There’s no lasting shame in getting beaten to a story. It happens to every news outlet, no matter how well-sourced its reporters or visionary its editors. In January, it happened to the Washington Post.
The story was that the United Way of the National Capital Area was in financial disarray: Last spring, board member Ross W. Dembling had raised concerns about bogus travel expenses, fat contracts for cronies, and lavish office renovations. When presented with the allegations, the charity’s bosses declared that their financial house was in order.
Several months later, however, board members were still concerned about the rumored improprieties.
And the New York Times, digging in the Post’s back yard, got deeper than the local paper did. Both outlets ran accounts of the lingering doubts on Jan. 23, but the Times clearly had the scoop: Reporter David Cay Johnston beat the Post to an interview with United Way President Gwendolyn Boyd, who confirmed that the charity hadn’t interviewed staff members or reviewed internal documents before discounting Dembling’s accusations. (Dembling is no longer a board member.)
The District’s United Way chapter is one of the country’s premier charitable organizations; last year, it raised $93.5 million in donations, which it passed along to some 1,100 service providers. No paper likes to fall behind, even briefly, in covering such an institution. “The Times has beaten us on some things, and that doesn’t make me or other reporters happy,” says Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao in reference to the United Way story.
But getting scooped wasn’t the Post’s real sin. In its follow-up coverage, the paper threw overboard its reportorial stock in trade: skepticism. And so it got scooped again.
Following the January stories, the United Way announced that it had hired the accounting firm McGladrey & Pullen to look into the chapter’s finances. On April 2, the United Way’s board of directors met in a closed-door session to discuss the firm’s findings. At the meeting, audit committee Chair Anthony Buzzelli reportedly declared that the audit had found no evidence of financial shenanigans.
And that was apparently good enough for Post reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon. “The report…detailed dozens of ways in which the organization has already tightened financial controls, according to those present,” her story in the April 3 edition of the Post said.
But she didn’t obtain any on-the-record quotes to certify that all was well at the United Way. Buzzelli, furthermore, hadn’t handed out any copies of the report. He merely summarized its findings and was quoted in a United Way press release as saying, “We opened United Way’s books to the most exacting scrutiny in order to put the issues behind us. Based on the results of the auditors’ work, we can assure the public that no monies have been diverted from their intended use in the community.” Salmon declined to discuss her reporting.
In most newsrooms, a major charity that doesn’t disclose audit results to its own board gets a full-court press: calls to all board members, requests for documents, and so on. The Post, though, took the United Way at its word and moved on.
Four weeks later, it paid the price. In an April 29 piece, the Times reported that the story wasn’t over: Board members were griping that they hadn’t yet received copies of the audit. Johnston’s article also suggested a motive for the charity’s stinginess in circulating the audit: The report had turned up “inadequate financial controls, unexamined executive expense accounts and below-market-value sales of cars owned by the charity to the families of current and former managers.”
On May 3, the Alexandria Gazette Packet—with a news staff of two reporters—printed its own account of the United Way turmoil.
On May 4, the Post finally awoke. Salmon and fellow staff writer Peter Whoriskey had obtained a copy of the elusive audit and infused their reporting with the sort of detail that had been missing from previous dispatches. And this Wednesday, May 8, the paper wrote a follow-up, chronicling a holiday shopping spree by a former United Way official with the charity’s corporate credit card.
Four months is a long time for the Post to take custody of a story on its own turf. It’s a big step down for a paper that in 1992 detailed the mismanagement of United Way of America President William Aramony, who later served a prison term for financial wrongdoing. “We could do a better job, and we’re trying to,” Armao says.
Johnston reports that his editors at the Times didn’t even push him to prosecute the United Way saga. “I did this story on my own time,” Johnston says. “I felt this needed to be covered, and nobody was paying any attention to it.”
On April 28, a tornado destroyed La Plata, Md. The devastation attracted volunteers from all over to sift through the rubble in the Southern Maryland town. On May 1, both the Post and the Washington Times chose to capture the volunteer spirit with virtually the same picture: Amish men, in traditional dress, slicing through fallen trees with big chain saws.
At coffeehouses across the region, a single cry was heard: What’s up with these Amish guys using chain saws?
Mind you: It wasn’t just urbanites who wondered about the apparent anomaly. George Forrest is deputy county administrator for St. Mary’s County, home to an estimated 135 Amish households, as well as the men pictured in both papers. “There is a prohibition from using vehicles or driving vehicles or operating machinery,” says Forrest. “I’m not sure how they classify chain saws.”
Sounds like a question best settled by the Amish themselves. “Yeah, we use power saws,” says Eli, a 20-year-old Amish man planting corn in a field just off Old Village Road in Mechanicsville, Md. Sitting atop a horse-drawn seeder, Eli notes that the Amish men in the photos were likely using their own power saws, rather than making some special allowance to use borrowed equipment for the cleanup. “We got some,” he says.
The Amish way of life, indeed, accommodates the roar of a two-stroke engine. Such mod cons, according to Eli and other area Amish men, are commonly employed as long as they stay off the fields and the roads—two realms in which the strictures against technology have more force. “We usually don’t take them onto the field—that’s the main thing we don’t do with engines,” says Eli.
The day after it published its Amish-chain-saw photo, the Post began investigating these very matters. Editors and reporters began questioning whether the May 1 presentation was confusing to readers who draw on the 1985 thriller Witness for their Amish wisdom.
“It didn’t hit home until we saw it with the package, headline, and picture, and then we were a little curious,” says Armao, adding that the paper may do a piece on the role of the Amish in the recovery effort. CP