The word is out: If you’re looking to smear a political rival, the Washington Post can help.
That, at least, is the precedent that the paper set on June 4. Just four days before the Democratic primary for Virginia’s 8th District, pitting incumbent Rep. James Moran against challenger Andrew Rosenberg, the Post splashed this headline on the front page of Metro: “Former Adviser Accuses Moran Of Making Anti-Semitic Remark.”
And the story’s lead amped up the tension: “A longtime adviser to Rep. James P. Moran Jr. has lodged about the most damaging allegation that could be made about the congressman from Northern Virginia at this point in his reelection campaign: that he heard him make an anti-Semitic remark.”
With the hook baited, Post readers were ready for the catch—a word-for-word airing of the alleged remark.
But that helpful bit of reporting never came. Not in the initial story, nor in the follow-up pieces that took the paper’s coverage through primary day. The allegation dominated the balance of the primary campaign, but Post readers never found out what the hell it was. “We felt that we had enough information to put the story in the paper,” says Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao. “I think that our obligation is to report as thoroughly and completely a story as we can, and I think we did.”
The anti-Semitic charge came from Alan Secrest, a longtime Moran adviser who claims that the congressman made the remark in a private meeting on March 18. Two others who attended the meeting, both Moran advisers, denied hearing Moran say anything anti-Semitic. Secrest resigned from the Moran campaign in late May, a development first reported by Roll Call.
Moran told the Post that the anti-Semitic allegation was “a flat-out lie.” (Moran, who won the primary, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Let’s go to the sourcing scoreboard: One vague allegation from an on-the-record source vs. three on-the-record denials. Other factors contributed to the paper’s decision, such as Moran’s past: In a public forum last year, he essentially blamed the “Jewish community” for sending the United States to war with Iraq. “This has been an issue that has arisen for Jim Moran previously and has been one that has dogged him,” says Armao.
Call it the prosecutor’s approach to journalism: He did it before, so he probably did it again. Armao concedes that the headline should have showcased Moran’s denial to help balance the story’s presentation, but she’s not budging on the core news judgments in the piece. The Metro section, says Armao, doesn’t “suppress legitimate on-the-record news just because we weren’t in the room.”
But you can’t suppress something that you don’t have. All weekend, says Armao, her reporters pressed Secrest to divulge the wording of the alleged remark but couldn’t get him to open up. “I would have liked to have the remark,” says Armao. (Secrest would not comment for the record on the episode.)
Absent the goods, the coverage reduced a proud news organization to hatchet journalism. The message from the Post was unequivocal: We believe this charge, and we’ll let your imagination run wild with the possibilities. Did Moran reportedly use a hateful epithet, such as “kike”? Or did his alleged anti-Semitism run along the milder, conspiratorial lines of last year’s comment on Jewish power and the Iraq war?
Reporting an utterance of anti-Semitism or racism without the actual wording is like reporting a murder without mentioning the victim—useless journalism. Even when popular figures make questionable remarks in front of TV cameras, they spark wide public debates about whether they “crossed the line” into anti-Semitism or racism.
Former Boston Celtics great Larry Bird, for instance, recently said that the NBA needed more white stars and that he felt offended when other teams assigned white players to guard him. Did he cross the line?
Trent Lott in 2002 waxed nostalgic about the days of segregation at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond. Racist comments or just a sweet tribute to Lott’s 100-year-old colleague?
In both cases, the transcript enables the debate.
But the Post left the critical judgment in the hands of a single guy: Secrest. We know that Secrest is an experienced political consultant who had done polling for Moran as far back as 1984. We also know that he had disputes with Moran over campaign strategy, with Secrest advocating a pricey approach heavy on polling and media blitzes, according to the Post. And we know that he’d waited for two months to go public with his attack on Moran, leveling it just a couple of weeks before the election.
But we know nothing about how he filters offensive comments. Nor, presumably, do Post editors. How dangerous is that situation?
