The Washington Post has highly refined tastes when it comes to goose—it must be fully cooked before the paper chooses to partake. For months, control board head Andrew Brimmer and schools chief Gen. Julius Becton, arguably the two most important men in the city, have been turning on a rotisserie fueled by their imperiousness and ineffectiveness. Everybody knew both emperors had no clothes, but it wasn’t official until the Post put a fork in them.
The end was classic big-city politics that went off behind the knowing Cheshire Cat grin of the Post. Each man was allowed to step up to the microphone—smiling and wearing beige, of course—and say he was quitting of his own accord. Following their announcements, each received entirely gratuitous pats on the head from the editorial page of the Post, while the ensuing “news analysis” suggested the resignations were the denouement of a classic municipal tragedy.
“The management style employed by Brimmer and Becton, the severe public face and insistence on arriving at decisions in private, gave them little room for error with an often wary public,” wrote Michael Powell in an autopsy last Sunday.
“That Brimmer, 72, and Becton, 71, will leave within days of each other in June surprised few observers,” he added.
Yeah, those few observers who don’t rely on the Post for local news. Those who do were floored when Brimmer and Becton got the gate. In both editorial and news coverage, the Post supported the two men long after community advocates, politicians, and yes, even some of their own reporters realized that the appointed saviors of the District had a slight problem with cluelessness. Powell’s analysis would have been even more impressive if it had come when the targets were still perpetrating.
In their post-mortems on the resignations, Powell, Vernon Loeb, and Valerie Strauss had no trouble finding evidence that Brimmer had long ago lost the respect of his colleagues on the control board and that Becton had never found his footing as an administrator of a large public school system—evidence that had somehow escaped the people who were assigned to cover those institutions on an ongoing basis.
Over at the control board, David Vise, a smart, accomplished reporter, had made the Hobbesian choice of staying off certain stories—like Brimmer’s inability to play well with others—to maintain access. Still, Vise at least finished what he had started: When the board’s palace revolt became clear, it was Vise who stepped up on Brimmer, not some other Postie assassin who parachuted in. He linked arms early with Brimmer and threw up the ramparts when the critics opened fire—and when it was time to blow his brains out, well, Vise was there for him, too. It was an extraordinary sight, familiar in every respect save one: a big control board story above the fold, Brimmer in the lede, Vise in the byline—and suddenly a big gun roaring into the picture. Time’s up, Andy.
“Several members of the D.C. financial control board will decline reappointment to the powerful panel that presides over District government if Andrew F. Brimmer is named by President Clinton for a second term as chairman, people familiar with the matter said yesterday,” Vise wrote on March 20.
Just last August, Vise had written, “Brimmer is an affable conversationalist and has listened increasingly to the views of his fellow control board members. From time to time, he has surprised his colleagues by changing his mind when he found himself outnumbered.” Guess that explains why he stepped down after he was fragged by every single member of the board except “Silent” Ed Singletary.
The Post is merely playing out an age-old pas de deux betwixt the covered and the coverer. When someone new comes in, the beat reporter does an encomium to kick off the honeymoon. Over time, warts appear, the romance cools, and eventually the dewy-eyed perspective is replaced by a clear-eyed assessment of the subject’s naked flaws. Vise’s coverage began and ended true to journalistic form, although the middle part was missing.
Beat reporters often suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, a willingness to identify with the lot of the people they cover on a daily basis. In order to keep cognitive dissonance at bay, reporters accentuate the positive and dismiss most everything else.
“There are a series of small tradeoffs, subconscious decisions that happen when you cover a beat. Because you are with these people day in and day out, you have a tendency to see grays where another reporter sitting just a few feet away, who has the benefit of a greater distance, sees black and white. There certainly are some differences over how Becton and Brimmer were covered,” says a Post writer.
“I think there is a reluctance on the part of big establishment papers like ours to render definitive judgments on the people in authority. That’s a problem at the New York Times, and it’s a problem at the Washington Post.”
Another Post reporter suggests that the problem is not institutional or professional malaise, but cojones.
“I think there is a distinct lack of aggression in our coverage of the people in power. We have to be willing to look at, and tell the truth about, the larger picture,” the writer says. “Many of us have been talking for months, at least, about the need for us to do more definitive stories, the kind of pieces that would go to what has been going wrong since these guys got here.”
The Post’s coverage of the schools is the more egregious case study in fiddling a merry tune while the house burns. Debbi Wilgoren put the “S” on Becton’s chest the day he arrived-her welcome mat in the Post magazine was a classic of the genre—and has silenced all the sources who documented how the general and his military cronies were putting the schools in an even deeper hole, if that’s possible. Her tendency to salute Becton’s every Army aphorism until the school system was finally declared a demilitarized zone is breathtaking in light of Becton’s legacy, which includes a $60-million deficit, a wasteful and poorly executed roof-repair job that postponed the start of classes three weeks, and a discredited student head count.
Never mind Wilgoren, the Post should be ashamed of itself. It has a single reporter covering public schools, which is far and away the determinant story in the District’s future. As a citizen, I am a hell of a lot more interested in whether the District is going to offer my fourth-grade twins a safe, productive learning environment as they move through the system than all the wiggles and wobbles in the development squabble at Friendship Heights.
I was in New Orleans recently, a city with a similarly broken school system. The once-maligned New Orleans Times Picayune has been filled with stories about theft of school equipment, fudged test scores, and disappearing student funds. Every single one of those stories could be done in a heartbeat here, along with many, many others. The Post did a big takedown on the schools a year ago, but the coverage lacks the kind of cohesion that lets readers understand why the system is still in the weeds. (And while the Post is bemoaning the Pulitzer drought for news, it just might want to check the backyard. Some enterprise and a big ol’ can of whupass might yield some
It’s not as if a bunch of editors got together in a room at the Post and decided to give Becton and Brimmer a free pass. It’s darker and more subtle than that: Many of the people who work at the Post genuinely dislike the city that they work in, so their coverage has all the nuance of a Lauch Faircloth tirade. They don’t want to hear from all those citizens and advocates who are part of a city that elected Marion Barry. They’d rather hail the appointed saviors and hope for the best.
Because democracy has been such a grinding failure in the District, the paper seems to believe that anybody who is chosen by Congress, the president, or their agents has to be a better bet than some knucklehead nominated by the people. The leather on Becton’s chair had barely cooled before Wilgoren hatched a sonnet to Arlene Ackerman, his successor, the “soft-spoken but steely minded former deputy superintendent from Seattle.” Now Ackerman may be all that and more, but if she isn’t, don’t look to the Post to tell you until it’s way too late.
Glossy Brilliance Washington has two city mags for the time being, and you’ll have to buy both this month so as not to miss two full-on wonders. Harry Jaffe’s Washingtonian piece about a kid who tried to help the cops solve the Starbucks murders and ended up beaten to death in an alley offers important and well-written forensics on a case riven with question marks. And Mike Littwin, who used to write about the O’s for the Baltimore Sun and now works for the Rocky Mountain News, absolutely microwaves Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Writing in Capital Style about the night Ripken surpassed Gehrig’s streak, Littwin observes, “As for the ceremony: What was clearer than the bright eyes of every Ripken worshiper was that on Cal’s grandest night, Angelos somehow thought it was all about him.” Sweet comeuppance for one of the biggest pricks in sport, which is a pretty tough category to compete in these days. —David Carr