Barring another catastrophe, Mayor Anthony A. Williams will coast to re-election in November. The incumbent’s no-news-here waltz to the general election raises an enticing prospect: that the Washington Post’s platoon of reporters will stop following him around town.
So far, here’s what the blanket campaign coverage has wrought:
In a Sept. 4 column titled “Williams’s Real Problem Is Detachment,” Courtland Milloy writes: “…Williams can’t [connect with black people], not because he doesn’t have the heart (I actually believe he has a big heart) but because he has no ear…”
In a Sept. 8 piece titled “Williams Campaigns to Connect,” Craig Timberg writes: “After nearly one full term, Williams (D) remains a man whose ear often seems tuned to the wrong pitch in his adopted city.”
In a Sept. 5 column titled “A Campaign That Could Use Some Empathy,” Marc Fisher writes: “In his first six conversations with voters, Williams doesn’t ask a single one of them for a name.”
In a Sept. 7 piece titled “Run, Don’t Walk: Tony Williams Is Still Coming to Grips With What a Candidate Must Do,” David Montgomery writes: “He looks as though he’s marching himself to an FBI interrogation. He looks as though he might flee this personal encounter with the voters….”
Got it yet?
It’s news when Williams fails to qualify for the Democratic ballot. It’s news when the Board of Elections and Ethics fines him a quarter-mil for irregularities on his nominating petitions. It’s news when the Rev. Willie Wilson jumps into the race. And it’s news when Williams trounces the field with his write-in campaign.
It is not news, though, when Williams does any of the following: fails to hug someone; refrains from kissing a baby; acts detached, disconnected, awkward, aloof, or plain strange; bolts from a room without bidding adieu; or otherwise leaves people feeling limp and unsatisfied in one-on-one situations.
The mayor has been underwhelming individuals in this town for more than four years. That’s his signature trait. In obsessing over his anti-political conduct, the Post is essentially telling us—again and again—that he’s still a political misfit.
“They overplayed that point,” says mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock. “To a large degree, everybody knew that anyway. They’d had enough of the charismatic, backslapping leadership.”
The overlap among the stories is classic Post. “We throw a lot of people at big stories because we want to do it the best that it can possibly be done,” says Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao. Three of the four similarly themed pieces came from Metro, the other from Style. “Some people think that that’s too much,” Armao says. “Other people sort of delight in that fact—they read different stories in different ways.”
OK, but how differently can the enterprising reader parse these excerpts from two Post pieces?
Sept. 5: “Repeatedly, campaign workers have to nudge him to respond to citizens calling out from cars and rowhouses.”
Sept. 8: “His advisers remind him to smile, make eye contact, say hello and especially to fight his lifelong penchant for tuning out…”
The Post’s campaign-trail contingent bumped into an axiom of journalistic craft: Boring people are hard to portray in an exciting, dynamic fashion. There are only so many ways a guy like Williams can disappoint his constituents, and the Post has documented them all. So the paper’s editors should probably disregard Bullock’s suggested remedy for the redundant coverage: “[Post reporters] are not around the mayor enough of the time to see him interact with people in a very natural and positive way.”
Post employees are frequent victims of intra-office e-mails selling Redskins tickets, Orioles tickets, and other trinkets that someone at work needs to unload. No one raises much of a fuss over the spamming.
The reaction is a bit different, however, when the spam is selling critical notions about Post management. Last week, union leaders at the paper circulated a mass e-mail signed by more than 40 Posties slamming the company’s approach to the never-ending negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement with Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.
In response, the Post issued a “reminder” admonishing the newspaper’s staff about “improper use” of company e-mail. The memo stated that the company’s Code of Business Conduct “prohibits employees from using The Post’s systems for mass mailings, unless the employee obtains the explicit prior approval of the department head as part of a legitimate business activity.” Mass mailings, says the reminder, “burden” the Post’s computer systems and “can be disruptive to employees at work.”
Post spokesperson Eric Grant says last week’s reminder is a routine matter. “The e-mail-policy reminder is the normal response in situations involving possible violations of the rule against sending nonbusiness mass e-mails,” says Grant. “This policy applies to all employees.”
Rick Weiss, co-chair of the paper’s union bargaining unit, has counted 17 mass e-mails over the past four months advertising everything from bake sales to the inevitable ticket offers. Not one of them, he says, triggered a response from company brass.
