City Paper is not for tourists
The savvy landlord never asks his tenants if they’re happy with their apartments. The accomplished attorney knows better than to initiate a conversation with his clients about whether fees are too high. And the sagacious boss never, never, never queries his employees about the company’s personnel practices, let alone establishes an in-house task force to make recommendations on how the company should hire and promote, then publishes the findings in a 90-page report. But that’s what the Washington Post has done.
“Challenge and Change: A Report by the Task Force on the Newsroom,” released to Posties earlier this month, is a conscientious attempt by management to take a sounding of its news gatherers and address voguish questions about racial and sexual diversity in the newsroom. So it should come as no surprise that interviews with 200 of the paper’s 520 reporters, editors, and photographers find them discouraged to the point of hopelessness about their prospects for advancement at Grandmother Graham’s newspaper, and doubtful that the diversity ideal—the end of white male hegemony—will ever be realized.
“The Post really chews people up” is the interviewees’ steady refrain. In fact, finding a happy Postie is an impossible task if you rule out the brass and young Ivy League guns like David Hilzenrath and Barton Gellman, who, in addition to doing good work, have found mentors at the paper who will assist their ascent. Going to work at the Post is a disillusioning process for many people: Since everybody there is accomplished and talented, many new hires find for the first time in their lives that success can be determined—and limited—by circumstances outside their control.
“People go to work at the Washington Post against their better judgment,” one of Ben Bradlee’s last hires tells me. “It’s like dumping your girlfriend to take the prettiest girl to the prom and then finding out at the dance that you’ve got nothing to talk about. Then she leaves you, and you’re left standing alone wishing that you’d stayed with your girl.”
For outsiders, squawking from dissatisfied Posties is hard to take. “It’s like incredibly rich people complaining that the caviar isn’t up to snuff,” admits one Post reporter who read the report. In fact, Post pay, benefits, and prestige lead the industry, although Newspaper Guild Unit Chair James Rupert believes that the report should have included a chapter on pay-scale disparities at the Post. According to guild figures, white reporters make on average $7,339 more than black reporters who have served a comparable amount of time at the paper, and male reporters earn on average $7,618 more than female reporters of the same age.
Still, the paper’s recent hiring record fulfills contemporary diversity expectations: During the last six years, 30 percent of new hires have been ethnic minorities and 45 percent have been women. Firings are so rare as to be nonexistent. But like all competitive cultures, the Post quickly defines winners and losers, separating the Page One stars from the Metro section journeymen. No matter how many diversity panels the Post brass convenes or how many writing workshops it conducts, the Washington Post can’t increase the number of top slots—that is, the number of winners. And nothing short of winning is going to stop most Posties from whining.
That said, the “Challenge and Change” report is best appreciated as a skillful political document that accedes to the orthodoxies of diversity ideology without explicitly declaring war on the white boys who dominate the paper. Give credit for elegantly creasing that zone to Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign Michael Getler, the chairman of the report.
The Getler report’s most striking recommendation is that the paper should centralize power over hiring and promotion in a deputy managing editor (DME), a new position that would report directly to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser. Because the power contest at the Post is a zero-sum game, creation of a DME slot would reduce the authority enjoyed by the assistant managing editors (AMEs) who were encouraged under the Bradlee Dynasty to run Metro, Style, Financial, Foreign, Sports, and National as their own fiefdoms. Of course, none of these AMEs hire without the say-so of LenandBob, but the current arrangement gives them great latitude in recruiting their picks and campaigning for them.
Centralizing the hiring process just happens to serve the interest of foreign- desk boss Getler. Right now, Getler is frustrated because the paper discourages him from directly hiring a foreign correspondent (the relatively recent additions of William Drozdiak and John Pomfret notwithstanding). If he wants to recruit someone new, he must convince Metro, National, or Financial to take on and acculturate the newcomer before the overseas assignment. The problem is that editors of these sections want to hire their own people and hang on to them. Although Assistant Managing Editor/Metro Milton Coleman told the Getler commission that “part of my success is judged by my ability to get people off my staff,” the report cites peeved Metro editors who resent their section being used a parking lot for future foreign correspondents who don’t care about local reporting.
So Getler wants to enhance “movement among sections” of the paper, a euphemism for using the other sections as farm teams. The parochial Post reflex that places section interests ahead of everything else is damned by Getler, who proposes the “joint ownership” of all newsroom employees. This is a spooky corporate phrase coming from such a circumspect player, and will likely be dismissed by other AMEs who see through his plan to cull their staffs for his glory. But when you’re playing a zero-sum game, you’ve gotta play to win.
Speaking of playing to win, Getler’s smooth report proves that he’s a qualified candidate for the DME job. In a Nov. 18 staff memo praising the suggestions, Downie declared that the paper was “moving expeditiously to digest” the task force’s findings and selecting a personnel czar with “the title of deputy managing editor.” But the problem with hiring Getler is that he’s white and male like LenandBob. Appointing a minority or a woman (Coleman? AME/National Karen DeYoung? AME/Style Mary Hadar?) would be the only politically acceptable choice, but since the power to hire and promote is the power to make the newspaper, would the big bosses readily relinquish this clout?
