On Oct. 15, the Washington Post was scooped by all its competitors, both local and national. Every other news outlet, it seemed, had beaten the Post on a juicy detail about the previous night’s sniper attack at the Seven Corners Home Depot.
The New York Times wrote, “Initial reports of a van fleeing the scene said there may have been an olive-skinned man at the wheel.”
The Washington Times wrote, “[Police] would not comment on reports going out over police radios that they were looking for an olive-skinned man armed with a semiautomatic weapon.”
A New York Post headline on Oct. 16 blared: “THE PSYCHO SNIPER—3 CLUES: *VAN PLATES ID’D; *BURNED-OUT LEFT TAILLIGHT; *KILLER SAID TO BE ‘OLIVE SKINNED.’”
Other outlets went a step further, saying the sniper was described as a man of Hispanic or Middle Eastern origin.
The Post didn’t bite on the olive. Staff writers Martin Weil and Petula Dvorak wrote, “Police broadcast a lookout for a light-colored van seen leaving the area. Witnesses at the scene of a sniper shooting last week in Virginia described a similar vehicle.”
The Post steered clear of skin color not because it had missed the olive-skinned description. According to the paper’s editors, its reporters heard that same claim on the scene, over police radios, and on all the TV stations that were parroting the chatter surrounding the Home Depot parking lot.
“The decision had to do with whether or not we thought it was accurate,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie. “We literally had license plate numbers also relayed over police radios as lookouts. A lookout on a police radio is not sufficient for us.”
For all those critics whining about the media’s handling of the sniper story, there you have it: an honest-to-goodness instance of restraint. True, most critics have focused on the overall swarming nature of the coverage, rather than the details, arguing that media attention merely encourages the sniper. “There’s no doubt in my mind that as we watch the reports about the serial sniper, he’s watching, too. The attention makes him feel powerful: He is so important that important people are talking about him,” wrote psychologist Harvey Goldstein in an Oct. 13 Post Outlook piece.
But no one can really know how the reporting affects the sniper, and news organizations can hardly pretend that an open-ended murder spree isn’t news.
As the public tries to make sense of the events, the restraint that matters is the sort that was exercised by the Post—namely, not publishing shaky information. Vindicating the Post’s forbearance, authorities last Friday arrested the man who’d described an olive-skinned shooter and charged him with making a false statement. A prosecutor said that the man was inside the Home Depot at the time of the shooting and “was not in a position to see any of the things he said he saw.”
Refraining from publishing a common and dangerous untruth in a rush to deadline is every bit as laudable as beating your rivals to a clean scoop. A bogus description that’s possibly tinged with racism is a great thing to keep out of the public realm. “We’re not going to put something in the paper that’s iffy,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao.
Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau covers some fascinating turf: His beat is the world to come. On Oct. 13, he penned a feature titled “Forever Young” in the Style section, explaining how progress will extend our life spans over the next century or so. In April, he plumbed the potential of biotechnology, a field whose advances, he speculates, might just revive Christopher Reeve as Superman. In a lighthearted New Year’s piece last year, he gave readers some pointers on planning for the future. “Never being hugely wrong about the future is better than occasionally being exactly right,” wrote Garreau.
Garreau’s crystal-ball journalism relies on a loyal band of expert sources in various technological specialties. These experts keep the reporter apprised of the latest trends, and their quotes crop up in his work again and again. But the relationship goes beyond what readers see on the page: It might be more accurate to call the sources Garreau’s business partners.
Garreau, author of the celebrated book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, is a member of the Global Business Network (GBN), a think-tank-cum-consulting-firm based in Emeryville, Calif. According to its Web site, GBN “engages in a collaborative exploration of the future, discovering the frontiers of knowledge and creating innovative tools for strategic action.”
And Garreau has the “collaborative” part down pat. Because GBN’s work is at the heart of his techno-future beat, he often cites the group in his articles. Three times over the past year, Garreau has plugged GBN, which he identified in one piece as a “scenario planning firm that helps organizations think about the very long-term future.”
That sounds high-minded enough. But GBN isn’t helping those organizations for free. The entity that claims Garreau as a member is a 100 percent-owned unit of the Monitor Group, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting outfit that has 30 locations worldwide. GBN makes its money by helping clients prepare “scenarios” that may affect their future earnings. The 45-employee firm serves name-brand clients such as Procter & Gamble, Ford, DuPont, Coca-Cola, Electricité de France, and the Republic of Singapore.
Garreau says that he discloses his involvement in GBN whenever it is “germane.” “If there’s any apparent conflict of interest, I’m very Caesar’s wife about making it very clear,” he says.
