National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman has recently come under fire for a number of untimely animal deaths at the zoo. In a rah-rah memo to her staff, Spelman blamed the media for the problem: “Over the past few weeks, I know the media scrutiny has been difficult to endure, in large part because it has not presented all of the facts as we know them….Everyone who works here loves animals, we are all dedicated to making the National Zoo the best in the world, and we want everyone to know the truth about our organization,” wrote Spelman on March 5.
The call for zoological glasnost comes from an unlikely source. Spelman is the same zoo director who last year concocted perhaps the most laughable evasion in the history of open government. When petitioned by the Washington Post for records on the death of Ryma the giraffe, Spelman responded that such a disclosure would violate the animal’s right to privacy.
“That decision has embarrassed us on an international level,” says a source close to the zoo.
The nonsense over giraffe records was not Spelman’s first ham-fisted interaction with the media, nor was it her last. In her defense, she’s not used to tense interactions with reporters: Romanced by pandas, prairie dogs, and other cute exhibits, the media for years have coddled the zoo and its administrators. Small wonder, then, that Spelman has responded to recent scrutiny with an extended fit of cage rage.
“They’re not willing to listen to criticism,” says Kim Eisler, a Washingtonian reporter who has covered the zoo for nearly a decade.
And the world-renowned zoo has had plenty of criticism to contend with lately. Sensing a trend after Ryma’s demise, reporters have found a string of apparent veterinary mistakes: Zebras, an orangutan, and a lion, among others, have expired under questionable circumstances on Spelman’s watch. A pair of red pandas died after poison pellets meant for rats were planted in their lair.
The animal obits, once the lachrymose province of the local media, have become a national story, with the CBS Evening News and the New York Times chipping in to highlight zoo mismanagement. Congress responded early this month, asking for an independent investigation of the zoo.
The zoo relies on positive PR to keep crowds storming its Connecticut Avenue gates. But its current press strategy seems practically suicidal.
The Washingtonian’s Eisler ran into the zoo’s stone wall when Spelman was taking her post. In August 2000, he wrote that Spelman, a 37-year-old with little administrative experience, faced a “long learning curve” at the zoo but concluded on an upbeat note: “[T]hose who know the Brown University graduate predict that she will emerge as a strong leader and recall that the zoo’s last great director, Theodore Reed, was a 36-year-old vet at the time of his 1958 appointment.”
After the story hit the streets, Eisler says he received a warning from the zoo: Spelman was “furious” and had asked her PR staff to keep Eisler from “doing any more stories or getting any more interviews,” writes Eisler in an e-mail.
Months later, the zoo apparently followed through on its blackball threat. Eisler in 2001 snared a freelance assignment from Reader’s Digest to write a piece on the zoo. The focus of the story was to be the zoo’s pandas and one of their handlers. Reader’s Digest was looking for a human-interest piece, not an edgy, investigative venture.
Yet when zoo officials found out that Eisler had been designated to write the piece, they decided not to cooperate, according to Eisler. A Reader’s Digest editor confirmed this account.
Bob Hoage, a zoo spokesperson, says that the panda expert “didn’t want to sit for a profile.” However, Reader’s Digest did manage to secure her participation as soon as it switched to a different writer, and the story ran in August 2001. When asked why the official was suddenly available for a different journalist, Hoage responds, “I don’t really knowit may have been a bad-timing situation. I’m not quite sure.”
The zoo’s hostility toward Eisler has backfired. Inspired in part by the stonewalling, Eisler has beaten the Post and other outlets on key pieces of the animal-death scandal. The only thing missing from his stories are comments from Spelman. “She’s never said anything to me except, ‘Don’t send me any more e-mails,’” says Eisler.
The Post has received a more cerebral brand of zoo obstructionism. The zoo’s privacy-rights case, of course, is a classic that will survive generations of reporters at 15th and L. These days, Post reporters seeking information on the zoo have to trudge through two PR offices: The Smithsonian’s general media-affairs office and the zoo public-information office. “Smithsonian’s main public-affairs is now involved in this,” says Gabriel Escobar, the paper’s city editor.
Hiding behind all that bureaucracy, somewhere, is Spelman. “She has not always been made available to us,” says Escobar. The Spelman embargo becomes particularly noisome, says Escobar, when the Post is struggling to clarify complicated stories. “They have provided contradictory information, and when we point out the contradictions, we don’t have access to her.” Escobar adds that the zoo just this week denied a Post request for “specific information on an animal.”
Hoage says that the main Smithsonian PR office deals with legal issues and other matters that the zoo people have no authority to address. Also, he insists that Post reporters have gotten all the medical records that they have requested.
And Hoage defends the director’s availability, pointing out that Spelman granted the Post a Jan. 27 interview. Spelman, however, was unavailable to comment for this story. “She has been very, very busy running the zoo and can’t do any more interviews right now,” says Hoage.
Perhaps zoo brass figure it’s best to keep Spelman out of public view. On a recent CBS Evening News piece, after all, Spelman conveyed the vibe of an administrator with a poor set of facts. According to zoo sources, Spelman prepped for the TV appearance with some coaching from Evelyn Lieberman, a Smithsonian public-affairs official who gained fame as a Clinton official who tried to keep Monica Lewinsky out of the White House.