While it may be all well and good for Post management to embrace the Getler report and centralize personnel decisions, build data bases on employees that showcase their talents, track the careers of prospects, attend more minority journalism job fairs, establish “goal-oriented” personnel evaluations, assign an in-house writing coach to bad writers, reform the job-posting system so that everyone who applies within the paper gets a fair hearing, appoint a “professional partner” to new employees to guide them though the newsroom, and beef up the intern programs, one wonders if there will be any time left to put out the Washington Post every day. A newspaper is not a Montessori school, and the Post doesn’t automatically improve just because a Deputy Managing Editor for Feeling Good About Your Job is appointed.
The diversity section of the Getler report acknowledges the Post‘s failure to capitalize on the paper’s success in hiring women and minorities by advancing their careers. Although the report claims that diversity “includes everyone and is not defined as race or gender,” and that in an “expanded context, white men can be as diverse as their colleagues,” all the commotion about newsroom diversity ain’t about hiring Swedes from Louisiana.
The report makes valiant attempts to determine why minorities are poorly represented in the upper echelons of the Post: The system favors lifers over short-timers, and blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are relative newcomers. “The newsroom is reputed to be unfriendly and inhospitable,” it asserts. And the report criticizes the Post for letting talented blacks defect—reporters like Gwen Ifill, Rochelle Riley, and Michel McQueen only realized their potential after they left the Post. But many talented people have left the Post over the same period (Marjorie Williams, David Remnick, Patrick Tyler, and Celestine Bohlen, for example), so maybe too much is made of the ones who got away. And whether the treachery of Janet Cooke has permanently poisoned the Post atmosphere for black reporters is worthy of discussion, but it isn’t raised in the report.
Any analysis of how people rise to the top of the Post hierarchy that doesn’t perceive the paper as an elite institution is bound to fail, yet the task force report turns a blind eye to the paper’s inherent elitism. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that the paper is run by a cultural elite comfortable with the values and concerns of the members of the city’s other elite institutions—Congress, the Federal Reserve, the agencies, the think tanks.
Thanks to Donald Graham’s devotion to local coverage, the Post attempts to speak to Northeast and Little Saigon and Arlandria, but the paper continually reminds its readers and its reporters that the official Washington news of the National section is the news that matters most of all. Mark Jenkins offers a tidy proof of this theory: The paper publishes more corrections for National stories not because the section’s reporters make more errors than their Style or Metro counterparts but because the editors consider National the most important section.
The paper may be a classist institution, but it’s not necessarily a racist one: All other things being equal, a black graduate of Harvard or Yale has as good a chance of rising to the top of the Post heap as does a white one—as long as he subscribes to the values of the elites. Playing squash or tennis with the right editor is as salutary to your career development at the Post as it is at any Fortune 500 company. (The reason the bosses didn’t catch Janet Cooke’s lie about having graduated from Vassar was that it so closely matched their preconception of a black Postie.) The meritorious ascent of Len Downie from Ohio State puts a nice crimp in this class analysis, and bodes well for the possibility that the paper might set its sights on being more than the trade paper of government. But with a Harvard-educated Brahmin preceding Downie and a London School of Economics Yalie lurking behind him, Downie’s options are not limitless.
After suffering through the self-congratulation that mars its early pages (the Post is described as “the best newspaper in the world when it comes to a chance to shine journalistically,” “on the leading edge of American journalism,” and “outstanding and prominent”), the Getler report courageously airs the paper’s dirty laundry and even wraps a few soiled linens around the faces of the top editors. Cynics will accuse the bosses of using the strongly worded report to indemnify themselves, at least temporarily, against charges that they don’t care about reporters—minority, female, and otherwise—whose careers have stalled. As the report points out, there is ample precedent for ignoring earth-rattling criticism like this. Its findings parallel those presented by the Task Force on Career Development headed by Jim Hoagland in 1986, findings which were mostly neglected. Likewise, the 1989 Pugwash prescription to reform Style and similar plans from a couple of years ago to aggressively pursue younger readers rot in the bosses’ filing cabinets.
At the core of the Getler report is the belief that one should enjoy one’s work—an expectation peculiar to the late 20th century that doesn’t have a chance of becoming reality at the Post by the early 21st. Post journalists who enjoy reporting but aspire to high-caste slots at the paper need to remind themselves that success isn’t the same thing as happiness, and to ask themselves how gratifying it is to edit copy, attend meetings, write budgets, boss people around, and endure the intense scrutiny that beams down from LenandBob’s redoubt on the North Wall.
Most work sucks. Satisfaction is fleeting. So exercise your stock options if you can, and tend your garden.