Michelle Rhee fielded an interesting question during a panel discussion at Dupont Circle’s Aspen Institute: Where can we find more Michelle Rhees?
Rhee started her answer by citing a fact of life for her these days: “I get a whole lot of fan mail from places outside D.C,” she told the assembled big shots, prompting chuckles. “Not so much from inside D.C.”
Hmm—who to thank for that juxtaposition? Let’s try Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Fast Company, and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, for starters. They’re among the media outlets who’ve parachuted into D.C. to gather string for puff pieces on the chancellor—and the epic struggle she has embarked upon: “Michelle Rhee says she runs at 100 miles per hour. As the chancellor of one of the nation’s lowest-performing school districts, she says she has no choice—too much bureaucracy to cut through, too many problems to fix after decades of neglect…And she’s making no apologies.” That’s from a CNN.com story published earlier this fall.
Such a narrative—of a young, brash, Korean-American outsider taking helm of a wildly dysfunctional school system through BlackBerry and sheer force of will, shoving aside obstructionist politicians, lazy bureaucrats, and obstreperous teachers unions—has an obvious appeal to the national media.
For the local media, though, the story goes a little differently. Those politicians, bureaucrats, and teachers unions aren’t so easily demonized by reporters who have to cover the story day in and day out, squeezing copy out of conflicts big and small. Actually, make that reporter: These days, the Washington Post’s Bill Turque is the only reporter in the city on DCPS full time, and he isn’t getting the Newsweek treatment.
In the past month, Turque hasn’t been able to get a quote directly from Rhee into the paper. All government statements have come through Rhee press aide Dena Iverson or mayoral press secretary (and former Rhee aide) Mafara Hobson, if they come at all.
Contrast that with the access afforded Jeff Chu, a reporter for business mag Fast Company, who says that, in preparation for a 4,300-word profile that ran in August, he visited D.C. at least four times, during which he was able to shadow Rhee just about everywhere, including to church visits and meetings.
“Part of the media–subject relationship is chemistry,” says Chu. “If you click with Mafara and Michelle, you’re going to have an easier time reporting. That’s just human nature.”
OK, Jeff, it’s all in your charm.
Another explanation: Fast Company wants one big profile; Turque and the Post—not to mention LL and other local reporters—want to document the little stories that may force a detour or two in D.C.’s grand education plan. The latest flare-up surrounds the disclosure of Rhee’s plans to overhaul the city’s contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union. With Rhee unable to reach terms with union leaders, she began exploring other avenues outside of a revised contract to fire ineffective teachers—what has come to be called “Plan B,” an approach that she hinted at during a panel discussion in Denver before the Democratic National Convention in August.
Turque scored the first details of the plan two weeks later, describing a potential process where teacher licensing would be based on classroom performance. Such matters fall under the bailiwick of State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist.
So Turque called Gist for comment. His story ended up with this curious line: “Asked for an interview last Wednesday, Gist said she first had to receive clearance from Carrie S. Brooks, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s chief of staff. Gist, who reports to the mayor, did not respond to the request. Brooks did not return a phone message.”
Turque followed up later that week with a blog post quoting Brooks as saying that she hadn’t told Gist to keep quiet, so the reporter concluded that Gist herself had decided not to talk. But the Post apparently didn’t accept that answer at face value. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request, the Post obtained e-mails revealing the truth: None other than Fenty, with Rhee chiming in, muzzled Gist.
“Yes. Don’t speak with him (and please don’t tell him something like. ‘the mayor has told me not to speak with you,’” Hizzoner wrote. “Just don’t pick up the phone. Mafara will handle all communications on this story.” Rhee had added that any story would “make things very messy.”
The disclosure prompted this editorial comment from Turque: “Silly us. It turns out that Gist was willing to talk but was shut down by Fenty and Rhee, who apparently believe in responsive, transparent government except when it doesn’t dovetail with their stategic communications plans.”
Things weren’t always so catty between Rhee and the city’s paper of record. May LL remind his readers that the Post, both news and editorial sections, was essentially handed the scoop of her selection as chancellor?
But Rhee’s relationship with the Washington Post has been on the rocks for about a year now (at least on the news side; the editorial board is still perfectly smitten). The day before Thanksgiving 2007, Theola Labbé, one of two reporters then working the District schools beat for the Post, dropped a blockbuster scoop, getting her hands on a list of 24 schools to be closed by DCPS, most within a year.
The list originally published in the Post turned out not to be entirely correct, but it was largely right, and the story kicked off weeks of wrangling between DCPS and parents who didn’t want their kids’ schools closed. If Rhee had a strategy for rolling out her school-closing list in a more measured manner, she didn’t get that chance. At an out-of-town meeting months later, LL is told, she publicly lamented how the coverage had screwed up her strategy.
After the story, Rhee’s comments in the Post came mostly at public forums—until she attended a Jan. 16 meeting with about a dozen writers and editors in a conference room at the newspaper’s HQ.
