Let’s call it Post lightning. A person, critter, or group will do something heroic, heart-wrenching, or tragic that is then captured in the random spotlight of the Washington Post. The singled-out entity is promptly inundated with flea collars, diapers, cars, guest appearances, and sometimes cold hard cashall from readers moved by the pathos/nobility of a single news story.
That’s what happened to 7-year-old Latia Robinson. On May 21, Post reporter Maria Elena Fernandez wrote a Metro piece lauding the 4-foot-4-inch child for seizing the wheel and driving her unconscious dad to Howard University Hospital. Like any tale of precocious indomitability, Latia’s feat captivated the country: She got a call from President Clinton, feature slots on the local news, a People mag splash, and the promise of a guest appearance on Oprah. Michael Jordan phoned, and Mayor Marion Barry even came through with a savings bond. Those windfalls were joined by an agent, a lawyer, a budding stage mother, and a trust account, all common byproducts of Post lightning. The Post tossed in a few more bolts for good measure in a June 11 Page One feature on the child’s sudden renown.
Fernandez’s first two stories on Latia were over the top, but the Metro beat doesn’t turn up stories on 7-year-old chauffeur/heroes every day. The odyssey began a month ago, when Fernandez was assigned to check out a rumor that a child had driven her father down a busy four-lane street four blocks to the Howard emergency room after he passed out at the wheel of his Honda. The incident was more than a few days old when she began reporting it, but Fernandez interviewed the father’s doctor, who termed her act “astonishing.” With that it was off to the races. No one in the story actually saw her driving, but a few touted her composure.
Great story. Not true. That’s something that the Post eventually got around to telling its readers on June 18. A 4-foot-4-inch child might be able to see over the wheel and touch the pedals, but the notion that any 7-year-old could drive a car under any circumstances is nonsense or wish fulfillment, depending on your level of cynicism.
Common sense, never in abundance in the Post newsroom, would have suggested that her chronicle needed some looking into. Fernandez is on vacation and did not return a call left on her voice mail at the Post. Assistant City Editor Paul Duggan, who edited the story, says, “Anybody in this business who doesn’t think this could happen to them is fooling themselves.”
Veteran Metro reporter Vernon Loeb agrees.
“If I am a reporter and I get to an emergency room and I come upon a doctor who says to me, ‘This little girl drove her father to the hospital and is a hero,’ I’m not sure I have any cause to probe that much deeper. I have no reason to think that this guy is making up a story. I mean, what’s in it for him to make up a story?” Loeb says.
Like all of us, the guy in the lab coat wants it to be true. But even rudimentary reporting on the feasibility of Latia’s amazing driving skills would have busted her out. I mean, wouldn’t you have liked to hear from someone who actually saw her do it?
Staring back at the paper’s decisions in the rearview mirror, Duggan took some comfort in the fact that all the important facts in the initial story were at least attributedto a 7-year-old girl.
“A small girl told us a story. We looked at it, turned it over a few times, and decided she was credible. In retrospect, sure we could have done more investigating, but once we had an indication that something was amiss, we went back and vigorously reported the story,” Duggan says.
Duggan and Managing Editor Robert Kaiser credited themselves with doing the footwork to finally print the truth about Latia. All they really did, though, was pick up the phone: The person who actually drove the caran emergency room techniciancame back to town and told them they were printing fairy tales.
The make-good story that resulted may have been “vigorously reported,” but it was mendaciously rendered. Latia was front-page news when she was riding the crest of a Post-inspired wave of coverage back on June 11, but the minor fact that she made it all up was tucked at the bottom of Metro with a headline asking, “A Story Too Good to Be True?” Well, yes, it clearly was, and by the way, what’s up with the question mark? How about “Post Story of 7-Year-Old Driver Was a Total Fabrication,” instead? Doesn’t quite scan so nicely, does it? Many people I called about the story had no idea that it was eventually smashed flat, a tribute to the disingenuous packaging and placement.
The piece revealing the hoodwinkery was not a correction by any stretch, just so much featurized butt-covering, replete with cute little interruptives like “a story to make you smile” and “a story to amaze you.” Clearly written by committee to dig out of a deep hole, the piece laid the blame on a fanciful kid with an overactive imagination. Since the woman who actually drove the man to the hospital had left town, the story implied, Latia was able to tell tales to her heart’s content. Nowhere in the post-mortem was any indication of how a 7-year-old got over on a big metropolitan newspaper.
