“The Washington Times has become a must-read. Not only because it occasionally breaks a really big story, but because the Times now offers a daily menu of straight, groundbreaking, essential news, often on subjects which other outlets give short shrift.”

Oh boy. After chewing through a premise like that, I couldn’t wait to find out who the Washington Monthly had found to back up such an incredibly counterintuitive take. The cover story, “Stop Snubbing the Washington Times” (which became racier still inside: “Stop Dissing the Washington Times”), went on to quote Times assistant managing editor Fran Coombs, Times managing editor Josette Shiner, Times reporter Ruth Larson, Times Culture Page editor Julia Duin, Times congressional bureau chief Nancy Roman…well, you get the idea.

In building the case that the Times had shaken off its humble origins as a tendentious conservative screedfest, Washington Monthly editor Nurith C. Aizenman could not find a supporting quote from a single person whose checks aren’t signed by some functionary of the Moonie church. Monthly editor-in-chief Charlie Peters weighed in with approbation, but he doesn’t count because he ordered up the story. Otherwise, there was an anonymous White House staffer who blew a little air into the premise, and White House spokesperson Mike McCurry put on a clothespin long enough to give the paper credit for picking over the “entrails of the conservative movement.” That was it for outside perspective, unless you count former President Reagan, who once said it was his favorite newspaper. But then he never was a big reader.

So is it time to stop dissing, snubbing, and ridiculing the Times? Not the last time it landed on my doorstep. Yeah, investigative reporter Jerry Seper’s scabrous pursuit of the Clintons has its moments, and defense reporter Bill Gertz scares me even though I don’t have a security clearance. The paper’s hysterical presentation makes it difficult to know what’s a story and what’s just another peak into the paper’s morbid obsession with the sinners from Arkansas. One day it breaks open a big can of whoop-ass, nailing Hillary in a substantial fib, but the next day it scratches around in Sock’s litter box and puts whatever nugget it finds above the fold.

It’s probably more than coincidence that the Times supplies a number of lint balls every month to Peters’ “Tilting at Windmills” column in the front of the book. Former staffers say Peters always chants about what a sumptuous feast the Times sets out every day. Of course, the paper’s incessant coverage of dweeby political gossip fits nicely with Peters’ indulgence in Beltway worship—along with its arrogance, pedantry, and dogmatism, (which, coincidentally, author and editor Henry Canby once described as “the occupational diseases of those who spend their lives directing the intellects of the young”). Seeing as how Peters pays his journalism novitiates the equivalent of two cheeseburgers a day, he tends to work with a fairly fresh-faced bunch. And they are evidently callow enough to believe him when he said it was time to give the Times its due.

Although the story invoked some of the paper’s more notorious excesses, in general it was so thin and goofy it probably wouldn’t have made it into the Times. It was chockablock with errors—former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was spelled two different ways in the first page of the story—and about 20 phone calls short of convincing anybody that Beltway assessments about the Times were undergoing a transformation.

Among other salutations, Aizenman credited the Times with breaking a story about the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) speeding up naturalizations to bump up the Democratic vote. As it turns out, the story was actually a Times follow on a Chicago Tribune story. “Our story broke that the INS had failed to do background checks, and the Times came behind it,” says Tribune reporter David Jackson. “It was very similar. It’s something that has happened more than once.”

Although the Times does generate its share of proprietary stories, it has a relatively small staff in a town full of news. Even after 15 years of draining the Rev. Moon’s pockets, the paper is not above picking someone else’s pocket to get a matching story. The Monthly didn’t mention any of that and even found a way to applaud the Times for its extensive use of wire services—it brings a diversity of voices to bear on the news of the day, according to Aizenman.

The Times may cut corners on reporting and occasionally on the truth, but it can be bracing. Like H.L. Mencken, the Times knows that while it’s a sin to believe the evil of others, it’s seldom a mistake. I like reading the paper just fine. Its metro coverage is much less agenda-ridden than the Post’s—just last Saturday, Vincent Morris did some nice math on all of the 24-carat consulting contracts CFO Anthony Williams has doled out. But to suggest that its national coverage, riven with frantic jingoism and myriad conspiracy theories, makes it a must read is a leap of faith that I won’t take even for the Rev. Moon.

