Given how the saga began, it should surprise no one—least of all the defendants—that former Washington Post pop-music critic Richard Harrington filed suit in February alleging that he had been demoted to a part-time job on the weekend section as a result of his age.
The suit asks for “injunctive relief and monetary damages for injuries sustained as a result of The Washington Post’s discrimination against him based on age…”
It didn’t have to end up like this. Harrington, 53, is constitutionally crabby, and his writing isn’t always pitch-perfect, but he piled up bylines like so much cordwood and credibly covered the ridiculous array of musical genres the Post expects a single person to handle. He may not have been Employee of the Month, but he’s not the kind of guy who ends up in the compost heap. When he was shifted out, no one mentioned his age, but it was in there somewhere. (Harrington declined comment.)
Post editors 86’ed Harrington to make way for David Segal, 36, a writer from the business section with little experience covering music. Segal has turned out to be an excellent hire—he manages to stay within the middlebrow bandwidth of a daily paper while demonstrating a capacity for laughs and manifest enthusiasm for his new beat. But it would have been a simple and gracious matter to use Harrington and Segal. You know, employ a couple of music critics just like every other major paper in the country. Lord knows, there’s plenty of pop gruel to go around.
Instead, Post editors made it clear they didn’t want anything to do with Harrington because they thought he was washed up—and then let him languish for months while they searched for his successor. Harrington made the most of the situation, cranking out tons of good and occasionally excellent work, making his editors look all the sillier when they eventually banished him to Weekend.
But perhaps things aren’t that simple. They won’t say so for the record, but editors at the Post thought that by granting Harrington full benefits for just 19 hours a week, they were inoculating themselves against a suit. Harrington reportedly was never asked to sign anything relinquishing his right to recourse, and he apparently decided he had a cause of action. His attorney thinks it’s a good one.
“This is a straightforward age case. They took somebody, Richard Harrington, who has been doing a job adequately for 20 years and replaced him with somebody 20 years younger,” says Michael Kane of the Washington law firm of Cashdan, Golden & Kane.
Does counsel think that a jury will ever see this case?
“Well, it’s very early in the process, and we haven’t had any talks, but if there is a reasonable settlement offer, I’m sure Richard will give it consideration….It’s unfortunate that it came to this, but he obviously has to do what he has to do to protect his rights,” says Kane.
Post Vice President and Counsel Mary Ann Werner suggested that the newspaper had proceeded carefully—and lawfully—in its dealings with Harrington.
“I think it is fair to say that we were surprised by his decision. We understand that Richard was disappointed in our decision to change music critics, but it was not a decision that we made lightly or quickly. We discussed our reasoning with him at the time, and it had nothing to do with his age,” says Werner.
Golden Year Imagine the pitch from the reporter:
“Hey, Mr. Editor, I have this important, complicated story about some mentally retarded adults who may have died under the care of the District government. I can’t find their bodies, there’s very little information, the agencies involved will do anything—including shredding—to slow me down, and even the families of some of these people barely seem to care that they died for mysterious reasons.”
Mr. Editor: “I smell Pulitzer, baby!”
It’s a quaint fantasy, but it came true earlier this week when Katharine Boo of the Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize board’s gold medal for public service. It’s the second year in a row the paper has been so honored (it won for its gun series last year)—a feat that has never been pulled off in the history of the awards. And the more improbable part of the story is the triumph of Boo’s piece, a lovely miniature about a city so broken that it let 48 vulnerable adults die unaccountably.
Boo’s reporting trumped an amazing Chicago Tribune series on death-penalty errors that changed the national debate over capital punishment and a highly regarded Philadelphia Inquirer story about deliberate police misclassification of sexual-assault complaints.
“It was a very strong year for investigative reporting, and…we won the gold medal last year, so I was worried that her extraordinary work wouldn’t be recognized. I was thrilled that people read the work and saw it for what it was,” says Steve Coll, Post managing editor.
Full disclosure moment: I’m in the tank for Boo. She’s a friend, a City Paper alumna, and she represents all that is good and serious about a craft that’s short on both. Boo took a story that other reporters saw as a complete dog, reported it into significance, and wrote it until it became something spectacular.
It was a huge year for the Post in general. After a patronizing institutional profile in the New Yorker last month that chided the paper for not aiming higher than long, boring stories about the city, Boo’s Pulitzer reinforces the notion that great metro reporting is still a critical component of serious journalism.
The Post won in two other categories: After years of service as a Pulitzer bridesmaid, Style writer Henry Allen finally dragged the bloody carcass across the line, winning the criticism category for his intricate, layered commentary on photography. And Post photographers Carol Guzy, Michael Williamson, and Lucian Perkins won for feature photography—they now have seven Pulitzers between them—in recognition that the images they sent back from Kosovo told a story that everybody needed to see. The Post was a finalist in eight of 14 categories: a finish that no other paper in the country came close to duplicating.
And though the celebrants at the Post won’t mention it in polite company, the fact that the New York Times got skunked—the first time in 14 years—probably sweetened the victory a bit. During most of the ’90s, the Post was in a hellacious Pulitzer drought while the Times was adding wings to accommodate all the hardware it was winning.
Boo thinks that the change in fortunes has something to do with the people who are leading the Post: “We had six finalists last year and eight finalists this year. I attribute it to Steve Coll—and Len Downie, for letting him do what he does best. Coll makes you work harder and think harder than any other editor I’ve worked for. When my project was almost done, his wife’s father died right in the middle of it, and he was working at home. We all came over, and he was sitting there completely absorbed, with his tape and scissors, cutting the story up and gluing it back together. He made it better.”
Stapled The Washington Business Journal recently reported that a number of local business publications were apparently willing to provide a little more than display space to advertisers. According to a story by Matthew Swibel, Regardie’s Power, Washington Business Forward, and the Potomac Tech Journal all allegedly agreed to “facilitate” relationships between advertisers and the publications’ respective editorial staffs that would lead to coverage. According to the Business Journal, all of the titles backed off the arrangement when it became public.
And if all that sounds a little greasy, keep in mind that it was a version of the ad-edit convergence strategy first used by the now-defunct TechCapital, a tab aimed at techies that was owned by the always-beyond-reproach Washington Post Co. TechCapital’s version of editorial service included breathy, embarrassing endorsement letters on behalf of its advertisers. It didn’t work for them, either.
At Least It Lives in the Headlines:
‘Living Downtown’ Envisioned for D.C.
Washington Post, April 11, 2000
District Revisits Plan for a ‘Living Downtown’
Washington Post, May 17, 1993
D.C. Panel Links Housing, Offices; Preliminary Vote Is Aimed at Requiring Developers to Create a ‘Living Downtown’
Washington Post, Sept. 18, 1990
Archway Rises as Symbol of ‘a Living Downtown’
Washington Post, Nov. 21, 1986—David Carr
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