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The scenario is so old, it creaks: An attractive young woman working for a large company receives romantic approaches from a powerful older man she needs to work with in order to do her job. How does her company respond? By telling her that she probably wouldn’t be having the problem if she didn’t dress like such a hottie.
Nothing spectacular there, as most professional women know all too intimately. But this one gains a little crackle when you consider that the young woman was police beat reporter Maria Elena Fernandez and the alleged suitor was Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey. And the company that tagged her as a tamale who needed to shop for longer skirts? Why, that would be the endlessly progressive, diversity-bent Washington Post.
“I worked around this woman every day for a long time, and the notion that she somehow played a role in her own victimization because she dressed too provocatively is ludicrous,” says one former colleague. “[Fernandez] is a talented, hard-working Latin[a] reporter, just the kind of person the paper should have gone out of its way to support. And she got the opposite message over and over. No wonder she voted with her feet.”
Fernandez will be covering Hispanic affairs for the Orange County bureau of the Los Angeles Times. She is between jobs and could not be reached, but she did not return calls three weeks ago about the reasons for her departure. Post Editor Leonard Downie refuses to comment directly on allegations that her problems with Ramsey were mishandled, but insists that the Post backs up its reporters.
“Any time anyone outside the newspaper creates problems with anybody who works at the Washington Post, we have always made it clear to them that we expect them to deal with our reporters professionally. We stand up for our people,” says Downie, who unsuccessfully attempted to reach Fernandez to convince her to stay while he was in Paris on business.
“Maria Fernandez received a very good offer from the Los Angeles Times. We would have loved to have kept her…[but] there is a lot of competition right now for talented Latino journalists,” he adds.
The timing is embarrassing. When the vision trust of the Washington Post got together recently at Pugwash—the paper’s annual conclave of big thoughts—Topic A was finding a way to grow the paper’s relationship with D.C.’s burgeoning Latino community. Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman pointed out in his presentation that diversity within begets diversity without.
The Post has done better than most major newspapers—and the one you are reading—at finding and employing people who fall outside journalism’s bottomless talent pool of doughy white guys. Still, the trick isn’t just in the recruiting, but in the retaining. And the sudden departure of Fernandez suggests those sincere efforts were undone by the handling of the Ramsey issue and other professional matters.
Fernandez had a bumpy ride from the get-go. When she arrived at the beginning of 1998, she was paired on cops with Cheryl Thompson, an experienced black reporter from the Kansas City Star who has a reputation for maniacal territoriality. According to several newsroom sources, Thompson let Fernandez know early on that she intended to cover police administration and broader public safety issues and Fernandez should stick to mop-ups on the daily crime beat. In the course of doing that job, Fernandez screwed up big time by reporting out a story in which a heroic 7-year-old drove her expiring father to an emergency room. The piece got a huge ride. Unfortunately for Fernandez, it turned out to be a hoax.
Still, Fernandez recovered, wrote a ton of other stories that happened to be true—146 bylines in her year-and-a-half at the paper—and was well-regarded by most of her colleagues and the cops she covered.
“She was OK at her job, but she never blossomed, because [management] didn’t pay any attention to her concerns,” says another colleague. “And when the problems with Ramsey developed and they didn’t back her up, I think that she just decided that the Post wasn’t a place she wanted to work.”
Fernandez and Ramsey—who is recently divorced and has a 12-year-old son back home in Chicago—reportedly spent a lot of time together during a series of ride-alongs in connection with the NATO anniversary summit. A week later, on May 1, Fernandez took the chief to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but people who know Fernandez say her interest in Ramsey was strictly professional. According to those same sources, Ramsey subsequently wrote her a mash note and had it hand-delivered to her by a uniformed cop. Police spokesperson Sgt. Joe Gentile said that Ramsey attended the dinner at the invitation of the paper, not Fernandez. Asked about the note, Gentile says, “We’re not even going to dignify it with a response.”
Perhaps because she was young, or attractive, or working a very difficult beat for a woman—more likely all three—rumors about Fernandez swirled in both the police department and the Post. After Fernandez was mugged Jan.15 after having what she described as a working dinner in Cleveland Park with D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden, cops teased her about her close relationship with a source.
Besieged by gossip, Fernandez eventually became uncomfortable with the top cop’s continued attentions and reportedly thought it inhibited her ability to do her job. But when she brought her concerns to her editors at Metro, they suggested that it was her problem, not theirs. And in the midst of that fiasco and her constant battles with Thompson over territory, the L.A. Times happened to call with an opening. She was gone in less than two weeks.
Party Line There was a big story in the Post last Monday about the District’s monumental millennial impairment. Turns out that some critical systems may fail because of a lack of foresight, but we’re going to have a bunch of extra cops and bureaucrats on the beat to save us from unspecified Y2K doom. Unmentioned in the story is that when the clock strikes 2000, there will likely be hundreds of thousands of visitors in town for a three-day, $10 million millennial bash hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton, with funding by First Huckster Terry McAuliffe, musical programming by First Buddy Quincy Jones, and a 17-minute filmed nationalistic hagiography by First Director Steven Spielberg.
Those details were readily available in a Glenn Simpson piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on June 10. The Post had mentioned that federal, cultural, and municipal D.C. were all coming together to plan some kind of bash in a Linda Wheeler story back in March, but Washingtonians wanting to make plans for the biggest New Year’s in 1000 years need to check the Journal morgue for specifics.
On July 4, the White House will announce its plans for a yearlong celebration that will crest on New Year’s Eve 2000, and the Post will weigh in after that announcement, according to Downie. The capital’s paper of record has no problem stepping up on stories broken by small-time locals and niche publications, but when their peers snag a story from under the Post’s nose, its editors feel free to just wish it away. A staffer at the Post says the Journal’s raid on the Post’s back yard made the topic temporarily radioactive.
