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In early October, Frank Rich wrote a hit piece on Washington for the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Washington Post staffer Gene Weingarten later responded with an ad hominem piece blasting Rich.
In mid-October, Times brass browbeat the Post into dissolving their joint operation of the International Herald Tribune.
And in late October, the Times and the Post took their bad blood to the front page on the biggest story since Sept. 11: the sniper case.
At issue was an Oct. 30 Times piece that punctured the Post’s regional news hegemony. The story, by Times Metro reporter Jayson Blair, deserved its above-the-fold billing: U.S. Attorney for Maryland Thomas DiBiagio, Blair wrote, had ruined an interrogation session of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad on the day of his arrest. Officials from local and federal agencies had been making progress in questioning Muhammad, according to Blair, when they were interrupted by DiBiagio’s orders that the suspect be delivered to Baltimore to face weapons charges.
“[I]t looked like Muhammad was ready to share everything, and these guys were going to get a confession,” an unnamed source told the Times. (Suspect John Lee Malvo apparently was not talking.)
Blair described more than a mere cross-up between investigators: DiBiagio, he wrote, claimed he was acting on orders from the White House and the Justice Department in hauling the suspects off to Baltimore. The Times attributed that scoop to four anonymous law-enforcement officials.
The bombshell set off some hasty huddling in the Post newsroom. “We have to be careful not to get carried away by rumor or speculation or by what other newspapers have reported,” says Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao. In keeping with that principle, the Post on the following day reported that the Times had it all wrong.
In the Post’s version of events, Muhammad was a ranting, uncooperative suspect. “I don’t think he ever said anything useful,” said an unnamed Montgomery County law-enforcement official in the Post story.
In addition to characterizing Muhammad’s interrogation as fruitless, the Post spilled an inkwell debunking the Times’ reporting. In three separate places, the story cited Blair’s account for the purpose of challenging it.
Post staffers, however, claim that they didn’t drag the Times into their follow-up—federal officials did it for them. Both DiBiagio and FBI agent Gary Bald issued press releases denying key aspects of the Times story. The Post quoted from DiBiagio’s statement: “There was no indication throughout the day that either of the individuals were yielding any useful information.” Bald, as quoted in the Post, said, “All operational decisions were totally driven by the circumstances of the interviews and not any external pressures.”
Then Post writers Susan Schmidt and Katherine Shaver threw another sharp elbow. “Officials on both sides—federal and local—agreed that the Times was wrong in saying that DiBiagio told local officials in a phone call that the White House and Justice Department had ordered that Muhammad be taken to Baltimore.”
Says Schmidt of the differences between the two accounts: “We thought our version was right.”
In the Post story, Blair saw evidence of an agenda aside from the truth. “The Post got beat in their own back yard, and I can understand why they would have sore feelings,” he says. Armao laughed at that notion.
The Post, though, may well have been feeling more sensitive over recent weeks, as news outlets including WUSA-TV, the Baltimore Sun, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch picked the local paper’s pocket on various aspects of the sniper story. “When it became a national story, everyone was pitting tens and tens of reporters against us,” says Post Managing Editor Steve Coll.
As so often happens in sensitive legal cases, the competing accounts of the Times and the Post boil down to a face-off between teams of anonymous sources. The Times’ unnamed team says the federal intrusion cut off a productive questioning session; the Post’s unnamed team says it was all a waste of time. Sure, the Post cites on-the-record statements by DiBiagio and Bald that the interrogation was going nowhere. But both men, as federal officials, had an obvious stake in that position. And neither DiBiagio nor Bald was present at the interrogation, according to Justice Department spokesperson Mark Corallo.
The undisputed facts, however, don’t reflect well on the Post: (1) Prosecutors tussled over the suspects shortly after their arrest; (2) Muhammad was at least speaking with prosecutors, if not pouring out his heart; and (3) the Post found out about it all by reading the Times.
Warning to local playwrights: If you want Washington’s paper of record to review your play, don’t get cute with the title.
Post Style editor Eugene Robinson says the paper’s decision to pass up a review of the political satire 7 Blowjobs didn’t even reach his desk. “The theater editor didn’t even bring it to me. It’s stupid to review a play where you can’t print the title,” says Robinson.
