D.C.’s local news reporters all have a few fantasies in common. We pray to catch the control board chair in a pay-by-the-hour motel room on New York Avenue. We dream of finding the Department of Public Works budget line item that reads “senior management Jamaican vacation.” And each and every one of us longs for the day when the inept municipal employees we’ve just exposed decide to picket our office.
Washington Post reporter Avram Goldstein, who covers the health-care industry for the paper’s metro section, nearly hit that jackpot late last month, courtesy of D.C. General Hospital. As Goldstein’s readers—and folks who follow this paper’s Loose Lips column—all know, management at the cash-strapped public hospital has spent the past month dodging allegations that CEO John Fairman racked up an unbudgeted deficit of up to $90 million, operated a job corps for friends of city politicians, and otherwise helped push the teetering institution to the brink of collapse.
As the stack of critical clips grew, defenders of the Public Benefit Corp. (PBC), the quasi-public agency that runs D.C. General, apparently hatched a plan to take their case straight to the people—or at least the people at 15th and L Streets NW. A flier titled “PBC Family Speak Out” drew attention to a scheduled May 26 rally outside the Post’s 1150 15th St. offices. It read: “Mission: To call for fair and balanced reporting from Post reporter Av Goldstein.” The flier also demanded “heavy scrutiny of this reporter’s writing practices from his superiors.”
“It was a group of managers who were looking at some way to counter the untrue and negative stories,” explains PBC Deputy General Counsel and Chief of Staff Dee Hunter. “I wasn’t involved in that.” Neither, at the last minute, was anyone else: When May 26 rolled around, the Post’s front stoop was devoid of pickets.
Which isn’t to say that the PBC brain trust has had a change of heart about Goldstein. “Av Goldstein’s a hospital assassin,” says Hunter, laying out a case that the reporter exaggerates D.C. General’s problems, writes exclusively negative stories about hospitals, and didn’t report on a June 9 press conference where allegations against Fairman were rebutted. (“They’re not making any news at these press conferences,” Goldstein responds. “I’m not going to do a story just because [Fairman] says nasty things about me.”)
Meantime, Harry Thomas Jr., the PBC’s vice president for public affairs, says the PBC will refuse Goldstein any one-on-one interviews. And about half of a June 13 Fairman press release—in which he furiously responded to Goldstein’s report that federal authorities were looking into his maintenance of a PBC bank account—is devoted to attacking Goldstein and the paper.
So why not attack in person, backed by a slogan-chanting crowd? Hunter suggests that hospital defenders came up with better ideas, such as buying ads in local papers. (One appeared in the June 9 Washington City Paper.) But one D.C. General veteran who still closely follows events there—and who says hospital union leaders helped foil the protest by planning an anti-Fairman rally at the hospital the same day—puts it more succinctly: “I think they suddenly realized it would have been a disaster if they did that.”
That’s an understatement. Today’s D.C. is run by budget-scrutinizers who appreciate fight-the-power rhetoric about as much as they admire ineffectual bureaucrats. In that environment, staffers from a famously underperforming city hospital who picketed a paper for investigating their finances would be committing political suicide—whether or not a reporter had gotten it wrong. The tactic would also flop before the general public: Once upon a time, a hefty chunk of D.C.’s voters saw the Post as a prime institution of white power—and therefore rallied around the paper’s victims. Now that the most energized sector of political D.C. actually gets its information from the daily, Post-baiting has lost its political allure.
It wasn’t always so. In 1986, after the paper’s Sunday magazine ran an issue many considered hostile to African-Americans, a group called the Washington Post Magazine Recall Committee launched the “Take It Back” campaign. For 13 Sundays, protesters rallied in front of the Post, dumping magazines at the door. “We stood off to the side in the lobby one day,” says Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood, who then covered D.C. for the Post. “We were watching people throw the magazine back. One of the people was Marion Barry’s press secretary. It was sort of a chilling feeling.”
And Post-baiting, even when it didn’t take the form of rallying on 15th Street, remained a potent tool for years. Barry—whom the paper endorsed in his early mayoral elections—deftly used the Post’s hostility as a rhetorical foil during his scandal-plagued third term and again during his 1994 comeback, when Post editorials supported Republican Carol Schwartz. “You know, you cannot believe everything you read in the paper, especially the morning paper, the Washington Post,” he told a WDCU-FM audience during the campaign.
But as Barry gave way to establishment-credentialed Anthony A. Williams and a revitalized D.C. Council rose under new leadership (whose members—and this probably isn’t incidental to our story—are mostly white), the Post and the District government moved closer together in the public mind. “It used to be Congress, the Board of Trade, and the Washington Post,” Sherwood says of the power triumvirate D.C. politicians loved to hate. “Now it’s just Congress.”
Councilmembers, of course, still complain about editorials, which they say give short shrift to their belt-tightening opposition to Williams’ more extravagant initiatives. But in an era when the D.C. Council casts itself to the right of the paper, their gripes play rather differently from the populist barrages of old. A councilmember like Jack Evans may get hot under his polo-shirt collar about a specific editorial, but it’s a pretty good bet he won’t brag to his Georgetown constituents about being the man who stands up to the Post.
Goldstein clams up when asked if he’s happy about being a target of a waning political tactic. “They’re entitled,” he says. “I mean, that’s fine.”
Yet even if the megaphones never show up beneath his office window, the very prospect of street protests over his work must mark quite a departure for Goldstein—whose stories on hospital mergers and health-care financing usually kick up as much public excitement as, well, stories on hospital mergers and health-care financing. “What can I say?” he says. “They’re upset that we reported this. But they didn’t show us anything to indicate we were wrong.”
And Goldstein may yet get his moment in the spotlight. Thomas, for one, says a rally at the Post remains on the table. “It’s imminent—it probably will be,” he says. “I guess I could compare it to the Greaseman protests, in response to his slanderous comments.”
I’m a Big Fat Cheapskate Or so the Washington Times would have you believe. On June 8, the paper’s Culture, Et Cetera page—a daily digest of conservative commentary on American life—featured the following headline: “Men still should pay for dates, poll shows.” The story that followed, however, was less than definitive. It turns out that the poll in question, conducted by Heritage Foundation staffer Sara Fitzgerald, involved a grand total of 17 of her colleagues at the right-wing think tank.
If You Don’t Get ‘Em While They’re Young, You Don’t Get ‘Em Every Monday, the Post’s KidsPost page offers a calendar of the week ahead, complete with each day’s celebrity birthdays. Ordinarily, the featured celebs include kid-familiar types like actors (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, June 13) and athletes (Venus Williams, June 17), plus the occasional history-class perennial (Harriet Beecher Stowe, June 14). The June 16 entry, however, celebrated someone rather less fascinating to your average third-grader: “Chairman of The Washington Post Co. Executive Committee Katherine Graham.” The Post matriarch, the paper’s young readers learned, is 83. —Michael Schaffer
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