“We are in maximum avoidance of the issue right now,” says the staffer. “Nobody wants to touch it. I think the readers will want to know every detail the minute it becomes available, but no one wants to step up on it.”
National Emigres Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, two prized Beanie Babies on the Post’s national desk, may be taking their duet abroad. There’s an opening in the Moscow bureau, and serious discussions are under way that should culminate any day in Glasser and Baker—who have been an item for some time—shifting beats and learning some Russian. Baker confirms that they’ve discussed the move but says that nothing has been decided. The loss to the Post’s political coverage just as Campaign 2000 is revving up would be substantial—but it would also put some miles between Glasser and National Editor Maralee Schwartz, who have been in conflict since Glasser came to the paper from Roll Call.
“We are often faced with very difficult choices when it comes to our top people. We don’t seek out couples per se for foreign postings, but it can work out very well if it fits that particular couple,” says Downie.
That Will Change Everything In his Media Notes column last Monday, Howard Kurtz reports that NewsHour With Jim Lehrer is tanking, losing 20 percent of its self-selected cadre of viewers over the last three seasons. Kurtz pointed out, “While the 25-year-old program can be a snooze when boring guests drone on, it has been modernizing on several fronts….The ‘NewsHour’ plans to feature Washington Post reporters regularly for campaign coverage. There are even occasional appearances by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.” Those two innovations alone should do the trick: David Broder on the ineffable poetry of democracy and Pinsky on the democratic ineffability of poetry. Look for those ratings to boom now that PBS has bigfoots from the Post blazing away.
Life During Wartime When the war in Kosovo first broke out, the Post stumbled, in part because two of its front-line reporters were incarcerated by Bosnian officials. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times returned more quickly and landed hard. Since then, though, the Post has played very elegant catch-up. Now that the conflict seems to be winding down, the paper appears to be among its victors.
The outcome is due in part to Post Sunday magazine writer David Finkel, a linguistic guerrilla who swooped in from the hills with no war reporting experience and put his readers nose to nose with the consequences of ethnic aggression. Finkel used the eyes and recollections of refugees to make indelible pictures of what they had left behind. And when it came time for mop-up, his graceful hand with detail became a weapon.
On Sunday, June 20, Finkel traveled with a group of Kosovars returning to their hometown of Vlastica. They found large footprints of evil everywhere they turned:
Ali Selimi. Next to the water. Under a canopy of leaves. In the mud. On his back. Shoes off and placed by his feet, which are splayed and still in their socks.
Corduroy pants. Green sweater. Brown zippered sweater over that. Navy blue sports jacket over that, unbuttoned, with a set of dentures resting on the left breast pocket.
The body is decapitated. Next to it, in the water, is his skull.
For a moment, everyone looks, just looks, trying to connect everything, the skull to the body, the body to the place, this place now to the place it was April 13 when half of the village’s men and women and children were running in panic. It is made even more surreal by the soothing sounds of the stream and of some nearby birds. And now the sound of something being lifted from the water and placed on a board, a sound so soft it suggests there’s hardly anything left of Ali Selimi at all.
Rendering mountains of gore is the easiest stunt in the journalistic playbook, but Finkel’s bodies resonated with the lives of the people who had formerly inhabited them.
In addition to Finkel, Post reporters Peter Finn, Jeffrey Smith, and Michael Dobbs brought intimacy and coherence to a distant conflict. At the same time, the photos taken by Lucian Perkins demonstrated for the first time since the paper went color what additional hues can do to big story coverage. Refugees stopped looking like refugees and started looking like someone you might know.
Finkel returned a call from France after a flight out of Skopje, Macedonia. He was there in search of the denouement or consummation of a romance that had begun in the camps between a young refugee and a French humanitarian worker. His luggage was lost, as was his sense of perspective: “I have no idea what to say about what I just saw. I haven’t talked to anybody—anybody—about what went on there, and I’m not in a position to say anything remotely articulate about the experience. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
Pop Goes the Iggy Random House’s promo copy of Post Op-Ed columnist David Ignatius’ upcoming novel, The Sun King, is a Super Soaker of superlatives that goes over the top and stays gone. Ignatius is a dark-horse-candidate for the editorial-page editor job, and he might want to slip a little of this copy into his application.
Sandy Galvin is the Sun King, a billionaire with a rare talent for taking risks and making people happy. Galvin arrives in a Washington suffering under a cloud of righteous misery and proceeds to turn the place upside down. He buys the city’s most powerful newspaper and wields it like a sword—but in his path stands his old Harvard flame, Candace Ridgway, a beautiful and icy journalist known to her colleagues as the Mistress of Fact. Their fateful encounter, tangled in the mysteries of their past, is narrated by David Cantor, an acid-tongued reporter and Jerry Springer devotee, who is drawn inexorably into the Sun King’s orbit and is transformed by this unpredictable man.
In this wise and poignant novel, love is the final frontier for a generation of baby boomers at midlife—still young enough to reach for their dreams, but old enough to glimpse the prospect of loss. The Sun King can light up a room, but can he melt the worldly bonds that constrain the Mistress of Fact? In his disturbing portrait of the collision of ambition and sexual desire, David Ignatius has written a generational love story for our time.
Whoa, baby. Bring that big-ass hose over here and let’s get y’all cooled down.
The Very Air We Breathe The union at the Village Voice puts everything on the table, according to a June 23 Press Clips column by Cynthia Cotts.
“There shall be twenty  cubic feet per minute [CFM] per person of fresh air in all parts of The Village Voice offices at all times,” reads one of the union’s health and safety demands.
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis.
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