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For three days, the carful of Montgomery County teenagers tumbled across the front page of the Washington Post, rolling over and over until they began to look as if they were trapped inside some horrific spin dryer.
It was a common story that received uncommon play: the hotdogging teen drove his pals from summer school, lost control, and creamed another car and a pickup before his car came to rest on its side. Three people died: two kids inside the Subaru Outback and the pickup’s driver. In a series of front-page stories beginning on July 15, readers learned that the 16-year-old driver had been behind the wheel for only two weeks, that the now-dead man in the pickup had attended morning Bible classes, and that one of the surviving teenage passengers had since decided to turn his life around.
The carnage alone does not explain why the Post could not look away. Multiple-death motor vehicle accidents are news in any medium and any city, but it’s usually the definition of a one-day story. The MoCo tragedy, however, was rendered as a suite, writ so large and in such detail that something larger, less fickle than an “accident” was at work. It was a story about “the recklessness of youth and the vulnerability of life,” according to Post writers Marcus E. Walton and Fern Shen.
It was oddly touching, a rare display of heart and emotion from a big daily paper that seemed to feel the pain of the community for a few days. “He’s With His Maker” quoted one headline, of the pickup driver, who left three kids behind.
The teens were treated with less deference, especially the driver. The paper’s tone was overwhelmingly parental, all tough love and concern. Kids drive too young. Kids drive too fast. Everybody drives too fast on East-West Highway, dammit. And just in case the message didn’t come through between the lines, a followup story, in which the Post decided to use a radar gun, demonstrated that the average speed on the highway was 38 mph, a whopping 8 mph over the posted limit.
The Post obviously believed it had a morality tale in its possession, a story of youth and death with implications far beyond, say, the dozens of kids getting mortally perforated every year in the District. The Post covers the hell out of teenage driving gone awry because we can do something about it. We, as good and true citizens, can band together and teach our kids that showy driving can have unforeseen ends. It’s not intractable, not insoluble, like, say, kids killing kids with guns. The teen driver story merited the kind of coverage that begets change. A dialogue has been joined about when kids should start driving. Enforcement and traffic patterns are being re-examined. The cops are on the case.
But imagine if the Post brought the same rigorous, impassioned reporting to gun violence. Imagine if, instead of a cube of type buried in “Crime and Justice” on Page 7 of Metro, in which nameless youths are killed by other nameless youths, we found out that the killed kids had mourning families, had attended Bible classes, had been turning their lives around. You know, stories about “the recklessness of youth and the vulnerability of life.”
The reason that a pileup in Bethesda owns the papers for three days while gun victims in the District die on the margins is a matter of class expressed through geography: Many of the decision makers live within an easy walk or drive from the crash site, which means their kids could have been in that car.
“We all sort of wondered why the paper was going on and on about this, but it’s a neighborhood issue to the editors here,” says one staffer.
The Post apparently thought that the number of bodies merited going over the top in coverage, but back in 1995, when three co-workers at a Southeast McDonald’s were shot like dogs in a basement cooler, there was no third-day story, no investigation into the underpinnings of the tragedy, no sense that the loss was one held in common. If you want big treatment of a triple homicide, you’ll need a different brand name (think Starbucks) and a different neighborhood (think Georgetown).
Newspapers always express the interests and biases of their minders. The Washington City Paper seems constantly stuck on a cow path between Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Mount Pleasant because most of the writers and editors live there. We don’t have a lot of employees or affiliates in the tougher parts of Shaw, or some of the scarier corners of Southeast.
The Post is run by people who often don’t choose to live in any part of the city. Out where they live, gun crimes are something horrible that happens to someone else. When viewed from a great distance, there’s an easy, helpful suspicion that the victim is somehow complicit. At the beginning of this month, there was a story about Kimberly Moore, a 17-year-old who was found dead in the 200 block of Atlantic Street SE. Didn’t see it? It appeared on Page 7 of Metro. Not enough room on the front of Metro that day, what with the go-cart accident out in Prince William County.
The Prince William story was a tragedy, a 10-year-old named Nathan Trammel was killed when the go-cart he was driving hit a car driven by his brother. The 10-year-old Trammel was brought to life through a thorough story about his death.
Moore, however, remained imprisoned in the tiny space where murder victims in the District generally go. Police arrested the alleged shooter in the Moore case last week (Page 3 in Metro), and, it turns out, she wasn’t the intended target. No more than Nathan Trammel. But her story lives in a place where we don’t live, where we don’t go, where we don’t want to know about.
Somewhere on the way to D.C.’s tenure as the nation’s murder capital, the daily paper of record lost its ability to report the chronic, ongoing accident in its midst. The one in which a bullet always seems to find someone who doesn’t deserve it and doesn’t see it coming. The Post no longer covers murder with any enterprise or interest. Real reporting, real empathy, is reserved for the people down the block.
