On his way to work on Dec. 18, Washington Post business writer Don Phillips heard a radio report about the derailment of a CSX freight train in Alexandria. The mishap was causing all kinds of havoc, delaying passengers on Virginia Railway Express, Amtrak, and Metro. When Phillips got to the office, he asked his colleagues on the Post’s Metro desk if they wanted him to make some calls. They nodded.
A couple of hours later, Phillips came back with the goods: A broken wheel had likely triggered the pileup. The Post had the details by early afternoon, well ahead of the competition.
The CSX wreck story represents a crossing of sorts for the 61-year-old Phillips. He loves trains, and he loves wrecks.
Name a major train or plane accident over the past 14 years and Phillips has covered it for Post readers. The Silver Spring train wreck of February 1996. The TWA Flight 800 crash of July 1996. The Air France Concorde crash of July 2000. The Amtrak wreck in Batavia, N.Y., of August 1994. In many cases, Phillips broke key details on the crashes, the fruit of decades spent wooing sources in the transportation sector.
“You’d find other reporters taking their lead from Don. He was the best, but he had some very strong competition,” says Craig Martin, director of communications for Boeing commercial airplanes.
Phillips, though, has covered his last crash for the Post. Last month, he accepted the paper’s early-retirement package, a generous enticement that netted him an exit windfall totaling $164,000. Dollar figures like those delighted most of the 55 Post newsies who took the deal. Phillips’ departure, however, was not as amicable. He wanted to stick around, plying the same beat he’d started decades earlier. His editors had other notions. The upshot: There’s no more room for railroad geeks at the Post.
“I came to the conclusion that they were building a house I couldn’t live in,” says Phillips.
Phillips was 23 years old when he placed his first story in Trains magazine. The piece, “Tug of War Over a Great Lady,” ran in the January 1966 issue and chronicled a fight over who owned a large steam locomotive in Atlanta. “Boy, was I happy with myself,” recalls Phillips.
Trains provided the ideal platform for Phillips’ obsessions. He continued contributing to the mag and in 1977 launched a monthly column, “Potomac Pundit,” that continues today. “He’s been indispensable,” says Kevin P. Keefe, associate publisher and former editor of Trains. “He taught our readers as much about trucking and shipping as he did about railroads.”
For day jobs, Phillips worked at United Press International for 19 years, and he landed the Post’s transportation portfolio in 1989. It was the only beat that he wanted. “I like anything big that moves, and that goes all the way back. It was just a gene I was born with, I guess,” says Phillips.
Phillips got his first accident assignment in July 1989, when United Airlines Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 110 people. A steady run of catastrophic plane crashes over the following decade made Phillips a key member of a media troupe that routinely descends on big accident scenes. Other members include Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times, Sally B. Donnelly of Time magazine, J. Lynn Lunsford of the Wall Street Journal, Lisa Stark of ABC, Bob Hager of NBC, and Matthew Wald of the New York Times.
“He may be the senior person of this group,” says Wald. “I’m delighted not to have him as a competitor.”
Scoops on the crash beat come couched in aerospace arcana. For instance, Wald credits Phillips for reporting a big break in the aftermath of the Swissair 111 crash, which killed 229 people off the southern coast of Nova Scotia in September 1998. In a front-page Post story that ran a month after the tragedy, Phillips wrote, “Investigators probing the wreckage of Swissair Flight 111 have found pieces of a type of thermal and sound insulation that has been implicated in the rapid spread of fires on at least four other jetliners, sources close to the investigation said yesterday.”
Those “sources close to the investigation” in all likelihood had shared a glass of wine and a meal with Phillips. The lifelong transportation-beat reporter practiced the throwback tradition of pounding his sources by day over the phone, then pounding drinks with them at night. “There’ve been times where I thought I had to go on the wagon just to dry out. I don’t have any real obligations at night, so I spend a lot of time with sources,” says Phillips.
Downtown restaurant Tuscana West has profited immensely from Phillips’ enterprise journalism. Phillips and industry consultant Tony Broderick “found” the spot and began dragging transportation types there to chat about planes and trains. The place has turned into a haunt for staffers from the Federal Aviation Administration and other transportation agencies. “I know these people come here, and that might be the reason,” says Tuscana West manager Douglas Asady.
The Post has paid big money to keep Phillips’ sources well fed. The reporter racked up $23,000 in expenses in 2000 and $14,000 in 2001numbers that he claims far outpaced those of any of his peers at the paper’s business section. “When the financial crackdown came…they came to me and said, ‘Slow down,’” says Phillips.
A free-spending carouser squares with the oversize image that Phillips has carved out in the country’s transportation sector. Jeff Shane, the Transportation Department’s undersecretary for policy, writes via e-mail: “[I]t’s extremely annoying to be interviewed by somebody who knows more than you do about the subject of the interview. Over the years I’ve begun to get used to it.”
Shane recently asked Phillips to broker a meeting for him with an official in the private sector. Phillips gladly obliged. “I knew that Don was pretty friendly with this guy,” recalls Shane. (Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie says reporters aren’t supposed to help government officials do their jobs but declines to speak specifically about this incident.)
Yet Phillips’ mythic standing among rail and aviation junkies didn’t help him last month with a key constituency: his editors. When Phillips said he wanted to skip the buyout and stay on at 15th and L Streets, his supervisors agreed, on the condition that he change beats. Instead of pursuing his wide-ranging transportation interests, he’d have to focus on aviation security, the hot post-Sept. 11 story. It sounded like a demotion.
