Average folks can tick off media shortcomings as readily as the colors of the rainbow: We’re lazy. We don’t get it right. We misquote. We are riven with agendas.
All true. Every day you can find reporters posturing as avatars of truth while coming up short in wee little categories like fact-checking.
But there’s one alleged impiety that I don’t generally buy—that we make it up. I mean, why bother? The churn of events is plenty fertile without having to resort to fiction. Which is why I can’t understand a Washington Times commentary piece about the AppleTree Institute for Educational Innovation that led with an event that had not taken place. I mean, we’ve all written a lede ahead of time and then waited for the facts to comport with our narrative, but this represents a bold innovation in journalistic paradigms.
Last June 14, the Times’ Deborah Simmons wrote a tough-minded editorial in which she suggested that AppleTree, which consults for the Washington Math Science Technology Charter School, had effectively kidnapped the school. In 600 words, Simmons painted a picture of the nonprofit as failing to show proper consideration for the school community in the wake of a leadership battle. However, it was the opener of Simmons’ hit piece that really got the attention of AppleTree Managing Director Jack McCarthy.
“Like other high schools around the nation, the Washington Math Science Technology Charter School recently held its graduation ceremonies,” Simmons wrote. “Most of its graduates will attend college this fall despite mounting tension between parents and the Apple Tree [sic] Institute, a partner of the school. While parents and teachers were full of pride at the commencement, the joy on their faces masked their serious concerns at the school.”
The scene was deft, giving the reader a telling portrait of the conflict’s impact. But, as McCarthy pointed out in a letter to the paper, the graduation didn’t take place until days after the opinion piece ran. On the basis of that mortal sin and what it says is a host of others, AppleTree has since sued the paper for $1 million in actual damages and $5 million in punitive damages in D.C. Superior Court. Carol Hoshall of the Patton Boggs law firm—which is representing AppleTree pro bono—says the case is currently in discovery. (Neither Times lawyer Allen Farber, Simmons, nor editorial page editor Helle Bering returned calls.)
In addition to manufacturing a commencement, Simmons suggested that AppleTree had stuck students in an environmentally degraded building, left parents and school leadership out of key decisions, and failed to make adequate financial disclosure. Some, none, or all of that may be true, but given the framing, you have to wonder.
“We were in a hearing with Congressman [James] Moran [D-Va.] about obtaining permanent facilities for charter schools, and he pulled out the article and started reading all of this trash. We were forced to respond to lies and fictional events. Perception is everything in Washington, and if people read something in the paper, they believe it to be true,” McCarthy says in a phone interview.
A reporter at the Times watched in horror as the imbroglio unfolded. “I couldn’t believe that we pull this kind of crap. It’s pretty hard for the rest of us to do our jobs…when other people here are not doing the very basic things you need to do to make a newspaper.”
McCarthy says he called Simmons about the phantom graduation—among other things—and he says she claimed to have her facts right, even if she got the day wrong. “That’s an incredible level of arrogance,” says McCarthy.
Digital Riot The Washington Post was an early adopter of the Web. After some fits and starts, the large regional media company erected a massive—and busy—electronic extension of itself, the maniacally promoted WashingtonPost.com (“We have more full-page spreads than Playboy”). And the hype is not exclusively restricted to those massive ads that are occupying every flat surface in the market.
After all, somebody has to gin up all of the content to give the people something to click on. After a Post story last month mentioned that Washington was the most wired region in the country, Managing Editor Steve Coll sent around an incitement to reporters, recruiting them as soldiers in the war to win the hearts and mouses of local Webniks.
“PM Extra” is effectively the paper’s afternoon edition, an aggressive effort to shove fresh content onto people’s desktops during peak Web-use hours. On Oct. 20, Coll wrote in an internal memo that PM Extra could soon become a hotbed of “multimedia, interactive and three-dimensional journalism.” Coll’s vision quest suggests that technology may just bring order out of chaos: “Reporters will be wandering into the streets not only with notebooks in their pockets, but occasionally, with little video cameras in their hats. A great way to cover a riot, for instance.”
The future, it seems, could include a fleet of electronic chapeaued Max Headrooms who will mix it up with angst-ridden hoi polloi and beam digitized mayhem back to the screens of people killing time between check-ins on the progress of their stock portfolios. (Coll is in Sierra Leone reporting a story for the Washington Post Magazine….Maybe he tucked a digital cam in the old pith helmet?)
Adult Supervision The Washingtonian recently listed the weekly Chronicle of Higher Education as a “great place to work,” in part because it pays tall dollars in a business known for pathetic money. And the five weeks of vacation don’t hurt. The Chronicle has gorgeous offices located in the West End and is ferociously followed by 400,000 academics around the country.
The Washingtonian blurb mentioned the fresh flowers that adorn the workplace and then went on to suggest that the publication “lets a writer make final adjustments to his or her story.” That particular line sent a few readers of the Washingtonian—one current and two former employees of the Chronicle—tumbling from their chairs. They say both the copy and the people at the Chronicle are a bit, ah, overmanaged by Editor Scott Jaschik. “It’s not much of a place to work if you are an adult. Most of the decisions are micromanaged by one person—the editor,” says one former employee.