The two guild mass e-mails during that same period, however, earned admonishments from management, says Weiss. When pressed to identify a case in which the Post had issued a rebuke to someone for non-union-related mass e-mails, Grant said that the paper did not have time to compile a list.
In June, Washington Post Magazine writer and union executive board member Peter Perl was summoned to a meeting with management after sending a guild-related mass e-mail. According to Perl, Post Assistant Managing Editor for Career Development Tom Wilkinson hinted that the e-mail violation could affect his job security. “When I asked what was the meaning of this, he said, ‘We just want to keep you in the ball game,’” recalls Perl.
Wilkinson says, ” There was never any question about his job—he’s a hell of a journalist. It was an attempt to explain company policy to him.” Wilkinson, furthermore, reports that he has responded to non-union-related e-mail violations.
Redskins QB Shane Matthews said something or other about coach Steve Spurrier’s headset after the team’s Sept. 8 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Through the headset, Spurrier barks instructions directly to Matthews between plays.
Exactly what Matthews said, though, is a mystery. Three different versions appeared in separate places in the Post’s day-after coverage:
On Page A9: “‘Sometimes he forgets he’s holding the button down and, even though he’s not talking, I can hear everybody screaming on the sideline,’ Matthews said. ‘Sometimes I can’t hear myself think.’”
On Page D11: “‘Sometimes, he leaves his hand on the button,’” Matthews said. ‘And you hear everybody talking.’”
On Page D13: “‘Sometimes he leaves his hand on that button, and you hear everyone on the sidelines screaming and yelling,’” Matthews said. ‘Sometimes you can’t hear yourself talking.’”
There are three easy remedies for this situation:
1. Actually check the quotes before they go into the paper.
2. Paraphrase (“Matthews expressed concern about noise from the sideline coming through Spurrier’s headset”).
3. Don’t repeat the quote in three different stories in the same edition.
In a memo to Post employees, Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote that the episode underscores the need to respect “the sanctity of quotes.” Sports editor George Solomon says, “When reporters are using the same quotes, we have to make sure that they are accurate and consistent.”
News of Johnny Unitas’ death broke pretty late in the day on Sept. 11. The Associated Press, which makes a living off its quick turnaround, was among the first to release a comprehensive look-back on the career of the Baltimore Colts legend. Papers around the country used the Unitas obituary by AP writer David Ginsburg to shape their own takes.
Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy found Ginsburg’s account particularly helpful. To wit:
Ginsburg: “Johnny U,” with his trademark crewcut and black hightops…
Shaughnessy: He arrived out of central casting, a Pennsylvania kid with a flat-top haircut and black, hightop shoes.
Ginsburg: [Unitas] hitchhiked home from his first NFL training camp after the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him in 1955. He spent that season playing semipro football on rock- and glass-covered fields in Pittsburgh for $6 a game and working as a piledriver at a construction site.
Shaughnessy: [The Steelers] cut him before their season opener in 1955. He hitchhiked home and went to work as a piledriver. He spent that season playing semipro football for $6 per game on sandlot gridirons sprinkled with rocks and broken glass.
Ginsburg: Unitas was born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, and was only 4 when his father, who had a small coal delivery business, died of pneumonia. His mother went to night school to become a bookkeeper to support her four children.
Shaughnessy: Unitas was born in Pittsburgh and his dad, who delivered coal, died when he was 4. His mom went to night school and became a bookkeeper. She supported her four children.
Ginsburg: With 90 seconds left [in the 1958 championship game], Unitas completed four passes, taking the Colts to the 20-yard line to tie the game on a field goal. He then engineered an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown.
Shaughnessy: In the final 90 seconds of that game, Unitas completed four passes, taking the Colts to the 20-yard line to tie the game on a field goal. Then he drove them 80 yards for the winning touchdown in OT.
When asked about the parallels, Ginsburg replies, “I’m not surprised, I’m not insulted, I’m not pissed. That’s what happens with the wire guys….Sometimes we get credit, and sometimes we don’t.”
In this case, the Globe didn’t credit the AP. The snub would appear to violate the paper’s own rules: “We have had a policy in place for some time now and have informed all of our staff…that whenever they use material from any wire service or other publication, it should be noted at the end of the story,” says Globe sports editor Don Skwar.
Skwar insists that the similarities with AP copy “occur in isolated and inconsequential segments” of Shaughnessy’s piece and do not “involve any of the column’s stylistic flourishes.”
Says Ginsburg: “I wouldn’t expect someone as prominent as Shaughnessy to throw AP in his copy.” —Erik Wemple