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Firebrand/political commentator Jonetta Rose Barras is known for ambushing politicians, but she generally waits until the press conference begins.
June 12 was different. That morning, Mayor Adrian Fenty appeared on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building to announce a key nomination. Barras, however, wanted a give-and-take on journalistic ethics.
Before Fenty even made it to the podium, the WAMU-FM commentator unloaded. “Mr. Mayor,” she screamed, “why did you give this story to the Washington Post, Mr. Mayor?” As he began his remarks, Barras continued to talk over him. “Why are you having this press conference? We already read about it in the Post!” And, “Mr. Mayor, there are many parts of the community that do not rely on the Washington Post for their information.”
Well, those parts of the community need to register for Post subscriptions. Because anyone with a stake in the doings of Fenty’s administration is going to find the scoop in the Post, with the competition trailing by a good 20 furlongs. And the competition has a problem with that.
Consider the scenario that prompted Barras to explode. On the day that Fenty took over the D.C. public schools, Page A1 of the city’s premier daily mapped out his entire plan of action: Fire the existing superintendent, Clifford Janey, and replace him with 37-year-old Michelle Rhee, an executive of an educational nonprofit. Written by staffer David Nakamura, the story included interviews with Fenty and Rhee and conveyed the finished feel of a story executed at a leisurely pace—not a breaking story cobbled together on deadline.
“He didn’t turn this story around in a couple of hours,” says Mark Segraves, a reporter for WTOP radio who has broken his own share of city-hall stories. “I think David Nakamura is an excellent reporter, but I believe there are times when Fenty gives them access that other reporters don’t get.”
Other reporters, in this case, include Tom Sherwood, the ubiquitous WRC-TV reporter. Fenty’s reputation for swift, bold strokes had Sherwood expecting something major on the mayor’s first day as head of the school system. So Sherwood hit the streets. He found the mayor at a community event and cornered him.
“You’re going to take control of schools tomorrow. Are you going to make any major announcements?” Sherwood asked.
Fenty foisted the inquiry on his aides-de-camp, promising that his communications director would get back with Sherwood on the matter. As the day wore on, Sherwood kept banging away at the story and got an answer just as his station’s late-night newscast was wrapping. Later, he saw the level of cooperation that Nakamura had gotten from the Fenty people. “That pissed me off,” he says. “I don’t like the unfair playing field that the mayor’s office created in this instance.” Sherwood made his displeasure known to the mayoral communications director, Carrie Brooks.
The administration’s press operation stonewalled other media outlets, too. The day before the Rhee announcement, reporters received notice that Fenty would be appearing at a press event the following morning. “When other reporters started calling, the press office was saying, ‘We don’t know anything,’ and Adrian was on the other side of the room talking to Nakamura,” says Segraves.
When pressed on the apparent favoritism toward the Post, Fenty mouthed perhaps the most disingenuous reply of his young mayoralty: He said that he would consult his staff on the issue.
Brooks is the staff member who took most of the heat for the Rhee dust-up. She had a pretty good idea that the first day of mayoral control of the schools would be a long one. “Jonetta called me at 6 in the morning,” Brooks says.
She won’t comment on whether Nakamura’s hustle and hard work produced Rhee’s name—thus compelling the mayor to offer his on-the-record comments—or whether the news arrived on a silver platter. “That would be a question for Dave Nakamura,” she says.
But the mayor’s spokesperson doesn’t dodge the charge that the executive is strategic in the handling—and handing out—of information. “Isn’t this something that is done in other jurisdictions?” she asks.
Brooks notes that the Post-first approach is far from risk-free. After all, pissing off the remainder of the press corps is probably not good policy with at least three-and-a-half years left in the Fenty mayoralty. “We just have to consider whether long-term if [favoring the Post] is something that is beneficial,” she says.
Whatever the pros and cons, spoon-feeding the Post is a grand D.C. tradition. Back in the mid-’90s, the appointed barons on the D.C. financial control board communicated many of their important initiatives through gifts to the Post. Much like the Fenty administration, the control board had a thing for secret deliberations that shut out just about any local stakeholder, except for a certain Post reporter.
Nor was two-term Mayor Anthony A. Williams opposed to occasional exclusivity with the regional paper of record. One such episode nearly brought the local press corps to blows. In March 2006, the Post beat its rivals in unveiling the design of the stadium for the Washington Nationals.
At a press conference following the Post exclusive, Segraves raised the question with the mayor. Nakamura, seated nearby, muttered something under his breath to the following effect: “Why don’t you stop complaining and work harder?” Segraves sprinted across the room and got in Nakamura’s face. The two bitched at each other for a moment.
“I will admit that I have a huge problem with penis envy when it comes to the Post,” says Segraves. “That’s the competition; that’s the gold standard.”
The Fenty regime has added a few carats to the Post’s glitter. Nakamura has nailed stories on the nomination of Dan Tangherlini as city administrator, Fenty’s 100-day plan, his schools-takeover plan, and now the Rhee nomination. That’s the sort of record that drives rival scribes into retirement, or perhaps a think-tank posting.
Hard to say whether those exclusives stem from reportorial enterprise or from a desire on the part of the Fenty crowd to use the Post as a megaphone. Nakamura declines to discuss how he procured his scoops, as does top Metro editor Robert McCartney.
McCartney will say this: “We are nobody’s PR arm.” Indeed, the paper has printed a few critical stories on Fenty, including at least two on his penchant for secrecy and another on plagiarism in his schools plan. “Our reporter is an outstanding and intrepid journalist who got a great scoop—one of many,” says McCartney.
True, but he’s a journalist who’s working for a grand disseminator of information. If you’re Fenty, a quick interview with Nakamura may well yield the following: A1 placement, prominent play on a Web site that gets a gazillion pageviews per day, all kinds of viral Web circulation, plus wall-to-wall coverage on Washington Post Radio. It’s a bounce that WTOP, the Examiner, the Washington City Paper, the Northwest Current, the InTowner, WRC-TV, and DC Watch—combined—would be hard-pressed to match.
And what’s the downside? Well, it’s having Barras and Segraves demanding answers and chanting about playing fields.
“If he continues to do this, there’s a minimal price to pay,” says Segraves.