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It’s official: The Washington Post has exactly as much media influence as Kentucky’s own Paducah Sun. In the November Brill’s Content ranking of the nation’s 25 most influential media figures, there’s room for four Timesmen, a duet from the Wall Street Journal, the gossipeers at the New York Post’s Page 6, a few mag-pies, and a host of tastemakers from other mediums, but not a Postie in sight. Martha Stewart made the list, but Len Downie did not. Bob Woodward isn’t in, but a 30-year-old search engine for Yahoo named Adrian Lurssen did.
That probably says more about Content than it does about any juice outage at the Post. Most of the anointed work just a short cab ride away from Content HQ on Fifth Avenue, on the Only Island That Matters. New Yorkers are generally granted cosmopolitan status because they live in a busy place, but they are, in fact, the most provincial people on Earth. They like what they see, and ignore what they can’t.
Still, might Steven Brill’s wheat-and-chaff routine—which brings to mind his previous iteration as designator of alpha status among law firms when he was the editor of American Lawyer—suggest that without Monica, Washington’s paper has nothing to add to a national discourse that is preoccupied by a Street (Wall) and not an Avenue (Pennsylvania)?
Doubtful. True, Clinton’s clearly in the back nine of his presidency, and Congress is producing nothing besides empty threats, meaning it ain’t a great time for the Washington story. But the bears will inevitably have their way with the newly rich, and American media consumers will eventually regrow a spot for what their country can do for them.
In turn, maybe it says something about Content’s level of influence that most of the people at the Post hadn’t heard that they were unlisted in the indices of influence when I called. (Full disclosure: The list may have caught my attention because I was on another, less important list elsewhere in the magazine.) Once notified that they did not possess “the ability to affect our tastes and priorities by dint of reputation or reach,” most harrumphed about how tough it is to see beyond the next skyscraper when you live in New York.
“I don’t see anyone on this list, other than Oprah, who is not comfortably ensconced on the island of Manhattan,” said Marc Fisher, a writer at the Post. Others suggested that Brill is a charter member of the Frank Rich Manhattan Smartypants Club, which holds that Washington is full of prigs and functionaries who have lost touch with the culture they used to govern.
Post partisans pointed out that Brill launched his magazine last June with an inquisitorial broadside alleging that last year’s sex scandal was cooked up in the too-intimate space between Ken Starr and the likes of the Post. And the current issue is fronted by an incredibly punishing back-and-forth written debate between Brill and Woodward over the former’s contention that much of the color in Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate was conjured—not reported—by the latter.
Brill says he has no beef with the Post in general or Woodward in particular. “Bob Woodward is a friend of mine, and I don’t have any particular problem with the Post. It’s not anything more significant than the categories that we did. If we had done a category on media reporters, I’m sure that Howard Kurtz would have been selected, but we didn’t do that category of journalism,” Brill says. (Woodward did not return a call about the influence list.)
“We did reporting across various cross sections of people in the subject areas who follow media most closely and asked them who they pay the most attention to. The Post was frequently mentioned, but in the categories we reported on, other institutions were mentioned more frequently,” Brill says.
Is that just a nice way of saying that one of the country’s Big Three papers has become something of a lesser sibling?
“I don’t think that the story says any more than the story says,” Brill answers.
Dropping the Boom “Technically, the vacancy rate is zero for much of the District,” said Mark Teather of Delta Associates in a Page One Post story written by Sandra Fleishman on Oct. 8. Yeah, and technically speaking, Fleishman took an incredibly tiny database, souped it up with overheated quotes, and told a big lie using statistics. Everyone else is writing stories about the economic boom. Why shouldn’t real estate reporter Fleishman get in on the action—and who can blame long-suffering editors for slapping a little bullish D.C. news on the front page? So much for 30 years of demographic hemorrhage. We’re really rocking now.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau—which would seem to have a less vested interest in fanning real estate hype—the vacancy rate in the District is a big fat 12.6 percent as of last May. Now, it may have been a big summer in District real estate, but the vacancy rate has dropped a whopping .8 percent in the last three years, according to the bureau.
The Post issued a mild corrective by the same author a week later but buried it in the Real Estate section—where it didn’t quite have the impact of Fleishman’s breathless run-on suggestion that the last habitable space in the District was about to be sublet to some chirpy urban pioneer. Among other delicacies, she compared the current market to the postwar years, in which the District was flooded with government workers who literally could not find places to live. The story included urban and suburban fables about dozens of people competing for a single apartment, rental agents with nothing to show clients, and people crying because they are part of a local band of gypsies in search of a clean, safe one-bedroom.
The story was gripping and got all sorts of attention, but it was based on a narrow bandwidth about pricey apartments in the largely white neighborhoods of upper Northwest, which can hardly be generalized to the city as a whole. Delta Associates tracks only Class A and Class B buildings of 100 units or more. They constitute approximately 9,000 of approximately 80,000 units for rent in the District.
“I tried to narrow it down in a way that made it clear, and perhaps it wasn’t as successful as I’d like,” says Fleishman, who is new to her job. “There are a lot of nuances to the beat, and I’m just learning my way around some of them.”
