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Earlier this year, honchos at the Washington Post convened a meeting with editors of the paper’s special weekly sections—Sunday Source, Health, Food, Home, Weekend, et al. The weeklies operate outside of the Post’s daily news grind, and top editors were concerned that they weren’t getting enough attention.
In the session, the purveyors of the Post’s softer content got a tutorial on the ethics of service journalism. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says the idea was “to give them a variety of training, and ethics was part of it.”
Perhaps the lessons didn’t sink in.
Last Friday, the paper published a correction for a stunning case of ethical bankruptcy. The short version is that the Post’s Sunday Source cooked up an event and then reported on it. The longer version comes via the Oct. 22 correction itself:
In the Oct. 17 Sunday Source, the “Gatherings” story described a Republican barbecue held to watch a presidential debate. The item reported “the possibly unprecedented occurrence of a young woman in a cowboy hat pretending to make out with a poster of Dick Cheney.” The item should have explained that the woman was asked to pose with the vice president’s picture by the photographer working for The Washington Post. The woman also did not pretend to “make out” with the picture; at the photographer’s suggestion, she pretended to blow a kiss at it. The item should have explained that the party was hosted in response to a request from The Post, which discussed the decorations and recipes with the host and agreed to reimburse the cost of recipe ingredients.
Any time you admit in print that your photographer asked someone to blow a kiss to a poster of Dick Cheney, you’ve got to be ready for a backlash. The episode prompted a bout of schadenfreude among Post newsies, who have resented the Sunday Source ever since its launch in April 2003. Unlike the paper’s hard-news sections, the Sunday Source is a picture-heavy vehicle that caters to young readers and plugs products or local businesses on virtually every page. It has recurring features on shopping, pets, and fashion, as well as entertainment listings.
But it’s the “Gatherings” feature where all the Sunday Source’s pandering sensibilities converge. Here’s what goes on: Young, attractive people get together and throw some ridiculous theme party. The Sunday Source sends a photographer and captures the beauty for its readership. The recipes for the event often come from a cookbook, making for an ideal product plug. And the feature includes a clever little subsection titled “Don’t want to cook?” that lists a handful of restaurants that will be glad to cater your party.
Nor is the Sunday Source shy about ginning up photogenic events. In setting up the bogus Republican debate “Gathering,” the section’s editors sent an e-mail to its “Inside Source” database of devotees. Graying GOPers needn’t have applied: “We’re looking for someone to act as host(ess) with the most(est) for an upcoming Gatherings piece. The gist: We need a young Republican—preferably someone who likes to cook—to invite over a bunch of Republican friends to watch the presidential debate on Sept. 30…” reads the e-mail, in part.
The e-mail reassured prospective Republican party-throwers that the Sunday Source was also “doing a Democratic-focused Gathering, but we’ve already got people for that one.” The Sunday Source: add it to your liberal-media-conspiracy list.
The Post’s correction on the Republican event showcases the paper’s admirable dedication to setting the record straight. “We need to be completely clear with readers, and I didn’t think we were in this case,” says Downie.
Yet the Post’s actions on this incident create a perhaps false impression that the debate party presented an aberration from standard Sunday Source practices. In fact, there’s a grand tradition at the Sunday Source of funding parties that later end up on the “Gatherings” page.
Post contract writer Jessica Dawson last spring hosted a “Stepford Wives” theme party that was showcased in the Sunday Source. Dawson came up with the idea but got funds from the Sunday Source for her “ritzy crab and artichoke” casserole. “We worked through it together,” says Dawson of her collaboration with the section’s editors.
And freelancer Kate Ghiloni, likewise, got a vittles subsidy for the Baked Alaska at her Sunday Source–endorsed “Wig-O-Rama!” soiree. “If there’s a recipe in it, they reimburse you for the food,” says Ghiloni.
The corruption can extend beyond just paying for the grocery run. In the case of the Republican debate story, the Sunday Source pushed partiers to use a GOP-themed dish from a specific cookbook—How to Eat Like a Republican, by Susanne Grayson Townsend. “They initiated the whole idea, the concept,” says a source involved in the party, who notes that the Sunday Source people “were requiring” that the party borrow from the book. Organizers complied with the Sunday Source mandate even though they thought the book didn’t represent their brand of GOP politics.
The book’s publisher was pleased with the results. “We pitched them, and they bit,” says Kate Blum, a Random House publicist.
Indeed. The book furnished “McCain’s Mean Beans,” an ideal side dish for hungry Republicans. Those beans stood in the foreground of a photo displaying the evening’s entire menu. And if the spread looks carefully arranged and stylized, it’s because it was. According to partygoers, the freelance photographer, Nate Lankford, arranged the beans on a plate with other Republican munchies. “It wasn’t a plate that someone was eating from,” says the anonymous partier.
When asked about the party, Lankford responded, “Put me down for no comment.” The writer of the piece, Curtis Sittenfeld, referred inquiries to a Post spokesperson. Sunday Source editor Sandy Fernandez did not return a call for comment. Managing Editor Steve Coll did not return several calls.
So it’s unclear whether Lankford was acting under orders when he suggested that a woman blow the kiss to the Cheney picture and when he arranged the food to look just so. Ghiloni says that Lankford took a light touch to editing the festivities at her “Wig-O-Rama!” shindig: “If we were in bad lighting, he would ask us to move. If we were standing in a dark corner, he said, ‘Move over,’” says Ghiloni.
The Sunday Source just can’t stand for imperfect shots of comely young Washingtonians.
The staging, the writer-editor party planning, the e-mail solicitations—it all goes to the Sunday Source’s core mission of creating an alternative reality for the capital region. When real people throw parties, they put some beers in a cooler, slam some jug wine on the countertop, and answer the door. The wigless guests generally grab a drink, slouch against the doorjamb, and socialize until their feet get tired. Then they go home.
Problem is, “Gatherings” wouldn’t be so catchy each week chronicling variations on the kegger and the roast-chicken dinner party. Hence the incentives to create something far less prosaic.
Downie has reacted with a daily newsman’s aversion to influencing the events that the paper reports on. He’s now focused on preventing a repeat performance. “In this case, mistakes were made, and we want to be sure procedures are being followed,” he says. He won’t comment on whether the fiasco is prompting disciplinary actions.
Yet Downie & Co. can hardly be surprised at the departure from the Post’s straight-arrow heritage. When the paper hired Fernandez, it knew what it was getting: a magazine talent who had worked for Teen People, Ms., George, Latina, and Time’s Canadian and Latin American editions.
In the world of the glossies, the tactics used by the Post in the debate-party piece would have won awards for ethical purity.
“She had a real firm vision for the section,” says Mary Hadar, a Postie who co-chaired the committee that chose Fernandez. “We gave her a prototype, and she had a vision and created the Sunday Source that you know….I think management is happy with it.”
“Management” doesn’t include Post ombudsman Michael Getler, who wrote in his internal memo last week: “I have no doubt that this section is lively and appreciated by its readers. But it is on another planet journalistically from the rest of the Post, in my opinion, and from me, about which I’m sure.”