Dave Wilson, the technology policy reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and a six-year employee at the Chronicle, didn’t get into personalities, but said he was “thrilled” to have left the supposed employment nirvana. “There are people who work at the Chronicle who love working there, thrive in that environment, and do fabulous stories. But there are others—many, many others—who find working there stifling because they are not in control of their stories, or, in some cases, their own lives. Opinions are disregarded, and people are expected to put in absolutely ridiculous hours.”
Jaschik says he’ll take the plaudits—and the criticism that goes with them: “We are very proud of the quality of our journalism, and to do that good journalism, we definitely ask a lot of people. I would rather be the kind of place that has really good salaries and good benefits and asks a lot of people than a place with mediocre benefits and salaries that doesn’t ask much of the people that work there.”
Mark It Down On Wednesday, Nov. 10, the adjectival Anglophiles at Post Style used “gob-smacked” twice—the unhyphenated version appeared in Pop Notes describing Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell, and the hyphenated version was applied to Evil Spice Al Haig in the Reliable Source. And I will be gob-smacked if I know what the heck it means.
Escaping Gas When reporters are making calls and checking out leads, newspapers can be a tremendous civic good. Eric Lipton’s Post story last week about massive oversight lapses involving a potentially deadly chemical at the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant will probably make the city a safer place in the long run. The day after the story ran, in classic Post-magic fashion, all of the relevant safety authorities were being scrambled, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was vowing action, and congressional representatives from neighboring jurisdictions were calling for somebody’s—anybody’s—head.
But Lipton’s biggest investigative story for the Metro section will be his last. He’s moving on to the New York Times as of Friday. Lipton says he’s leaving because he “always wanted to live in New York City and always wanted to work at the New York Times.”
Lipton believes he’s leaving behind a continuing drama: “I think the Post has a very important role to play by being critical as the city tries to make the transition from a dysfunctional city government to a relatively well-run one. It’s not clear how it’s going to turn out.” A Pulitzer Prize winner at the Hartford Courant in 1992 for co-writing a series on a flaw in the Hubble telescope, Lipton has done great work on Metro, providing synthetic, smart coverage in a section that is mostly making do with whatever flops in over the gunwales. Lipton is the rare beat reporter at the Post who excels at the day-to-day and the big takedown.
Part of the reason the paper’s investigative hotshots find whoppers in their own back yard—last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning report on police shootings and the still-rolling homer on the city’s woeful residential mental health facilities come to mind—is that Lipton’s colleagues at Metro are missing them, every day. Like Mayor Williams, the Post is confronted with a vast terrain of municipal dysfunction, and it’s often hard to know where to start. But it shouldn’t take a reporting bigfoot and months of investigation to keep a city honest. The Post’s regular coverage of police shootings, for instance, has not changed an iota since it broke the story that some cops’ guns are going off when they shouldn’t. Either the Metropolitan Police Department suddenly became the gang that is shooting straight, or the paper’s coverage is not informing the paper’s coverage.
Nicely Sullied Spending some minutes chewing on Andrew Sullivan’s fomentations is a routine activity for intellectual snackers—but it’s just a little weird to see it served up in The New Republic. Sullivan’s been spending most of his time—and his bullets—at the New York Times Magazine.
But in the current issue of TNR, Sullivan posits that we’ve all adopted poor Matthew Shepard as a victim—and an emblem of a much greater cause—because we are tenderized by his tender years. Grown-up gay men, guys capable of coming to their own defense, aren’t quite so cuddly, in part because they also represent unbridled sexuality. In Sullivan’s turn as the magazine’s weekly TRB columnist, he says Shepard has become a yellow ribbon precisely because he was a defenseless waif—a homosexual with the sex taken out. It’s an interesting thought, one of the first I’ve read in TNR in a while.
I picked up TNR to see what Punk Editor Peter Beinart—he’s 28—is doing besides garnering nasty items in the New York Observer: He was christened “Butcher Boy” in Carl Swanson’s Off the Record last week. Swanson wrote that the enfant was indeed terrible, a wonk Wunderkind who gleefully axed Jacob Heilbrunn minutes after he got the job simply because he had lost the good offices of owner Martin Peretz and literary editor Leon Wieseltier. And Swanson revived the suggestion that Beinart whacked Salon reporter Jake Tapper’s friendly profile of Bill Bradley on ideological grounds.
The people who watch TNR closely—I lost the habit when Michael Kelly got fired and two of my favorite writers were defrocked—suggest that both moves were routine assertions from someone who is now very much in the assertion business, regardless of how moist the spaces behind his ears are. Beinart plans on a little more redecorating at the intellectual hothouse. An approach to Post writer Michael Grunwald almost got there—Grunwald reportedly agreed to stay at the Post after Coll promised him he could leave the Hill behind and more or less assign himself on longer, less event-driven coverage.
Because the grab for the hypertalented young Grunwald didn’t work out, Beinart is reportedly still on the smarty-pants hunt, but says he can make some fine home cooking with the ingredients already in the kitchen. “Andrew [Sullivan] is going to take a much more active role in the magazine, including coming to editorial meetings,” Beinart says, reminding that he served as managing editor back when Sullivan ran TNR.
