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After he bought the Washington Post at auction in 1933, Eugene Meyer penned a set of principles for his new paper. Nos. 3 and 4 promised:
3. As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
4. That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.
Guess last week’s story about suburban preteen blowjobs wouldn’t have made it onto his front page. But Meyer probably never reckoned that a sitting president would introduce the casual hummer to the national discourse. Given that much of a contemporary paper’s information—whether it be news, entertainment, or gossip—derives from unholy congress, a journal intent on reflecting the experience of its readers will probably have to drop its pants every once in a while. And there is no more burning question in the minds of many newspaper-buying American parents than “What is that alien in the upstairs bedroom going to spring on me next?”
With that key piece of market awareness in mind—and a dubious smidgen of evidence that your kids are on the verge of becoming mini-Monicas—the Post was off and running.
On July 8, Style writer Laura Sessions Stepp used a year-old incident among middle-schoolers to suggest that 12- and 13-year-old kids had a Clintonian disregard for the intimacies that generally accompany oral gratification. Headlined with the teasing “Parents Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex,” the story was debated in the newsroom for months before it ran—and debated by readers for days after it finally did.
Stepp’s piece, at the very least, isn’t an example of the Post’s infuriating tendency to write up trends only when the government anoints them with an official report. As her article indicated, federal health officials had declined to survey this very aspect of teen sexuality because they didn’t think Congress would fund research into such an unspeakable topic. So she did the honorable work for them—absent the scientific technique but accompanied by lots of alarming pronouncements about what your little Tricia or Mandy might be doing at her first boy-girl party. The piece came off as Soccer Mom’s Worst Nightmare instead of a peek into an unlighted place. It was transgressive, all right, but not gratifying.
To begin with, Stepp recalled an incident at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington where the principal held a meeting for a dozen parents and told them that their kids were having casual sex parties off school grounds.
“The news dropped like a bomb just over a year ago in the mostly upper-income community of elegant brick homes, leafy sycamores and stone walls, where wealth is acquired by working long hours at top professional jobs,” she wrote. “These parents were unaware of a disturbing pattern of middle-schoolers’ adopting an ‘anything but intercourse’ approach to sex. Eager to avoid pregnancy and hold on to virginity, an increasing number of teenagers are engaging in oral sex, according to school and health officials.”
Upon that narrow, unsturdy template, Stepp piled on the reporting, talking to people all over the region who deal with adolescent sexuality in its various manifestations. Dozens affirmed Stepp’s underlying assumption that younger and younger kids are doing nastier and nastier things.
One District educator said she was thrilled to see the subject covered and found it even more refreshing to see a story about teen pathology with a dateline that didn’t read “D.C.” My wife, who spends a fair amount of time wondering about what version of 11-year-old twin girls we are raising, clipped and saved a “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex” breakout from the story and placed it on the dining room table. No irony or isn’t-this-a-stitch intended.
But not everybody was so enthralled by the Post’s walk on exurbia’s wild side. A parent of a recent Williamsburg Middle School graduate—not involved in the alleged incident—was appalled. “I have no doubt that this sort of thing is happening all over the nation, but why was my kid’s school on the front page of the Washington Post as an example of juvenile sexual misdeeds?” he says.
The parent blames Williamsburg principal Margaret McCourt-Dirner for speaking publicly about something that didn’t happen on school grounds. In Stepp’s piece, McCourt-Dirner comes off as an avatar of doom, telling parents of girls involved in the alleged incident that their kids are “at-risk.” Parents of male students got no such talk. Maybe they were just fulfilling assigned gender destiny.
More importantly, the parent—who requested anonymity because he thinks Williamsburg parents have had plenty of attention already—says that one of the “elegant brick homes” achieved “by working long hours at top professional jobs” belongs to the reporter, Stepp. Her son graduated from the Williamsburg Middle School in 1998. That single fact raises a number of important questions. How involved was Stepp or her son in the discussions about off-campus sexuality at Williamsburg? Did her nearness to the incident enhance or obscure her vision of the larger story? And why wasn’t her connection to the story disclosed?
Neither of Stepp’s editors on the story, Managing Editor Steve Coll and writer Marc Fisher, had any idea that her son attended Williamsburg—which she described as “a school of about 1,000 students where test scores are consistently among Virginia’s highest.” The editors should have known, and they should have let their readers know as well.
After making some inquiries, Fisher called back and confirmed that Stepp’s son had attended the school, but that he doubted it had an impact on what she wrote. “Her kid was not in the story,” Fisher says. “And his friends were not in the story. What she did is use her knowledge of the community and information she found through friends, neighbors, and family to tell an important story. That’s part of being a reporter.”
Stepp says neither she nor her son was involved in the incident that she wrote about: “I would have to agree with my editors. We write about the lives we lead. This was not a story about Williamsburg or me. It was about a pattern of sexual behavior that our readers need to know about and have a conversation about.”
Any educated parent knows that junior high kids have always pulled capers out of parental view and still managed to reach adulthood intact. But that certainty goes out the window when it’s your own kid—or his classmate—who’s swinging from the chandeliers. Stepp’s intimate knowledge and perspective as a mother of a young adolescent likely gave the piece a lilt of parental angst it otherwise might not have had:
“Many parents…instituted strict disciplinary measures. Some grounded their daughters for weeks. Several started reading their daughters’ diaries and checking their e-mail. Some began staying home in the afternoons to make certain their daughters did, too. Some took their daughters to be tested for disease and at least one arranged for her daughter to see a counselor. One mother told her daughter she couldn’t listen to rap music anymore.”
Well, now, that ought to do it.