Spelman apparently learned how to stay on messageat all costs. In the interview, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson attempted to corner the zoo director on a pivotal question: How many animal deaths aside from the poisoned red pandas’ were attributable to human blunders?
Here’s what CBS viewers saw:
Attkisson: Do you think the red pandas were the only cases in which there was some sort of fault on the part of people at the zoo?
Spelman: The actions that I’ve taken are specific to the red-panda incident.
Attkisson: You don’t want to answer the question?
Spelman: My feeling is we need a position of general curator.
CBS edited out this third round of cling-to-the-message bluster from the zoo director:
Attkisson: You don’t want to answer the question that I asked.
Spelman: Well, my feeling is that if I get the right general curator in here, we will also be making sure that we continue to guarantee all of our animal care.
Attkisson says that after the interview concluded, Spelman addressed her: “So, you’re not a fan of the zoo.”
At first glance, United Press International (UPI) wrote a perfectly defensible account of last weekend’s anti-war protests in downtown Washington. “Washington rang again with anti-war slogans Saturday as protesters from across the nation poured into the nation’s capital,” read the lead of the story by UPI reporter Anwar Iqbal.
For a bit of scene, UPI went to the streets: “‘No war, no blood for oil,’ they shouted, keeping time with the drums that were beaten all day.”
Drums beaten all day? Hold on a sec: UPI filed this report at 9:51 a.m., hours before the protest even began. What if all those drum-beaters had petered out before noon? “Can I argue they were beating all day up to that point?” asks UPI Washington Bureau Chief Dan Olmsted. “Obviously an inapt word, but as far as I can see, inconsequential.”
Olmsted insists he wasn’t trying to scoop other news outlets with UPI’s predictive approach to event coverage. “What happens is that the set-up story is filed and then, as developments warrant, new ledes are moved. Having a story already on the wire to build on generally makes life easier and new ledes faster to produce,” writes Olmsted over e-mail.
Iqbal proffers the standard wire-writer’s lament: “I would not have been surprised if I had made this mistake. I have already written six stories since this morning and already working on the 7th. I am surprised I have not yet gone insane,” wrote Iqbal in an e-mail.
After a tough loss to the New York Knicks on March 9, Michael Jordan blasted his Washington Wizards teammates. “It’s very disappointing when a 40-year-old man has more desire than 25-, 26-, 23-year-old people, diving for loose balls, busting his chin, doing everything he can to get this team in the playoffs and it’s not reciprocated from the other players,” said a peeved Jordan in postgame remarks at Madison Square Garden.
The sports desk of the Post sent up an amen chorus, hailing Jordan’s tantrum as a model of leadership. “It is indeed regrettable when a 40-year-old exhibits more desire than an bunch of 20-somethings,” columnist Michael Wilbon wrote, arguing that Jordan should have said the same things earlier in the season. “[A] great deal of Jordan’s value is in his willingness to pointedly challenge his teammates, put the fear of God into them, make them afraid to lose the next game…,” he added, neatly conflating No. 23 with the supreme being.
Sports columnist Thomas Boswell struck a similar tone, writing that M.J.’s wrath had kick-started a sluggish squad. “With enough griping, finger-pointing and air-clearing debates, [the Wizards] might overcome a season of slipshod losses and sneak into the playoffs,” wrote Boswell after the team defeated Orlando two days after the Jordan eruption.
So where do Post readers have to go to get a critical opinion on Jordan’s blowup?
KidsPost! In his weekly KidsPost column last week, writer Fred Bowen gently explained to the area’s young’uns why they shouldn’t be like Mike. “How would you like it if, after a tough, last-second loss in a soccer match or a basketball game, the best player on the team started pointing fingers and telling everyone that you and your teammates were the reasons that the team lost the game?” asked Bowen.
“Nobody’s perfect, not even Michael Jordan,” Bowen continued. “So Michael Jordan should be ready to listen to the other Wizards tell him that maybe he is playing too many minutes or taking too many shots.”
Bowen highlighted the comments of Wizards guard Larry Hughes, who said it took time to “learn how to play effectively with a player who dominates the ball.”
“Ouch,” wrote Bowen. “On most playgrounds, ‘dominating the ball’ is called being a ball hog.” Jordan had one assist in his outing against the Knicks.
Bowen says his position enables him to keep sports heroes in perspective. “I’m not a sports reporter. I’m somebody who writes about sports for kids, so I am always detached,” he says.
Not the Retiring Types
Media-savvy radio listeners are spotting some cultural innuendo in an ad for Leisure World that’s running these days on local radio. The setting for the ad is a party at which hostess “Sally” and host “Ben” tell a guest how they came upon their Leisure World digs.
Says “Sally”: “Before discovering Leisure World…we saw cheap stick-built condos, houses with stairs to climb, clubhouses that looked like cafeterias.”
“Ben” chimes in: “We found it all: Huge homes, gorgeous grounds with no maintenance, fabulous location close to everything.”
Sound like Georgetown? Depicting D.C.’s most famous party-throwing couple doing their thing in a suburban retirement community looks like pure marketing genius. But it’s not: Esther Turner, an account exec with Leisure World ad agency Spokany & Co., says the Ben and Sally in the ad are modeled after a real-life couple from New York. “They’re not named after Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn,” says Turner.
And that’s a good thing, says the 81-year-old Bradlee, Quinn’s husband: “I’m not quite ready.” Erik Wemple