Working as a freelance writer for the Washington Post is a tough gig. Your life is nothing but deadline stress. You never know when your pieces will run. Your pay is bad—the average music review pays $100—and the play is worse—try Page C7. And don’t even think of complaining to the Newspaper Guild—you’re as expendable as they come.
And when you screw up, don’t expect the benefit of the doubt.
The latest Post stringer with firsthand knowledge on this policy is Style contributor Tricia Olszewski. On Feb. 9, as first reported by Trey Graham on his Theaterboy blog (theaterboy.typepad.com), Olszewski was removed from her job as a theater reviewer, thanks to some tossed-off comments she posted on her personal Web site. (Both Graham and Olszewski are also Washington City Paper contributors.)
Not that Olszewski should have known she was breaking the rules. Post freelancers receive no documentation detailing where the boundaries lay. So, to help navigate this ethical minefield, Dept. of Media offers Post contributors (who include numerous City Paper staffers and freelancers) this easy-to-follow guide to holding on to your lousy gig:
Rule No. 1: Don’t Suggest That Your Beat Is Lame
Olszewski’s problems stem from a biography that was posted on her site, The Movie Babe (moviebabe.typepad.com). The offending passage read, “[D]rama nerds can find my snooty takes on local theahtah at washingtonpost.com. Help make Movie Babe a success so I don’t have to see any more pretentious plays! (Disclaimer: Movie Babe is not insinuating that all productions in the Greater Washington, D.C., area take themselves too seriously. Just some of them. And by some, I mean many that I’m sent to.)”
Her irreverent aside had been posted for months, Olszewski says, but it wasn’t until last week that a tipster notified Post honchos to complain. After she heard about the complaint on Feb. 7, she removed the offending line. But that wasn’t enough to keep her on the theater-reviewing beat. As the comment threads on Theaterboy bear out, Olszewski has never been a favorite reviewer among the Washington theater community, and the use of such phrases as “local theahtah” only confirmed their feelings.
After discussions with her editors, Olszewski was informed last Thursday that due to her allegations that certain unspecified small-company productions are highfalutin, she’d be taken off the theater beat. (She will remain as a music reviewer.) “I see how it could be offensive to the companies I was covering,” Olszewski says.
“I think we came to feel that her comment on her Web site, which was rather lighthearted, could cause some theaters to feel that she wouldn’t give them a fair shake,” Arts Editor John Pancake says. “We felt like it kind of cast a little bit of a shadow over the work Tricia’s done.”
Rule No. 2: Save Your Opinions for Your Review
In the spring of 1978, the Post sent stringer Joe Sasfy to review a performance by actor-turned-folk singer Keith Carradine at Georgetown’s Cellar Door. But Sasfy apparently couldn’t wait for his feelings to be committed to print. As Carradine worked the crowd in between songs, Sasfy threw out “a few well-timed remarks.”
“Which, I guess to be fair,” Sasfy says, “wasn’t appropriate for a Washington Post writer.”
The heckling incident was compounded when Sasfy went to phone in his review from a club telephone; Cellar Door co-owner Sam L’Hommedieu was listening nearby as he panned Carradine’s act. Sasfy says he suspects he later called his editor, who placed him “on indefinite leave.”
It didn’t help that the Washington Star devoted a gossip item to the incident a week afterward, which included allegations that Sasfy made off-color comments to the crowd on the way out of the club. (Sasfy says no such incident took place.)
“Indefinite” turned out to be not long at all. After his friend Richard Harrington was hired as a pop-music critic a few months later, Sasfy was rehired and continued to write for the Post (as well as the City Paper) until 1987.
Rule No. 3: Don’t Make Mistakes
On Nov. 18, Style freelancers were sent a missive from Style music editor Peter Kaufman warning them to double-check the facts in their copy before submitting it. “Fact-checking is not my responsibility. Nor is it the copy desk’s. It’s yours,” he wrote.