A rookie mistake seems understandable, but the willingness of her editors to take such a shocker and paste it at the top of the paper without asking some serious questions is hard to explain. Fleishman says she had no idea the story was going to get played so big, adding that after she heard that people were taking issue with the story, she asked to do a follow-up to clear up some of the confusion.
Shaun Pharr of the Apartment Owners and Builders Association fumed when he saw Fleishman’s initial piece and the outsize play it received. “I was shocked by the unqualifiedness of the treatment,” he says. “The lede, the headline, the quotes—it all made it sound as if the whole city had been rented.” When Pharr complained to the reporter, he says, she admitted that she may have overgeneralized data but said that she had captured a “general trend.”
“And I told her, ‘Hey, you didn’t capture a trend. There is still outmigration in the District and net population loss, which means there are going to be continued substantial vacancies in the market.’ She could have found that out just by checking census data a fingertip away on the Web,” says Pharr.
Pharr has reason to worry, because in the upcoming debate over rent control—the D.C. Council is awaiting a consulting report ordered up by the control board—he believes he will be hearing a lot about that Post story.
“I can easily fast-forward to city council hearings on the reauthorization of rent control, where citizen after citizen is going to be citing the Oct. 8 story, as opposed to the Oct. 16 story, and arguing that they are completely at the mercy of landlords and that rent control must be strengthened and maintained at all costs,” Pharr says. “But it is hardly the whole story. Hey, I live in D.C., and I am happy about the generally positive trends, but they are simply not across-the-board. It’s not just economically distressed parts of the city east of the river. There are significant parts of the city, including many places in Northwest, that the Post story did not account for.”
Municipal Export Rebecca Charry, the Common Denominator urban affairs reporter who made the new paper a player in the civic conversation, is switching media. Charry will be assisting in the production of a daily news and public affairs show for the Forum Network, a joint local news effort developed by WETA and Gannett’s Freedom Forum. The 24-hour regional public affairs network will launch sometime after the first of the year.
Charry, who broke the story of the Hearst Elementary and Paul Junior High charter applications, uncovered a Stanford 9 cheating scandal at Walker Jones Elementary in Shaw, and also followed corrections issues intensively, left the paper Oct. 1. “I had a great time at the paper, believe in what they are doing, and learned a lot. I just felt it was a good time for me to move on and do something else,” she says. The new network’s
programming is in the planning stages for now and will focus on the entire region, but, Charry
says, “I’m going to make sure that D.C. is not
forgotten. I think it’s a great story, and I plan on staying with it.”
The Ghost of Barry D.C. news got a rare ride to the top of the Post Sunday front on Oct. 10, when Michael Cottman revealed that Mayor Anthony A. Williams was loaded for bear and about to go gunning for 900 midlevel managers in District government. In exchange for losing job protections, the managers would be given raises—if they hung onto their jobs. The paper soon followed up with an editorial urging Williams to move at full speed with the reforms.
The A1 piece was another one of those stories about big-time municipal change that make it clear that Williams has ushered in an era of dramatic transition. Gone is the calcified old District of cronyism, and in its place is a new age of openness. The personnel move was worth a fair amount of ink—though some added context would have given the story another important layer. It seems the mayor who actually proposed the trade-off was Mayor Marion Barry, way back in February 1997.
The change had been there for the making, but it was awaiting funding for increased salaries—a line item that the Williams administration actually declined to support in the FY 2000 budget. And unmentioned in the story about retooling municipal government is that managed competition, which is a holy tenet of the current administration’s jihad on waste, is actually in a cul-de-sac. Four pilot programs—one each in the Corporation Counsel’s office and the Department of Recreation and Parks, and two in the Department of Public Works—have all been shelved while new managers at the respective departments give consideration to keeping the work in the public sector.
If Stories Could Kill A flare-up of nasty “appearance-ism” in the Metro section at the Post: Hadden Clark, who has since been convicted by a jury in the death of Michele Dorr, was first convicted of being ugly in a story on Oct. 13 by Katherine Shaver. “Rarely has a defendant’s mere appearance drawn such a visceral reaction,” wrote Shaver. Especially from a newspaper that generally is supposed to swing with the notion of assumed innocence. Doubt the same story would be written about anybody other than a white male.
Pick ‘Em Steve Coll, South Asia book author and former New Delhi correspondent, penned a scary reframing of the Pakistani coup in last Sunday’s Outlook section: “The risk of [a nuclear] cataclysm,” he wrote, “is now greater than ever.”
Steve Coll, the managing editor, gave the ole to the following cheery post-coup summation in the news section of the Post the same day: “The new military-led government in Pakistan is likely to pursue foreign policies that are acceptable and even pleasantly surprising to the Clinton administration, according to a variety of Pakistani and foreign observers.”
That Changes Everything From The New Republic’s Oct. 18 issue, just in case you weren’t looking: “A reference to Bill Bradley’s ‘inured heart’ in Martin Peretz’s Washington Diarist column last week was rendered, via an editing error, as a reference to Bill Bradley’s ‘injured heart.’ We apologize for the confusion.” Wonder whose head rolled how far after he somehow managed to miss a step in untangling Peretz’s latest written assist to Al Gore? And while we’re at it with the corrections, let me take this time to say an unfortunate typo a few weeks ago made it appear that I said Peretz’s magazine is always “blown-nosing” the vice president. —David Carr
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