Note to Washington Post reporters: Never, ever, ever, ever write a blog post questioning the wisdom of your paper’s editorial page’s opposition to cowbells.
That’s the takeaway from a clumsy Wednesday night episode at 15th and L that saw a blog post by reporter Mike DeBonis go live, before quickly being pulled from the website with nary a mention as to why, or even an acknowledgment of the story’s existence afterwards.
The blog post, entitled “Why downtown labor protests are so noisy,” was a response to a Post editorial that ran in Wednesday’s paper, lamenting noisy cowbell-clankin’ union protests downtown and calling for the D.C. Council to enact stricter noise laws.
(You can find the first graf of the deleted blog post here. Also, full disclosure that LL’s normal readers should already know: DeBonis used to be Loose Lips before joining the Post. He also helped trick your current LL into taking this job.)
LL hasn’t seen the entire post, but has heard that it basically presented labor’s position on the need for loud protests. “What the Post fails to understand is that in a free country, free speech is inconvenient at times, it’s not intolerable,” says John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the local hotel workers union, who says he told DeBonis something similar.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says he decided to kill the story after reading it, but not before it had already been posted. He says it’s not usually the paper’s practice to delete post once they’ve gone live.
“So that was a screw up,” says Brauchli.
But he adds that there was nothing nefarious about his decision to kill the post.
“I think it is counterproductive for any part of our organization to be going after any other part of our organization,” says Brauchli.
When LL points out that by all accounts, DeBonis’ piece was pretty tame and didn’t “go after” the editorial page, Brauchli agrees that’s a “fair point” and says what he’s trying to avoid is some kind of echo chamber in which his news reporters spend their time responding to what the editorial section writes.
LL’s not sure he’s persuaded. Nobody wants to see that either, but it seems like a flimsy rule that can stand to be broken once in a while. DeBonis frequently uses his blog to refute, rebut, and address all sorts of voices in District politics. Here’s an example from Monday. Is he supposed to ignore the editorial board, which has one of the biggest megaphones in the city, because he works at the same paper? Should he pretend they don’t exist?
That may be the message Post brass is sending to the paper’s staff. Just look at what happened last year, when education reporter Bill Turque tried to give his readers some straight talk about how he saw former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee‘s relationship to the editorial board. After the editorial page objected, the blog post was sanitized, and Turque was taken to the woodshed.
But pretending something doesn’t exist is not a good thing for newspapers to do. And in this case, there’s an additional wrinkle. Fredrick Kunkle, a staff writer and co-chair of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild points out a “glaring” omission in original Post editorial: There’s no mention that Post guild members participated in two noisy pickets of their own recently outside the Post building, complete with one cowbell, one woodblock, and one conga drum. One picket even took place at the same time as a carpenters union protest that the Post editorial complains about, which means it may have been the Posties, not the carpenters, that bothered the edit page folks.
“I just find it very curious that the Post should make a stink about [protests] across the street, without letting on that they may have been troubled by all that noise under their windows,” says Kunkle.
(Post editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao lamely responds: “[The] editorial clearly stated that we have been impacted and irked by noisy protests.”)
Boardman says the whole episode highlights the need for his union to be able to protest how they see fit: “You can’t even get an opposing view to the editorial published. It’s remarkable.”
LL doubts Brauchli killed the piece because he’s anti-union (and for the record, Brauchli says he’s not). More likely, the people in charge of the Post are still trying to figure out this bold new world of journalism, in which writers like DeBonis are expected to report straight news, blog with some attitude, and write a weekly column that tiptoes up to the opinion line—but doesn’t cross it.
For what it’s worth, Brauchli disputes that, too. But he should know better than most that we’re one more similar episode away from the rule of three. And that means a trend piece is on its way!
Update: A kind reader sends along the offending blog post in question. Enjoy:
Why downtown labor protests are so noisy
by Mike DeBonis
The Washington Post’s editorial board today called on city lawmakers
to crack down on loud downtown protests, in particular those organized
by labor unions:
“Workers can’t concentrate, it’s impossible to meet with clients,
and stores and services report a drop-off in business. Never mind the
effects on those poor souls who moved downtown because they believed
the city’s promise that it was a good place to make a home … No one
is suggesting that the union protests can’t continue, only that they
proceed without the ruckus of bells, drums, whistles and other
noisemakers. There is no constitutional right to annoy or disturb
others, and no reasonable court would view bucket-banging and air
horn-blasting to be public speaking.”
The objections are understandable. The 1100 block of 15th Street NW
has been a hotbed of labor protest lately, with hotel workers
picketing the Madison Hotel for more than two months and now the
carpenters’ union objecting to nonunion work being done at an office
building. Also, full disclosure, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper
Guild has engaged in two short pickets in front of the Post building
in recent weeks as part of newsroom contract negotiations. As a Guild
member, I wielded a cowbell for a time at the second protest, while
organizers led our group in chants using a bullhorn.
That said, I turned to John Boardman, leader of the local union
representing workers at the Madison and other downtown hotels, to
explain why his members and other unions engage in loud protests.
”When I see people protesting here, I see strength and resilience that
can’t be crushed by rich and powerful people,” he said.
Boardman took issue with the editorial’s use of words like “offensive”
and “intolerable” — words, he said, “that I think can be ascribed to
certain institutions that don’t appreciate working people and have
anger towards organizations representing working people.”
”We get that it’s inconvenient for businesses and residents,” he said.
“What’s intolerable is to expect hotel workers to stand silently by
while their jobs are taken away, while their benefits are reduced,
while they’re stripped of their rights to speak out about abuse in
Boardman said his workers don’t have the same avenues of protest as
the moneyed. “They don’t have enough money to buy radio ads, they
can’t buy TV advertising, they can’t hire expensive PR consultants,”
he said. “Being heard, and admittedly loudly, is how they stand up and
fight in this country.”
As Boardman’s UNITE HERE Local 25 can attest, noise is effective —
particularly for hotel workers. After nine-and-a-half-weeks of
picketing at the Madison, workers reached a deal with the hotel’s new
owners, Destination Hotels and Resorts. That came after the hotel lost
a significant amount of business from individuals and groups unwilling
to cross a picket line — in addition, of course, to guests who might
not have wanted to put up with racket that started in morning’s wee
Noise is power, and that has a lot to do with why Local 25 and other
labor groups so vehemently objected to a 2008 D.C. Council bill that
could have severely limited protest noisemaking.
Note that the editorial also raised questions about unions that hire
nonmembers, often homeless people, to picket. Boardman said his
union’s pickets feature only its own members, plus members of allied
organizations such as community group or churches. But he added that
critics who seize on that issue do so as a feint: “They’re focusing on
it because they disagree on the underlying premise that working people
should be able to speak out and be heard.”