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Ever since the control board opened for business in July 1995, it has made a practice of stiff-arming reporters. Newsies in pursuit of a quote or two from a control board functionary were required to pass through the cavernous voice mail of spokesman Mark Goldstein, who held significant operational responsibilities as well. They rarely made it through. For the most part, the agency’s press strategy has centered on two men: chairman Andrew Brimmer and the Washington Post’s David Vise. “Hey, they don’t return my calls either,” commiserates another Post reporter. So when the board decided to hire a press person earlier this summer, reporters were heartened and relieved. By all accounts, Monette Goodrich was cordial and responsive. She lasted about a month.
Goodrich apparently committed a felonious faux pas when she allowed herself to be cited in an article by Vincent Morris in the Washington Times about the D.C. Council going on vacation. The July 16 story paraphrased Goodrich as saying that the control board did not have a summer recess scheduled, although one weekly work session had been canceled to accommodate Brimmer’s travel schedulepresumably his recent trip to Africa. Sounded like plain old vanilla public information, and the schedule certainly fell far short of the institutional laziness that has brought shame on the council. But the control board apparently doesn’t want any member of its staff other than executive director John Hill appearing in the papers. Reached this week, Hill didn’t have much to say about Goodrich’s departure.
“It would be inappropriate for me to discuss personnel matters. We decided it was necessary to make a change,” Hill said in a phone interview.
Hill denies that the control board is being stingy with information. “I talk to reporters all the time. There is only so much of it you can do, though. I could spend the entire day on the phone talking to one press person after another,” Hill suggests.
The board’s press effort is critical now that it has control over all sectors of city government that matter. Hill acknowledged as much and said that the control board has included improved public information efforts in its strategic plans. It also hired a new public information officer, James Davison.
“The control board is interested in developing an outreach strategy that will constantly be checking with the public, because they are ultimately the source of how well the city is doing. And I think doing that will require outreach to the press as well.” (For the record, Hill called back almost immediately after I left a request on Goldstein’s voice mail for an interview.)
Overrun With Rats Post readers were confronted with a journalistic version of the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI’s) vaunted “rat line” last week when the paper ran nine straight days of coverage about the first pack of female rats, including three Page One stories. It was an amazing run, fueled in no small part by a combustible mix of gender and military culture. To some extent, reporters were lying in wait for a Citadelesque debacle, but what they saw instead was the cultural equivalent of an ocean liner making a very graceful, tight turn onto a new course. Post reporter Peter Finn, who spent a solid week kicking out a lovely batch of dispatches from New Market, Va., says it’s no surprise that his paper and others gave the story a ride.
“I think the precedent the Citadel created, with the potential for violent hazing incidents, made the interest understandable. And if someone does something for the first time in its 158-year history under Supreme Court order, then that’s pretty interesting. Beyond that, the whole rat-line process is fascinating,” Finn says.
Finn said the scene at VMI had the potential to turn into a rural version of the OJ trail. “There were satellite trucks everywhere, reporters from USA Today, the Chicago TribuneRussian and German TV were there. The PR department [at VMI] was very savvy. They created just enough access to make everyone happy, but not enough to make the story truly intimate. We were able to observe without running amok,” he says.
Finn credited VMI’s superintendent, Maj. Gen. Josia Bunting, with a major victory after his strategic engagement with the press, but “most people at VMI recognize that it will only take one or two young men to do something stupid that will undermine all the work that has been done.”
Phoning It In Speaking of play, let’s say that 400 Washingtonians get up at 4 a.m. to protest on the front lawn of one of the District’s chief tormentors hundreds of miles away. Big news? Not at the Post. Even though a who’s who of District statehood advocates bus-caravaned down to Clinton, N.C., and were joined by 200 others who protested outside the country estate of Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) last weekend, they ended up on Page 3 of Metro in a story written by a stringer. “I was surprised by the Post because I thought they were bigger than that,” says Kathryn Pearson-West, an activist who participated in the protest. “When things like this happen, it gives a lot more credence to the talk of ‘conspiracy plans.’ There is an outrage in this cityI see it every day, but the Post are telling you that no one is out there fighting.” Maybe Pearson-West and her cohorts should have set up a rat line for Faircloth.
The Editorial We Finally, the Post Editorial page weighs in on the delayed school openings…and suggests how kids can spend the extra three weeks of summer vacation: “How about a three-week SAT preparation course?” I’ve got a better idea: How about doling out a little of the invective that dripped over Franklin Smith and Co. when they couldn’t get the doors open for Day 1? The Post has decided it is going to fall in behind schools czar Gen. Julius Becton, no matter what, even if he and his buddies are trotting out the same lame excuses that used to rate thermonukes from the brahmins at the Post Editorial page in the bad old days.
Weak Will George Will’s Op-Ed rant in the Post a few weeks ago about the unfitness of District residents for even the rudiments of democracy was ill-informed (“the District gets more from the federal presence than it gives to the federal government”), churlish (“the withdrawal of popular sovereignty is condign punishment for those District voters who have elected many charlatans”), and unbelievably trite (“Washington is only the nation’s 20th largest city, ranking just below El Paso”). Will may be speaking for the great middle when he says that the District belongs in a woodshed beyond the reach of democracy and civilization, but for someone who lives here, he showed incredible naivete. Any reasonable person with a grasp of local affairs realizes that the District has historical, structural problems that go beyond the mayor Americaand Willloves to hate. It makes you wonder why a blowbag like Will wasted his breath: The only District issue Will really gives a shit about is rush-hour egress to Camden Yards. David Carr
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