Truth is Their Defense In an interview last month on Fox Morning News, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked to comment on Ellen DeGeneres’ decision to come out. Never one to pass up a chance to wax self-righteous on cultural topics, Gingrich launched into a discussion of the country’s sexual addiction and used the disturbing events at the District’s Winston Educational Center—in which a number of fourth graders engaged in sexual activity while left unsupervised in a dark room—to illustrate his point.

“The idea of having a principal who doesn’t understand—no sex in fourth grade, period. But I think it’s a sign of general decay of the culture that the principal, with a straight face, didn’t tell the parents.”

Viewers might have wondered who stuck a nickel in Newt, but it was really about him sticking a quarter in the Post box on April 11. In a front-page story, Yolanda Woodlee stated in the second paragraph of her story, “The principal at Winston Educational Center said the classmates—four girls and five boys—were involved in consensual sexual acts and that no crimes were committed.”

The principal, Ronald Parker, reportedly did not use the word “consensual,” perhaps because common sense suggests that 10-year-olds don’t have the capacity to consent—he simply said no force was used. Parker never suggested that sex among fourth graders was anything less than horrifying, but the bell had been rung in the Post and Newt took the bait. Woodlee reportedly took a call from the the speaker’s office following the story and explained that the principal in no way condoned the incident, but the staff apparently wasn’t interested in letting the facts get in the way of a good soundbite. When asked whether she felt responsible for lighting the fuse on Newt, Woodlee referred calls to Ashley Halsey, District political editor at the Post.

“I don’t think that was a reaction to our coverage. There was a reaction to the incident. If the Post was guilty of anything, it was of proper use of the English language, which is something that we try to be guilty of every day,” Halsey said.

“What we wrote was accurate. Consent and condone are two different things. They are on different pages in the dictionary,” he said, speaking very precisely. “It may be that people who are unfamiliar with the language don’t know the difference.”

That may include the Post’s editorial page. “It comes as no surprise that many people also have come to believe that the principal’s response to the incident was cavalier, that he displayed a casual if not nonchalant attitude…that view of the principal, it turns out, may be based on an inaccurate reading of what happened at his school.” That inaccurate reading came off prose that the Post is happily defending as accurate, joyfully hair-splitting in the name of butt-covering. The principal, who notified the children’s parents and the police following the incident, is suspended for the remainder of the year because he failed to follow the public schools’ protocol for such events. But he was held out as an exemplar of cultural decay on national television because of a reporter’s language that was oh so precise—and very misleading.

Cub Reporter Web Hubbell Want to see a roomful of reporters get their undies in a bundle? Mention that Web Hubbell, lawyer, government official, lobbyist, and convicted con artist, might do a story for you. That’s what happened at U.S. News & World Report, the staid newsweekly that editor James Fallows is trying to infuse with unimpeachable journalistic ethics. Considering the focus that Hubbell’s other post-indictment employers have received, you’d think their antennae might have been up a little bit higher. When word filtered out that one of the magazine’s bigger targets might get a byline, staffers went bonkers.

“We are not going to run a piece by Mr. Hubbell. We had considered a certain kind of article and we decided not to do it. That’s about all I can say about it,” said Fallows. The piece was reportedly one of those epiphanic wonders where a rich white guy goes to jail and finds out, “Hey, this place is full of guys just like me.” And it is—convicted felons. “It was the single dumbest idea I have ever heard proposed in a newsroom,” said one staffer. “What the hell were we thinking?”

Spit Shine Shoe Sign The privileges of rank were never more apparent than in the Post Magazine’s damp and sparkly profile of Gen. Julius Becton’s attempt to bring the school system to heel. It was unmitigated, uninformative, and staged beyond belief. Six months into his tenure, Becton has brought in a platoon of retired Army brass and a passel of buzzwords. His cluelessness in educational matters has been the talk of the town, but there was never a discouraging word written in Peter Perl and Debbi Wilgoren’s genuflection to Becton’s new order. Coming on the heels of David Finkel’s complicated, beautifully rendered adoption story in the magazine, it was a huge flop on one of the most important stories in D.C. —David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.

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