Kaiser pointed out that the initial story was very carefully worded. “We didn’t claim to have seen or known that she was driving. And we didn’t play it on the front page. We played it on the Metro.”
Which is where, I guess, the Post plays stories that may be a little less true. And if the paper had enough doubts about this holy-cow story to minimize its play, why not spend the shoe leather and time to make it right?
“In terms of how we treated [the story] once we found out that her claims were untrue, we saw no value in slamming a 7-year-old girl,” says Kaiser, who is now in his last week as managing editor.
Not everybody in the newsroom was impressed by the paper’s fixer-upper.
“I could see how it happened in the first place, but I wish our correction story had been a lot more about our own reporting,” says one staffer. “I think you should report on yourself when you screw up, and you should do it rigorously and not be so goddamn protective of your own people. If we knew someone else had done something like this, we would rake them over the coals.”
The need for unalloyed remediation seems all the more important given the amount of bounce the Post got out of the story. Duggan says it
wasn’t the Post’s problem if a bunch of other media outlets picked up a seemingly astonishing story on the strength of the paper’s substantial brand name.
“We didn’t seize on the story. We wrote a [small] story in Metro, and it took on a life of its own. I have no control over what other [media outlets] decided to seize on,” Duggan says.
Nah, all the Post did was light the fuse and then cover the hell out of the results.
The Page One follow-up included the following shiny diamond: “Before her infectious personality and sassy ways earned her national celebrity, Latia was debating whether to become a doctor or a firefighter. Now, she has added movie star to the list. And she wants Sinbadwho reminded Latia during [her appearance on his] show that it is illegal for a 7-year-old to driveand Eddie Murphy to have roles in her movies.” Latia was also lauded as “poised beyond her years,” “pretty and spontaneous,” and “on the fast track to stardom.”
Yeow. Brushing off the execrableness of the writingno small effort therethe story offers a picture of a newspaper hyping the hell out of its proprietary find. How much different is “Twenty days after the Washington Post reported how Latia took control of a Honda Accord…” from some witless hairdo hopping around on TV frothing about his “exclusive”? But if the first story was underreported, and the second story was overhyped, it was the third in the suite of Latia stories that was the most incredible.
As the Post suggested in the same piece, it’s “a story to make you wonder.”
Barry Flings Open the Exits Like rats fleeing the rising phoenix that is the District, two mainstays in the coverage of municipal dysfunction for the last few years are opting out. A month after Marion Barry announced that city hall reporters won’t have him to kick around anymore, Vernon Loeb of the Post and Vincent Morris of the Washington Times are moving on to their next assignments. The beat has apparently lost some sparkle with Barry out of the picture.
Loeb is being promoted to the national desk, where he will be covering national security and intelligence. And Morris will cover Congress for the New York Post.
Morris admits that Barry’s retirement makes life at One Judiciary Square a little less attractive:
“If Marion were running for re-election, I think I would stay. An offer to do something new looks more attractive without Marion around. With him out of the picture, everybody is going to have to get off their ass and do a little more work.”
Lucky Number 8 There you are, reading along in your morning paper about the Tibetan rally, and under headline you see the following byline: “By Jennifer 8. Lee.” Copy editor on holiday? Sinister printing error? Just your wacky daily paper having a little fun with its readers? Nope to all three. Lee, a summer intern at the Post who has also had hitches with the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Newsday, referred me to her Web page after I made a query about the bylinekids these days. Is it “Jennifer 8” off of the movie? No to that, too. Turns out that “Jennifer Lee” is the John Smith of Asian American names11 other Jennifer Lees applied for admission to Harvard’s Class of 2000 along with Ms. 8and ubiquity compelled Lee, along with her family, to come up with a middle initial. Eight being the summit of luck in Chinese numerologyyou have to pay extra to get a phone number with an 8 in it in TaiwanLee decided to roll a crazy eight when she needed to distance herself from the pack.
Content-Free Would anybody like to read what
I think about what other journalists thought about what Brill thought of some other journalists’ thoughts on the Lewinsky story? I didn’t
E-mail Paper Trail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 332-2100.