As editor of a regional newspaper in Tacoma, Wash., David Zeeck knows how hot-shot reporters from national dailies cover news events in his backyard. First, they read the coverage in his News Tribune and other regional outlets. Then they retrace the footsteps of the local reporters. And when they write their take on the news, they might borrow a thought here, a quote there.
Such pickpocketing generally doesn’t rile Zeeck. “Most often, we don’t even respond,” he says.
Jayson Blair, however, brought about a change in policy. Following the uproar over the former New York Times reporter’s journalistic grand larceny, Zeeck decided to get a bit more aggressive in calling out the big boys on attribution and ownership.
In late May, Zeeck and the Metro editor of the Seattle Times, Suki Dardarian, wrote a letter to management at the Washington Post. They wanted to know how the Post’s Seattle-based reporter Blaine Harden got some of the information that he used in a May 5 crime story about Tacoma. Bits and pieces of Harden’s story looked awfully familiar to the staff at the News Tribune and the Seattle Times. “I wasn’t aware why we weren’t credited and I still don’t know,” says Dardarian.
The story was legitimate national news: Tacoma Police Chief David Brame on April 26 had shot his estranged wife, Crystal Brame, and then killed himself. Crystal Brame survived for a week at a local hospital but died on May 3, the same day as the funeral ceremonies for her estranged husband. The episode has sparked an intense local debate, according to the Seattle Times, over screening procedures for hiring top municipal officials.
Harden, a former New York Times reporter, didn’t have much time to work on his Tacoma story. The dispatch came in the middle of a five-day stretch in which the reporter wrote four meaty storieson hydroelectric dams, the Tacoma murder-suicide, the docking of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the fate of salmon in the Columbia and Snake River system. “I wrote the story in about three-and-a-half hours on deadline,” says Harden via e-mail.
Last week, the Post acknowledged that the piece was a clip job as well as a rush job. The May 30 correction reads:
In an May 5 article about a murder-suicide scandal in Tacoma, Wash., The Washington Post published quotations from the city’s mayor without proper attribution. The story quoted the mayor of Tacoma, Bill Baarsma, as saying, “My head is spinning. We’re finding out information that’s coming fast and furious.” This quotation appeared first in the Tacoma News Tribune and in an Associated Press report on May 2. The next day it appeared in other newspapers. The mayor, however, did not speak directly to a Post reporter and the story should have made this clear. Also, The Post article quoted the mayor as saying, “Absolutely, there should have been a meeting early on discussing who knew what when.” The Post story reported that Baarsma said this to “reporters.” The mayor made this statement to one reporter from the Seattle Times.
“It’s a pretty fulsome correction,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie.
Sure, but perhaps not fulsome enough. Harden, for instance, takes a quote from Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz on procedures for choosing a police chief. “We have holes in the process,” reads the Post quote. The same quote appeared in the May 1 edition of the Seattle Times. Harden confirms that he did not speak with Corpuz.
Also, Harden reports that Chief Brame killed himself “with his service revolver.” Again, the Seattle Times had reported the same fact the day before. On its face, the overlap doesn’t appear like a big deal. However, the Seattle Times later issued a correction stating that the service weapon was a .45 Glock semiautomatic, not a revolver. Harden said he got the revolver detail from several news organizations in a database search.
The Post hasn’t addressed the handgun problem. “I confined my involvement to the questions raised about the story,” says Downie.
Yet the commonalities between Harden’s account and those of the regional papers raise a critical question for the Post: Did Harden do any original reporting for the Tacoma piece? Downie confirms that he never asked Harden “such a question.”
When asked that question by the Washington City Paper over e-mail, Harden answered, “I drove 30 miles to Tacoma on the afternoon of Sunday, May 4, stopped at the Tacoma Mall and gathered some not very enlightening man/woman-in-the-mall quotes about the murder-suicide and its aftermath that I did not insert into the piece.”