What Would Pooh Say? Five months ago, the Washington Times hired Christopher Robbins as an assistant metro editor. Robbins reportedly represented himself as a writer who had worked for the Associated Press. He was unpopular with his colleagues, one of whom eventually looked into his background at AP and allegedly found he had overstated his qualifications. Robbins was reportedly questioned about his background and fired. “A reporter was able to find out in one phone call that this guy wasn’t who he said he was. What does that tell you about how much checking they did on his references when they hired him?” asks one person who worked with Robbins. Robbins, who reportedly worked for AP during the summer of 1994 while a student, declined to comment about the incident, beyond faxing a single clip from AP and referring me to Lexis-Nexis, where I found two bylined stories. Times Metropolitan Editor Ken McIntyre kept it short and sweet as well: “We have no comment about people who don’t work here anymore.” Staffers say that the editors have been no more forthcoming around the newsroom. “It’s a very embarrassing situation, and they have gone to great lengths to keep it quiet. They aren’t even telling reporters what happened to him.”
Tina Who? In eight phone calls to the Post newsroom, nary a mitigated word was heard about David Remnick, 39, the new editor of the New Yorker. Remnick did it all, and did it all well, during his years at the Post, starting as an intern with Style, reporting for the night cops beat, and then writing for Sports, Style, and the Sunday magazine before becoming the Post’s man in Moscow. He wrote a book, Lenin’s Tomb, about Russia and its people that won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1994. Posties are thrilled that Remnick will wear one of the most coveted tiaras in journalism.
Style writer Henry Allen served as his editor for a time. “There are legions of these horrible, gray, Ivy League Calvinists who happen to be good writers. David is as smart as any of them, but loved, loved the newspaper stuff.”
“David is great at picking up on the vibes and ambience of whatever room he is in. He always knows what the game is and how to play it; but, unlike a lot of people who have that kind of radar, he is not manipulative, and he is not a hustler,” Allen says.
Remnick has been one of Tina Brown’s most productive acquisitions, pumping out the kind of stories that make the conceits of literary journalism seem natural and easy. Like Brown, he has a rather unusual respect for Washington and its place in the constellation of influence. And he is a ferocious New York Giants fan.
“I’m pretty sure that he is the only person to run the New Yorker who got his start covering the USFL,” says Post columnist Tony Kornheiser. “I am deliriously happy that he was chosen. He is friendly to humor and sports, to all of those aspects of the culture that are often held in low regard by highbrow magazines. David can take highbrow and make it accessible to just about anyone.”
Deputy Sports Editor Jeanne McManus has been a pal of Remnick’s since he was running errands for Style. “I can’t see why he wouldn’t be a fabulous editor. He has great vision and always has. I just hope that working with other people’s copy doesn’t leach the creativity out of him.”
The New Cycle The circus performer was out of sorts. After years of his doing a high dive into little more than a wash tub, the crowds were no longer erupting in cheers. He kept inching his platform skyward, but the oohs and aahs dwindled to little more than murmurs, and soon nobody watched anymore. One day, he decided he was fed up, and he placed an impossibly small bucket in his landing area. He could barely see the bucket from far above the crowd, but he could see the audience, every face turned toward him. Finally, he jumped. He missed. This time, everyone was watching.
Journalistic performers have been missing the bucket a lot lately. The Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News had to jump back through a ring of fire and retract Monica stories. Stephen Glass fell off his conjured high wire. Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith’s figurative subjects disappeared into thin air. The Washington Post got hoaxed by a midget driver. A clownish Cincinnati Enquirer slipped on a major banana peel in the wake of its Chiquita story, paying out over $10 million without bothering to defend its story. Tim Russert magically disavowed his piece about Secret Service “facilitation” of Clinton’s outside interests without ever saying he was wrong. And even lion tamer Steven Brill found himself bloodied by some of the big cats he confronted.
The Brahmins all weighed in, sticking their fingers into the profession’s damp nether regions, trying to suss out what ails the body journalistic: Too much oversight, not enough training, mutating deadlines, and uncooperative official sources, they muttered.
Journalism seems to keep limping from pratfall to pratfall, not because of increased oversight, but because of increased competition for viewers and readers who care less each day. Much has been made of the fact that though the Web is Spam-packed with information, not much of it reliable. But the Web hasn’t just speeded other media outlets up, it has dumbed them down as they scurry and posture to break through the clutter of cable, Web ‘zines, listservs, newsgroups, and traditional journalism. Reporters will do anything to hang on to their audience, including occasionally getting it wrong.
Not that the hard knocks have slowed anybody down. Reporters are still jumping around on the White House lawn, cartwheeling and spinning through unconfirmed tripe. And what are they saying? Something like: “The president has a credibility problem unless he finds a way to convince the American people that he is telling the truth.” Yeah, right. —David Carr
Research assistance provided by Eve Tushnet.