To judge from the record, Caesar’s wife might have some confessions to make. In none of the three recent stories did Garreau identify himself as a member of the organization. The New Year’s piece came closest, stating that GBN often invites Garreau to participate in skull sessions about the future.
Nor does Garreau reveal the GBN membership bond that he shares with numerous other sources quoted in his stories. GBN’s invitation-only membership is a hall of fame of accomplished techno and visionary nerds, including The End of History author Francis Fukuyama and musician Brian Eno. Many of these folks end up in Garreau’s stories. Over the past two years, for instance, Garreau has quoted GBN co-founder Stewart Brand at least four times—including the Oct. 13 piece on aging—and GBN member and technology guru Esther Dyson at least three times. More than 10 other GBN members also got play, without mention of their affiliation.
“I don’t personally have a concern that Joel has some sort of conflict,” says Style editor Eugene Robinson. As stated in a memo from Downie, staff writers “cannot belong to, be on the boards of, contribute to or be paid by governmental, political or advocacy organizations of any kind.” Downie did not say whether those rules apply to GBN.
Robinson, however, draws a distinction between GBN and advocacy groups. “We could err on the side of overdisclosure, I suppose. But it’s not like…the extreme example of a political reporter being active in some Democratic Party organization or being clearly and publicly associated with a set of policy positions.”
No, it’s the extreme example of a journalist boosting the profile of a competitive company. Just ask GBN itself. “Joel…is one of our extremely active network members,” says GBN spokesperson Nancy Murphy, adding that Garreau recently participated in a couple of small projects for the benefit of its clients. Companies pay $40,000 each year for access to the thinking of Garreau and other elite GBN thinkers.
And Murphy notes that having people like Garreau on the 100-member-plus board helps the company win contracts. “We have a network of individuals that we bring to bear and who are extremely generous with their ideas and enjoy sharing and learning,” says Murphy, who notes that the brain trust helps set GBN “apart from a traditional consulting company.”
Garreau, who is now on book leave from the Post, says he does not profit from GBN consulting projects. However, the Postie concedes that the company does help line up paid speaking engagements for him from time to time. “It’s on a case-by-case basis,” says Garreau of GBN’s assistance with speaking dates. Murphy says that GBN does not function as a speaker’s bureau but does refer queries to its members.
“Everything I do is cleared with [Post] management before I do it,” says Garreau of his relationship with GBN. And the reporter downplays the financial impact of his association with the firm, which has annual revenues of $7.5 million. “It’s a fellowship as much as it is a business,” he says.
Garreau himself raises the most compelling journalistic problem with belonging to the club: It means he shares an institutional tie to most of the people he’s supposed to be covering. “If you go through the list of GBN members, you’ll discover that just about anybody who’s anybody in technology has some connection with this group,” he says.
Post management won’t even let its embattled union members eat cake.
To celebrate the kickoff of its five-day byline strike in early October, Post representatives of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild invited colleagues to enjoy a piece of cake in celebration of “an important Washington Post milestone.”
As it turns out, that milestone was the 13th month that Post reporters had gone without a raise, according to Rick Weiss, co-chair of the paper’s guild bargaining unit. The guild’s contract with the Post expired in May, and subsequent talks have stalled.
Trish Dunn, the Post’s vice president for labor, didn’t find the union’s stunt cute. In an Oct. 7 letter, Dunn scolded the union for the gathering. “Newsroom management had been assured by the Guild’s representatives that no union meeting would be held—rather, the gathering would only be for co-workers to have some cake. What happened, instead, was a union meeting.”
Weiss counters that it’s hard to have a worthwhile union meeting when management is in attendance. Post Assistant Managing Editor for Career Development Tom Wilkinson, says Weiss, stopped by the event. “He might have even taken a piece of cake,” Weiss says.
Wilkinson confirms his presence at the event but reports that he had his cake at an earlier event. “I figured that was enough,” he says.
Most news organizations pride themselves on keeping the advertising division separate from the news division. Sometimes, however, a little coordination between the two goes a long way.
Try this example: On its Web site last week, WUSA-TV (Channel 9) posted a story about the sniper’s Home Depot killing. Titled “Latest Attack Yields New Clues,” the story covered the aftermath of the sniper’s first incursion into Fairfax County.
And the banner ad that accompanied the story? “Fairfax: The Place to Be!”
Officials at Channel 9 and Fairfax’s economic-development office didn’t feel like attaching their names to the foul-up. “When there’s a plane crash, one of the first things you do is tell advertising, and they pull the airline commercials. In this instance, they didn’t do it fast enough,” says a Channel 9 source. The station eventually replaced the ad. —Erik Wemple