The reason that the Post can’t review 7 Blowjobs, which debuted last week at Art-O-Matic, is the same reason it once killed a story on rock-star-penis sculptor Cynthia Plaster Caster and passes on countless other stories involving genitalia: It’s a family newspaper.
But the Post had a less straightforward response when the producers of 7 Blowjobs asked for an ad in the paper’s Guide to the Lively Arts. According to Post spokesperson Eric Grant, the request put company brass in a pickle. “We had to balance our interest in publishing a family newspaper with our interest in avoiding censorship of legitimate artistic expression,” says Grant.
So what to do? Change the title to, say, 1 Blowjob?
Even better: The Post agreed to print the ad in its guide, on the condition that the type size of the offending language be significantly reduced. According to Dan Brick, producing artistic director of Purchased Experiences Theatre Company, discussions on reducing the font size of a small ad deep in the paper’s Weekend section went all the way to the desk of Post Publisher Bo Jones. “The decision to publish [the ad] involved a number of different people. I’m sure the publisher was brought into the loop,” says Grant.
Instead of highlighting the title of 7 Blowjobs, its usual practice, the Post offered to blow up other parts of the ad, such as the production company or the ticket price.
“What’s really ironic about it is that the play is about a hysterical, prudish overreaction to material that can’t harm you,” says 7 Blowjobs director Kathleen Akerley.
Says Robinson: “Maybe it’s the job of playwrights and other artists to be ahead of the culture, but that title was a little ahead of us in this case.”
Starting next year, Post readers will be receiving an extra section with their Sunday papers. The new broadsheet section doesn’t yet have a name. And, to judge from statements by various Posties, the concept may still be on the fuzzy side, too.
“It’s premature to describe it in detail,” says Managing Editor Coll.
He can say that again. A Post announcement seeking to fill jobs for the new section calls it a “reader-friendly section that offers lots of listings, advice and tips on shopping, hobbies, personal growth, weekend outings, pets, how-to-books, cooking with friends and other close-to-home pursuits.”
Features editor Mary Hadar, meanwhile, says the new section is “going to have a sort of help-you-plan-your-weekend kind of feel.”
Plan your weekend? On a Sunday morning?
If you’ve got your weekend already planned out—perhaps with the help of the existing Weekend section, which comes on Friday—then you might enjoy some of the service journalism that it will provide. “We’ll tell you how to make a compost heap,” says Hadar.
Compost heap? But isn’t that the province of the Home section?
Perhaps, but Hadar says the current Sunday paper is devoid of the excellent how-to stories that the paper does all week long. So the new section will borrow from all the paper’s lifestyle sections—Weekend, Home, Food, and Travel.
And even if your weekend is booked and your coffee grounds are mixing well with your discarded paper towels out back, the new section will have another surprise: Carolyn Hax’s Sunday “Tell Me About It” advice column, which will be moving from its current perch in Style, according to the Post job announcement. (Coll said that decision was not final.) Hax did not return two calls for comment.
Coll is excited about what the new section will bring to readers. “It intends to adapt and advance. It does some stuff that nobody else does. You’ll have to wait and see. It’s something that’s in motion,” he says.
Unionized Post employees will vote on Thursday on whether to accept a tentative collective bargaining agreement reached with Post management last week. Leaders of Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild pronounced themselves satisfied with most aspects of the agreement, with one exception: wages.
According to the union, the Post stuck to its miserly insistence on dishing out four raises, averaging $10.50 per week, over the three-year life of the contract. According to Rick Weiss, co-chair of the Post’s guild unit, the offer translates into 1 percent raises for the highest-paid employees and slightly higher boosts for others.
A guild leaflet minces no words on the matter: “Responsibility for the deadlock on wages falls squarely on our publisher, Bo Jones, and his boss, Don Graham. Bo clearly wanted to make a statement in his first round of bargaining as publisher at The Post and, building on a tradition that Don has fostered over the years, he took an extremely hard line on wages. Well, he made his point. None of us likes it. It would have cost the company relatively little to buy a whole lot of goodwill among its workers, but in the end Bo and Don decided that even that modest cost wasn’t worth it to them.”
Post management declined to comment on the agreement.
Weiss is recommending that the rank and file ratify the agreement, which meets union demands on the company pension plan, protects them from excessive surveillance in the newsroom, and largely respects union membership safeguards. Even so, Weiss concedes that the dollar figures make newsroom employees feel “undervalued and underappreciated.” —Erik Wemple