Just scroll back to January 1999. In a meeting with colleagues, David Howard, an aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, used the word “niggardly” to describe his approach to spending. One of Howard’s co-workers interpreted the utterance as a racial slur. Howard resigned, even though “niggardly” means “stingy” and has no racial meaning. Once his superiors realized how unjust the charge was, Howard returned to work for the Williams administration. Erik Wemple
Washington Times Corrections
•A June 15 editorial stated that President Ronald Reagan ordered Marines into Grenada in 1986. In fact, he ordered the Marines into Grenada in 1983.
•A June 15 story by Matthew Cella misspelled the name of Rasheeda Moore, a former girlfriend of Marion S. Barry Jr. The story also incorrectly stated that Barry ran for an at-large D.C. Council seat in 2002. In fact, he never officially declared his candidacy or filed ballot petitions.
•A June 14 story by Sean Salai misspelled the name of Rasheeda Moore, a former girlfriend of Marion S. Barry Jr.
•A June 12 story incorrectly stated that Marion S. Barry Jr. ran for an at-large D.C. Council seat in 2002. In fact, he never officially declared his candidacy or filed ballot petitions.
•A June 4 Op-Ed by Deborah Simmons stated an incorrect age for Chelsea Cromartie, who died at the age of 8, not 9.
•A June 3 editorial incorrectly stated that Marion S. Barry Jr. ran for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat in 2002. In fact, that seat was not contested in 2002; Barry was considering a run for an at-large seat.
•A June 2 story by Robert Redding Jr. and Adrienne T. Washington misspelled the name of Rasheeda Moore, a former girlfriend of Marion S. Barry Jr.
•A June 2 story by Jim McElhatton incorrectly credited the Washington Post for revealing an accusation by D.C. schools interim Superintendent Robert Rice. In fact, the accusation was first reported by WJLA-TV.
•A May 31 story by S.A. Miller misspelled the name of Gary Scheffmeyer, vice president of Rolling Thunder. Also, the story misspelled the model name of the Yamaha Seca motorcycle.
•A May 29 editorial misspelled the names of Baltimore triple-slaying suspects Adan Espinoza Canela and Policarpio Espinoza.
•A May 19 piece by Gene Mueller mischaracterized the environmental organization Oceana, stating that it is a coalition consisting of the Streisand Foundation and “various Turner foundations.” It also stated that Oceana is striving to “expand marine protected areas (MPA) where fishing will be permanently banned.” In fact, Oceana is not a coalition; it works as an independent nonprofit. And Oceana does not advocate the expansion of marine protected areas.
A June 2 article titled “Glass half full for most Americans” gave a misleadingly incomplete description of the results of a recent Gallup poll, saying that the “nation’s confidence in its public institutions is on the rise…” In fact, the poll reflected a dropping confidence in the following institutions as compared with last year: the military, the U.S. Supreme Court, newspapers, television news, and the presidency.
•A June 14 article titled “Church leaders won’t back Barry” featured testimony from three pastors on the electoral prospects of Marion S. Barry Jr. None of the churches represented, however, are located in Ward 8, where Barry is a declared candidate.
•Apology: The Washington Times apologizes to syndicated columnist Morton Kondracke for the following errors in his May 25 Commentary piece. The article:
—called the Viet Cong the “Viet Congo,”
—called Saddam Hussein “Adam Hussies,”
—called Saddam “Addams,”
—called Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry “John Gerry,”
—called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “Donald Ruffed,”
—called Sen. Joe Lieberman “Joe Letterman,”
—called Sen. John McCain “John Cain,”
—called the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post the “Opted page,”
—called Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie “Moonwalk al-Rubies B,”
—called Tom Paine “Tom Pain.”
Corrections Policy: The Washington Times lacks the resources to run its own corrections. Therefore, it relies on the Washington City Paper to manage this critical function.
If you see an error in the Washington Times, please contact Erik Wemple at (202) 332-2100 x 1450, or e-mail to WashTimesCorrex @ washcp.com.