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The story was compelling even before Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher started writing about it: On Jan. 23, 14-year-old Princess Hansen was murdered in a neighbor’s house, a victim of bullet wounds to her head, torso, and leg. The hit, say police, was designed to eliminate Princess as a witness to a previous murder. Speculation was that D.C. police drew a target on her head when they knocked on her door a day before her slaying.
But on Jan. 29, Fisher added another level of intrigue. He reported that Tony Bullock, a spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, was spreading malicious rumors to reporters about the dead girl and her family. The column cited the following Bullock-inspired tips:
•The girl had a baby. (False)
•The girl’s mother allowed drug dealers into her house. (True)
•The girl’s mother refused to cooperate with police regarding the murder that her daughter allegedly witnessed. (Dubious)
“What’s astonishing is that instead of visiting the bereaved mother or arranging for help, the city surreptitiously disseminates dirt,” wrote Fisher in a column titled “Sullying the Grave of a Slain Child.”
It was a great scoop, the sort that Metro columns are conceived to generate. A poor family living in a crime-ridden area—the Sursum Corda Cooperative in Northwest D.C.—is grieving over the loss of a child. And a historically dysfunctional city government is piling on.
Stories like that never come through conventional channels, and the Princess piece is no exception. Fisher got the goods through an act of journalistic alchemy—that is, turning off-the-record comments into on-the-record comments. Here’s how he did it.
Step 1 Fisher writes an initial piece on the Princess killing. The column—“After the Killing, a Mother Waits in Silent Anguish”—hammers Mayor Williams for failing to visit the family as a show of support. The piece quotes Princess’ mother, Judyann Hansen: “I honestly do not know if Princess knew anything about the murder. All I know is, a little baby was murdered and nobody comes and says, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Step 2 A reporter from a national magazine speaks with Bullock about the killing and the circumstances in which the family lives.
The conversation is off the record.
Step 3 The magazine reporter tells Fisher what Bullock said in the off-the-record conversation.
Step 4 Fisher writes his second column, attributing the dirt on Bullock to a “reporter for a national magazine.” He also knocks Bullock for peddling the same line to “other news outlets.”
Step 5 The story lands with impact, and Fisher’s chat on Washingtonpost.com is inundated with readers eager to gossip about the Princess murder.
The rest of the story consists of some carefully worded accusations and denials. Bullock insists that Fisher chumped him by leaving the impression that he had reached out to reporters at random, seeking to get the bad word out on the family. “I initiated no call to anybody,” says Bullock, who claims that Fisher is “moving rapidly into the definition of bald-faced liar.”
Says Fisher: “That’s utter and total horseshit—he called people.”
So where’s the truth? Buried in journalistic sourcing rules. Fisher says that he cannot identify the other outlets that allegedly received Bullock’s PR offensive.
The reporter for the “national magazine” says she called Bullock about the case, not the other way around.
But the tiff goes deeper than whether Bullock conducted a smear campaign against the Hansens. It goes to the sanctity of off-the-record conversations.
Bullock blames Fisher for fouling up his very own craft. “He has done violence to the established practices between reporters and government sources,” says Bullock. The columnist, charges Bullock, knew that the information he included in the Post was originally transmitted under an off-the-record covenant between Bullock and another reporter. “You make a joke of the whole process if you remove yourself one step and then put it on the record. People’s lives are on the line in some cases. Their jobs are on the line,” says Bullock.
The Post professes nothing but respect for the “whole process.” Says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao: “We were careful not to violate any agreements or arrangements that we might have entered into.”
That’s a stretch, says the magazine reporter. “The way I couched it to [Fisher], I just assumed it was something neither of us could use,” says the journalist, who professed surprise at finding her “private” conversation with Fisher rehashed in Fisher’s column.
Fisher counters that the conversation started out on the record. Later, the reporter asked that Fisher refrain from identifying both her and her publication—and the Post granted the request.
Whatever the covenants, Fisher insists he was helping the public as well as the national magazine. “They were pleased to be able to expose the city’s strategy in this case,” he says.
Bullock and Fisher agree on one thing: They won’t disclose the name of the national magazine. That’s off the record.
To complete the conspiracy, Dept. of Media also agreed not to identify the mag, in exchange for an interview on the Fisher spat.
Washington Post legend Katharine Graham died in July 2001, leaving a legacy of courage, humility, and shrewdness in managing one of the country’s great media properties.
But fret not, Washington establishment: Here comes the New York Sun, proclaiming that Graham’s successor is kicking around the Shaw neighborhood with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Her name is Jennifer 8. Lee, an environmental-policy reporter for the New York Times who throws a lot of parties. “While the BYOB policy and aluminum tins of fried dumplings at her parties may not have been to Katharine Graham’s taste, that isn’t stopping the lofty comparisons from flowing,” reads the Sun piece.
The Sun finds reminders of Graham in Lee’s star-studded social invite list:
But it’s the synergy among the young overachievers—who make up the bulk of her guests—that’s making her the life of the party. It’s as if, in one quick year, Ms. Lee has single-handedly reinvented the old-style Washington mixer for the Friendster set. Her gatherings provide a setting for young reporters to meet fledgling politicos before either one blows up into the next Bob Woodward or James Carville.
Sun reporter Anna Schneider-Mayerson’s piece includes several references to the Graham-Lee parallel, based entirely on the fact that Lee is always playing the hostess.
Yet a cursory look at Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, suggests that there was a lot more to the late newspaper mogul than caviar and chardonnay. Schneider-Mayerson is hard-pressed, however, to expand the Lee comparison. “While I did not read her autobiography, there have been volumes of other written material about Ms. Graham.” She declines to say whether she’s read any of these volumes. CP
The Next Generation
Is Jennifer 8 . Lee the second coming
of Katharine Graham?
1. Not long after college, went to work for the country’s premier newspaper.
2. At 27, constantly throws parties, for occasions from Lunar New Year to Halloween.
3. Lives a freewheeling life, full of adventures and work
4. Networks aggressively—sends
unsolicited e-mails to writers she admires.
5. Added a numerical middle name as teenager to add “spice” to a previously ordinary moniker.
6. Wrote, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one woman in 12 of childbearing age has a mercury level in the blood that poses a concern.”
7. Helped a Taiwanese-American delivery person attend important journalism conference.
8. Has guests who “relieve themselves off her balcony.”
1. Not long after college, dropped job at father’s backwater newspaper and wrote to friend: “I resigned myself quite contentedly to the life of a vegetable. I went to cooking school in the morning, had lunch with friends, sat in the sun with other pregnant ladies…”
2. In her late 20s, still had not “given a ‘dinner.’”
3. Did all the grunt work around the house. “Gradually I became the drudge and, what’s more, accepted my role as a kind of second-class citizen.”
4. Was “encumbered by a deep feeling of uncertainty and inferiority” when she went to the Post.
5. Changed her last name at age 22 upon marrying Phil Graham.
6. Wrote, “Death is as much a reality as birth, growth, maturity and old age. It is the one certainty. I cannot fear death.”
7. Beat back the famous pressmen’s strike of 1975.
8. “At one point I went upstairs and looked out the window to see Donald Maclean relieving himself on the front lawn.”