There is something sad and hilarious about parents who believe that the sexual revolution ended the minute they decided to sell out and settle down. Some of their kids—and neither the Post nor you know how many—have apparently decided that the sane response to AIDS and newly limited options for pregnant teens is to be sexual without having intercourse. By exploding out an incident into a trend, the Post may have been engaging in some risky behavior of its own.
“I think to disregard this story because it is based on anecdotal evidence is a bad idea,” says Fisher. “Our job is to reflect what is going on. Now.”
Coll says the Post only did what a good paper is supposed to do.
“The problem we confronted was there was no comprehensive epidemiological evidence about how early adolescent sexual behavior has changed over time…precisely because the government refused to fund it. The only available path was to go out and ask a lot of credible, well-placed people in the area nonleading questions about what was going on with early adolescents, and we heard very loudly and clearly that things were changing, so we wrote the story.”
The parent from Williamsburg thinks any broader understanding of early adolescent sexual behavior among Post readers came at the expense of his daughter. “They more or less created the ‘Williamsburg ho’s’ [a phrase used in the story], and that is how my daughter will be known next year when she attends Yorktown High School,” he says. “That’s a lot for a 13-year-old to deal with.”
The 13-year-old has her own complaints. “The whole incident was hearsay,” she says. “It happened over a year ago, and I know some of the kids involved, and it was blown way out of proportion. They are, like, saying that everybody from Williamsburg was mixed up in this, and hey, it didn’t even take place on school property. I don’t think it was a school issue, and I definitely don’t think it was any of the newspaper’s business. I was watching Politically Incorrect last night, and they were making jokes about it. It’s disgusting.”
The Downside of Uplift Marcia Slacum Greene, a Post reporter who does occasional projects for the Metro section, went looking for good news in a dark corner of the city and came back with a version of it last Sunday on the front page. Thomas Derrick Ross, a dead-end kid from the Benning Terrace cul-de-sac known as Simple City, was held out as a conflicted parable of hope. Greene’s version of Ross suggested he’d left “the life,” in a process whose difficulties her yearlong project followed. One bump she apparently hadn’t expected: Ross was arrested for child abuse—he was accused of beating up his 9-year-old son—the day after his redeemed mug graced the paper’s front page. The Post reported out his arrest in Metro.
Of course, there were indications along the way that Ross’ transformation was incomplete—though Greene’s heartstringer story didn’t bother to spend much time highlighting them. He fathered six children by five women and is paying child support for just one. And he celebrated getting his GED with two $200 bottles of French champagne, which he insisted had been bought with legit money.
Greene’s piece was troubling in both tone and execution. She seemed to adopt the voice of a criminal defense attorney, suggesting that her subject was blown about by forces beyond his control. His criminal vitae was passed over quickly, and his role as one of the leaders in the various violent epics in Simple City was never really explored. Ross, she seemed to be saying, is one of the natural byproducts of an ecosystem as corrupt as Simple City.
But Ross was not just a kid who got into some jams. He was a career thief, mugger, kidnapper, and pistol man. His rap sheet is impressive for all the wrong reasons.
Other Posties didn’t like the story when it ran and liked it less when Ross came up bad again. “The normal reporting standards did not seem to apply in this case. We clearly adopted Simple City, and we want the story to turn out well, but it just won’t,” says one.
Another saw it as an opportunity missed. “This kid has been anointed by the establishment, including us. A much more honest story could have been written about how someone with such an impoverished morality deals with all of the attention.”
Editor Coll says the paper will continue to report the whole story involving Ross.
In order to get a redemptive glow on kids like Ross, you have to give short shrift to all of the people he punished along the way. His background, which read like a text case of a kid reared by urban pathology, explains everything and excuses nothing.
Don’t Let the Airplane Door Hit You on the Way Out Tim Page served as the Post’s classical music critic for four years until taking a job as an orchestra administrator in St. Louis. Page won a Pulitzer in 1997 and penned a lot of fine criticism while he was here. But he left a bad taste behind with a patronizing and disingenuous farewell last Sunday.
The problem with a Page farewell to D.C. is that, well, he didn’t live anywhere near here. He commuted from New York to work at the Post, staying only long enough to cover his beat before catching a commuter flight home. Somehow, though, his goodbye managed to wax nostalgic for the city he shunned. In a piece subtitled “Tim Page, Leaving on a Fond and Hopeful Note,” he said that he wouldn’t remember his tenure here for any particular musical event—telling in and of itself—but that there were other misty moments.
“I would return to one of those airy, clement intermissions spent on the back patio of the Kennedy Center, as the sky turned deepest orange, and Georgetown began to twinkle for the evening,” he wrote. “There, to the droning accompaniment of airplanes on final approach into Reagan National, I was content to sit and watch the Washington promenade—lawyers and politicians enjoying their brief escape from the crush of worldly concerns, animated music lovers talking over niceties of the performance, children simply taking everything in, a quick and lambent wonder in their eyes. At such moments, all seemed right with the world—and the capital city became its charmed epicenter.” Yeah, pal, any person who really enjoyed living here would not cite being incarcerated on the terrace of the Kennedy Center with Washington suits as a golden moment. And by the way, Tim: No one here calls that airport “Reagan.”
Page proceeded to toss out meaningless bouquets to the various institutions he covered and planted a big wet one on the guy coming behind him. Yuck. Page has a reputation as an incredibly nice person, but I think we all could have done without the pat on the head.
“He didn’t live here, and he didn’t seem to like it here. And he was enormously burned out when he left,” says a colleague. “You got a clear impression that even though he took his job seriously, he felt that Washington was a decidedly provincial place. So the farewell seemed, yes, a little insincere.” —David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 332-2100.
Reporting assistance provided by Eve Tushnet.