“I want this to be a magazine that breaks some china, that will take on conventional wisdom in ways that surprise and startle,” says Beinart. New editors at TNR are supposed to burble about all the intellectual scoops they will be enabling, but Beinart’s decision to outsource TRB to former TNR luminaries—Michael Kinsley is among those warming up in the on-deck circle—lends his start-up a little juice while giving him a chance to concentrate on other matters. Like how to do a rigorous, balanced job of covering Al Gore without driving Peretz insane.
The New New Morality I could go for all of Mother Post’s prudish tut-tutting if it were describing, say, the pornographic coupling of Congress and moneyed interests. But I just don’t see Naomi Wolf as a threat to the moral fabric of our nation. The Post did a follow on Time magazine’s scoop, which revealed that not all of Gore’s advisers were overpaid white males. In the second paragraph of the story, the paper described Wolf as a controversial feminist “who has written extensively on women as sex objects and advocates teaching teenagers masturbation as an alternative to intercourse.”
And then there are those darn Ohio State rugby girls, who had the misfortune of acting like college kids at precisely the time a Post photographer pulled up to the Mall to cover a coven of pagans. They ended up described in a headline as “Topless Rugby Players,” and the semiotics of their shirtlessness were explored in painful detail. I know it’s a family newspaper and all, but it would be great if it sounded a little less like my mom.
Subway Slipaways Deep inside the Oct. 20 front section of the Post, close readers of foreign news were greeted by a stunner from T. R. Reid. Two weeks after the Paddington subway crash in London, Reid’s lede read: “Just about everybody must have had this fantasy: You survive a horrendous accident. Everybody assumes you’re dead. So you slip away to the airport, hop aboard the next plane to some distant locale and start a whole new life. Evidently a number of people lived out that very scenario two weeks ago in the confusion and turmoil following the fiery collision…”
According to Reid’s dispatch from London, where he serves as the Post’s correspondent, people just dusted themselves off, apparently, and decided to bust a move for good. Before you hop in the car and head out to the Beltway to commit road rage in order to live a life free from the bonds of your past, I should mention that Reid’s rich, imaginative splinter of a rather horrific event didn’t hold up. The Guardian and the Independent, both of which are fond of giving a good yarn a ride, didn’t pick it up, as far as I could tell. ABC Radio News did a blurb about it, but otherwise, nobody else stateside noticed this fascinating phenomenon. There wasn’t much to go on. There were no relevant quotes in Reid’s story, just a general attribution to Scotland Yard. A CBS producer who reportedly tried to follow up on the nugget was treated as if she had gone completely barmy.
In an e-mail response to questions about his coverage, Reid stuck by his story. “I believe this happened. I had disaster training in the Navy, and one thing we learned is how survivors act after an incident that might have killed them. Wandering off somewhere is a fairly common reaction. Eventually, the survivors calm down, call home, and re-establish contact. Another explanation might be that some people on the inbound train were headed to Paddington specifically to board the Heathrow Express. So they just walked away from the crash, continued on their overseas journeys, and didn’t realize that somebody might be worried about them. Having seen the wreckage, I don’t think this explanation is possible.”
Maybe he’s onto something. Last week, “News of the Weird” picked up the ball and ran with the story.
Poor-Mouthing People inside and outside of the Post believe the paper is leaving behind the subject of poverty because it lacks salience in a gilded era. “I have heard again and again from the community that we lack somebody working consistently on local poverty issues, and I think they have every right to be outraged,” says one Post staffer.
Scott McNeilly, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, thinks the Post is failing to cover an important component of D.C. civic life. “Welfare reform, if that’s what you want to call it, is probably one of the biggest stories since the New Deal, and the paper just hasn’t covered it in any significant way.”
Asked about the advocates’ charges, Post city editor Gabriel Escobar responds with the kind of nondenial that people who work with the poor should find all too familiar coming from a powerful institution. “If there is a perception,” he says, “there is reason to be concerned. It’s tantamount to saying that we are not interested in politics—it’s that important to us.”
Sari Horwitz was tasked to poverty issues after being part of the Pulitzer team on cop shootings, but—surprise—she ended up getting pulled off to cover a number of other stories. Horwitz is reportedly back to more routine coverage of poverty issues, but the paper’s national desk has some problems with covering the least of us, as well. Chris Orr, a national editor charged with overseeing social reporting, including poverty issues, up and quit recently. And the poverty/welfare beat on the national desk has been open for six months. Amy Goldstein will reportedly fill in that slot sometime soon.
Escobar says that everyone on the metro desk is a potential conduit for news from the underclass. “I can’t think of any paper that has a ‘poverty beat’ per se,” he says. “It is an important part of the beats of various reporters here. I take issue with the suggestion that we are not covering poverty issues.”
Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says things can only get better: “For the last year and a half, it has been a struggle to get the attention of anybody at the paper. The articles about our issues have definitely been on the decrease. They are telling us that things are going to get better, but for the time being, our posture is to wait and see.” —David Carr
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