“If you really love transportation, I can’t imagine anything more dreary than covering airport security,” says Trains’ Keefe.
Phillips decided that the Post was shutting the door on the very stories he lived to write: stories about how coal-carrying rail lines are suffering; stories about how locomotive engineers will continue to sound their horns at road intersections; stories about the Alameda Corridor, a sunken-rail freight line designed to diminish traffic congestion in Los Angeles. Post financial editor Jill Dutt, says Phillips, was “absolute” in ruling out more such rail coverage. Says Dutt: “I told Don that we needed him to write business stories, and if he wanted to cover transportation he could go to the Metro section and cover transportation.”
Executive Editor Downie also had troubles with Phillips’ train fetish. “There were some kinds of transportation stories that interested him but that we didn’t necessarily think were as interesting to the readership,” says Downie.
The clash over trains produced a couple of the Post’s more contentious exit meetings. “It didn’t go well,” says a Post reporter. “The problem with him is we haven’t had an airline crash in a year and a half. They’ve forgotten what he’s good at.” (The last major U.S. airliner crash took place in November 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 went down in Queens, N.Y.)
Although Phillips cleared out his desk last week, his days covering trains and planes aren’t over. A Post source indicated that he’s in discussions with the International Herald Tribune. Phillips declines to comment on any such opportunity. Natalie Layzell, an International Herald Tribune executive, can’t confirm negotiations with Phillips but says, “We’re expanding in all directions, including travel and transportation.”
Right now, Phillips is in Inner Mongolia, one of the few places where steam locomotives still chug from town to town. It’s a trip that Phillips has made before with rail enthusiasts. “We hike up into the mountains when it’s sometimes 20 and 30 below, but that makes for wonderful steam effects,” he says.
Could I Have Some A1 Sauce?
Post Ombudsman Michael Getler is not afraid of making enemies at the paper, especially at the Style section. When Style debuted a column by Tina Brown, he called it “the worst and most irrelevant thing I’ve read in my three years in this job.”
On Jan. 4, Getler again turned to Style, devoting his weekly column to discussing the placement of a pair of side-by-side pieces by reporter Tom Ricks. The pieces ran on the front of Style on Dec. 23 under a joint headline”Holding Their Ground”and chronicled the views of two key figures toward the Iraq war: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and retired four-star Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni. Getler scolded the Post for failing to place the stories on its front page, quoting and agreeing with readers who called the package “too significant for Style.”
Getler’s gripe kicked up a shitstorm at the Post and on the Poynter.org media Web sitetestament to the passions aroused by the fiery ombud as well as to a slow media-news week. Style editor Eugene Robinson, in a memo to his colleagues, compared dialogue with Getler to “interspecies, or perhaps interplanetary, communication” and called the column “so bizarreand so casually insultingthat something needs to be said.”
Robinson says that Getler’s desire to see the stories on Page One illustrates how out of touch the ombud is with Style. But a review of Getler’s weekly internal memos to Post staffers suggests a different explanation: The ombud is out of touch with the front page.
The Post, it seems, is always burying stories that would belong on the front page of the Getler Post. Here’s a random survey of his commentary on placement decisions at the paper.
•On Dec. 19, 2003, Getler lobbied for more prominent placement of an A42 story on the imminent resignation of David Kay, who is heading up the search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons. “‘Page 42 almost makes this a non-story,’ says one reader, with whom I agree,” writes Getler.
•On Dec. 12, 2003, Getler lobbied for front-page placement of an A22 story on the dispatching of some local soldiers to help fight terrorism abroad: “My unsolicited vote would have been for A1 because this unit is so well known to so many people in the community.”
•On July 25, 2003, Getler took issue with how a certain story was showcased on A1. “A good piece…was on A1 but it was down at the bottom of the page and looked, to the casual reader, as though it was just a day story about the trip to Iraq of Paul Wolfowitz.”
•On Dec. 13, 2002, Getler sympathized with readers who wanted more prominent placement of certain stories. “[T]he important piece by Dana Priest and Sue Schmidt on Thursday about the Congressional investigation into 9/11 was easily missed on A20. The layout of the paper can be pretty good at hiding stuff.”
•In November 2002, Getler wrote, “The Post reported today (Friday) on A31, the Federal Page, that the Bush administration announced it will speed up federal job ‘outsourcing’ that could affect up to 425,000 government employees over the next few years. Is that not a strong, local, front-page story for TWP?”
•Last March, Getler rapped the paper for burying in A12 the news that the U.S. had “ordered 24 B-1 and B-52 bombers to Guam in a move linked to concern over North Korea….[I]t seemed to me that Post readers should have been made more aware of it.”
And that’s merely a sampling. What’s missing from the ombud prescriptions, of course, are recommendations as to which front-page pieces he’d remove to make room for all his A1 choices. Getler did not respond to requests for comment.
Placement quibbles are the low-hanging fruit of media criticisma form of polemic that anyone with an agenda can partake in. In that same Dec. 23 paper, for instance, page A12 carried a story on Canada’s new prime minister, which the Canada-loving Dept. of Media believes should have been on A1.
“Everything that Mike thinks should be on the front page would require 12 stories…and we don’t have room for that,” says Downie. Erik Wemple