According to several sources present at the meeting, about two-thirds of the way through the session, Labbé asked the chancellor why she hadn’t consented to allowing a washingtonpost.com videographer to shoot the meeting when she had been allowing NewsHour cameras to follow her around for months (including at a meeting where she fired a principal).
Rhee turned the question on Labbé, asking whether this was about her personal access.
Metro columnist Marc Fisher describes there being “sort of this collective gasp” in the room. “It was just a moment but a very telling moment,” he says. “It was just not the kind of exchange or decorum you’d usually see in these meetings. They’re generally on the record, so there’s a certain formality to them.”
Rhee, in an interview with LL, reiterated what she told Labbé at the time: “It’s absolutely true that I give different reporters or different media outlets different levels of access….I have no problem telling anybody that. That’s based on how much I trust that person and whether I think that’s a good use of time.”
There’s no “grand press strategy,” she says. “I try to give every reporter the information that they need to write the story that they want.”
Labbé (now Labbé-DeBose) declined to discuss her dealings with Rhee, except to say, “What I remember most about covering schools is breaking the news first about which schools in the city were going to close. That’s what sticks out most in my mind more than anything—telling readers and the D.C. Council for the first time in our newspaper plans that would affect them.”
“It all feels like such a long time ago,” she says, “and I really don’t remember much else than that.”
About two months later, Labbé was pulled off the DCPS beat, LL is told, to pursue a long-term project on charter schools; she’s now on the cops beat. Though tongues have wagged with various explanations for the transfer, the important fact is this: Her replacement was no fresh-outta-Columbia-J-school type. Editors tapped Turque, a 15-year Newsweek vet who joined the Post in 2001 as a Maryland editor, to join V. Dion Haynes on the beat. (Haynes left for a finance-desk job early in September.)
Turque declined to comment. Haynes didn’t return calls for comment.
Rhee says there’s no double standard when it comes to local reporters versus out-of-towners. (For the record, LL has always found her accessible, friendly, and candid.) “I would like nothing more than to have a good, solid relationship with the Post’s education beat reporter,” she says. “But not having that—which is where we are now—that’s not the end of the world.”
As for what Post coverage might have irked Rhee, it might be little things, Chu suggests. “I am sometimes surprised how [Turque] has picked out the most sensational thing and left out a lot of the substance,” says Chu, who continues to follow Rhee.
”I don’t think Bill’s a bad person,” Rhee says with a chuckle, somewhat amused by LL’s interest in her press dealings. But she declined to cite specific reasons as to why the relationship has gone cold. “I don’t love him on a personal basis, and I don’t love some of the little things he’s done, so for that reason I’m not going to show him all kinds of love, but I’m never going to not give him information he asks for or anything like that.”
Probably a good policy: Fenty’s behind-the-scenes muzzle may have already backfired. Not only did the Post’s post-Gist FOIA turn up the smoking-gun e-mail from Fenty, it also turned up a draft press release that contained other “Plan B” measures not included in Turque’s original scoop.
That turned into an article titled “Fenty, Rhee Look for Ways Around Union” that hit last Sunday’s Metro front, prompting another round of bluster from union supporters and other types irritated by Rhenty power moves.
And what did city honchos have to say about that latest scoop? “Fenty and Rhee referred questions about the proposals to mayoral spokeswoman Mafara Hobson,” the story read.
Sayonara to the Schwartz Legacy?
As Carol Schwartz stumped to keep her at-large council seat this year, she tried to hold off business-backed candidate Patrick Mara by touting her pro-biz bona fides. At various candidate forums, she noted a couple of her pet retail-stimulating measures: free parking downtown on weekends and two sales-tax holidays—one in the weekends before school starts and one after the Thanksgiving weekend.
Those pieces of trademark legislation weren’t enough to keep Schwartz on the council, and less than two weeks after her Election Day loss, they looked to be history along with their original sponsor.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham last week announced that he’d be introducing legislation that would not only hike parking-meter rates but would also enforce downtown meters on Saturdays. And in a lesser noticed move, he notified his colleagues last week that he intended to introduce emergency legislation repealing the post-Thanksgiving sales-tax holiday.
Paging Dr. Seuss: Call it How the Graham Stole Christmas!
Schwartz certainly noticed her colleague’s move. “It was hurtful,” she told LL on Tuesday. “It added to the hurtfulness of the whole season.”
Graham did support Schwartz’s re-election bid, though he did dither a bit on supporting her general-election write-in campaign.
He explained to LL that the parking measure and the tax holiday both reduce crucial revenue needed in a time of impending budget crisis. “Everyone knows we have incredibly important programs that are on the chopping block right now,” he says.
In the end, Graham decided not to pursue ending the tax holiday. Schwartz, who contends that the holiday actually increases city collections by pumping up other revenue streams, says she had reached out to her colleague, but declined to say whether she had convinced him to drop his plan. “He withdrew it, didn’t he?” she says.
Graham says he had no intention of sullying Schwartz’s legacy with his revenue-positive moves: “I think she had a much greater legacy than those two items,” he says.
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