With no time to gather string for his piece, Harden reports that he “tried to make it clear to readers that my story was a wrap-up of events that occurred in Tacoma over the previous week.” Still, he acknowledges that he “should have been more precise about attribution.”
The same could be said of the Post’s correction, which leaves readers with the impression that the story went off-course on only two quotes. The reader therefore concludes that the rest of the story was original Post stuff.
If the Tacoma dust-up is any guide, smaller papers will push the majors to admit when they simply rewrite stories already in circulation. Also, outlets like the Post and the Times will have to be more careful with attributions. For instance, the Harden piece did credit the News Tribune for breaking a crucial story about a Tacoma official who had pushed for the confiscation of the chief’s gun before the murder-suicide. In the past, that mention might have placated the New Tribune’s Zeeck.
This time, though, Zeeck sought credit for the big things and the small things. “It’s a little aggravating that quotes are lifted without attribution….It’s nettlesome,” he says.
Beyond the Pale
Each week, the Post’s “My Town” column invites regular old D.C. residents to share their thoughts with the city. Tucked into the paper’s District Extra, “My Town” allows people to spout their feelings about pedestrian safety, their love of the city’s “always beautiful flowers,” and, now, their racially divisive falsehoods.
The May 29 iteration of “My Town,” by Patricia Howard-Chittams, starts harmlessly: “I am an almost-extinct creature in this city. I am a native Washingtonian, born of five generations of Washingtonians.”
She continues, “The history of the District of Columbia is my history.”
At that point, seasoned “My Town” readers settled in for the predictable: a self-indulgent local blowbagging about the good old days. They were only half right.
Sure, Howard-Chittams praised venerable Washington institutions like the White House Easter Egg Roll and the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home. But in the same breath that she romanticized the wonderful D.C. of yore, she took aim at those who are constructing the soulless D.C. of today.
“The flavor that made Washington a special city has drawn so many newcomers that what was special has been diluted,” she writes.
Nowhere in the piece does Howard-Chittams directly say who these newcomers are. Are they refugees from the Balkan wars? Are they Department of Homeland Security employees? Are they just, like, losers?
In an interview about the story, Howard-Chittams says the newcomers are the “grandchildren of those folks who moved out of the city in the ’50s and early ’60s.” And by that, she means white people. “In my view, the characterization of those coming back is predominantly white, dual income…”
On that basis, Howard-Chittams argues in “My Town” that the District “is once again becoming homogeneous.”
Trouble is, that’s factually untrue. The District is becoming more heterogeneous, as nearly every ethnic group in the city is growing. From 1990 to 2000, according to U.S. Census figures, D.C. saw increases in the proportions of people classified as white, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and “other race.”
“This city is not more diverse than it was when I was coming up,” counters Howard-Chittams in an interview. “We’ve got more Hispanics, and there are more Asians, but all in all there’s been a decrease in the number of African-Americans.”
What Howard-Chittams means by diversity, then, is not lots of different kinds of people. She means lots of one kind of people. Her kind.
“People talk in code, and maybe the reader has to interpret what this means through their own prism,” says Post City Editor Gabriel Escobar.
To make the interpretation easier, Howard-Chittams even borrows from the classic vocabulary of the Southern white establishment, describing newcomers to her town as “these carpetbaggers.”
But using the code is an act of cowardice. If you can’t stand the white folks, just say it. Don’t hide behind “newcomers” and other euphemisms for those uptight honkies who are moving in next door.
After all, there’s precedent for defending segregation in the District. Two years ago, Post writer Natalie Hopkinson noted with alarm an influx of whites to D.C. and proclaimed, “We not only have to invest in the inner city, but we can’t let white people beat us to it.” And in 1998, Washington Times columnist Adrienne Washington fretted that the city had gone from “Chocolate City to Vanilla Village…”
Says Escobar of the Howard-Chittams piece: “This is a perspective of a woman from a certain part of Washington.” Erik Wemple