“You are responsible for every assertion you make,” the memo continued. “Your fellow audience members and listeners are not shy about pointing out errors. If you make enough of them, the Post can’t publish your work.”
The bar for arts contributors, as far as Dept. of Media can tell, is set somewhere north of four corrections in two months, which is how many pop-music critic J. Freedom du Lac picked up shortly before the memo was sent out. Those included misidentifying Gwen Stefani’s bassist as Meshell Ndegeocello and mistakenly referring to a U2 album as How to Build an Atomic Bomb instead of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Du Lac, though, is a staffer—so don’t push it.
Kaufman says he did not have du Lac in mind when he sent the memo. “Any mistake a staffer makes would be dealt with in conversations inside the building and not through a mass e-mail,” he says.
“I had a talking-to [with Kaufman],” du Lac says. “In a couple of cases, I made assumptions, I wrote what I did not know, which is not the smartest approach.” (Du Lac has not incurred a correction since Nov. 7.)
Rule No. 4: Don’t Place a Post Superstarin a Negative Light
In 2000, Post horse-racing stringer Dave McKenna—yes, like just about everyone else mentioned in this column, also a City Paper writer—ran afoul of also-unwritten sports-freelancing guidelines. McKenna’s offense: In a City Paper Cheap Seats column, he resurrected a 1981 hit piece on sports-radio personality Ken Beatrice by then-Post reporter Tony Kornheiser.
“All these years later, the story is fascinating, if only for its meanness,” McKenna wrote.
It wasn’t the first time McKenna had mentioned a beloved Postie in his column. A month before, he wrote that the late, sainted Post columnist Shirley Povich might have harbored a grudge against legendary turf writer Jack Mann.
After the Beatrice column ran, McKenna was canned from the Post Sports department.
In an item published by the Post about the incident, sports editor George Solomon told media reporter Howard Kurtz that the mentions of both Kornheiser and Povich were “both unfair and unprofessional.”
“If you’re going to write for a particular newspaper, even on a part-time basis,” Solomon said, “there has to be some sense of letting the people you work for know what you’re doing.”
McKenna says he knew where he lay on the Post food chain. “It wasn’t like I was shocked that this happened,” he says. He still writes music reviews for the Style pages.
Rule No. 5: Don’t Tell Your Paper to “Eat…a ‘Bag of Cocks’”
Starting in 2003, Michael Little contributed live-music reviews to the Post Style section, earning as many as three bylines a week. But in the months after Little published a controversial article in the City Paper arguing that D.C. rock icons Fugazi were no fun (“In on the Killjoy,” 10/17/2003), his assignments from the Post, Little says, thinned out considerably—thanks, Little suspects, to the pro-Fugazi bias of a Style staffer. By the following spring, Little was down to about two assignments a month.
Kaufman discounts Little’s theory that the Post is in the tank for Fugazi. “I think Michael knows better than that,” he says. “We weren’t satisfied with the job he was doing. I really don’t want to go into detail on it.”
By June 2004, Little was frustrated enough to take it to his blog, Unremitting Failure (futility.typepad.com), where he wrote, “In an attempt to prove that we can work with no one, Unremitting Failure plans to tell the Washington Post…to eat (in straightedge photog Glen Friedman’s immortal words) a ‘bag of cocks,’” plus personal comments about the aforementioned staffer.
“Part of it was, I didn’t care if I got fired,” Little says. “Plus, I figured nobody would ever see it.”
Wrong: His boss, then-pop-music-critic David Segal, wrote him a few weeks later: “Your attempt to prove that you can’t work with us was a success,” he wrote. “You can’t work with us any longer.”
(Disclosure: “In on the Killjoy” also earned Little a brief vacation from the City Paper’s pages, after editors heard that he called Fugazi guitarist Ian MacKaye to apologize. [Little says he did not call to offer an apology.] “Thou shalt have the courage of your convictions” is Commandment 11.4(c) in the Washington City Paper Freelancer’s Guide to Not Getting Fired.) —Mike DeBonis and Jason Cherkis