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Sweeping negative statements are a minefield for journalists. Say you’re interviewing a guy for a profile, and you ask him if he’s ever gotten into any trouble. “Never been arrested,” he replies. Before including such a claim in a story, you’ve got to hit the databases covering the entire country. And then you’ll have to check the subject’s overseas escapades.
Lesson: Stay away from categorical negatives at all costs. And when you do use them, make sure you have ironclad sourcing behind them.
Yesterday’s Washington Post contained a nervy categorical negative. The story in question was a feature on the love affair between former NBA star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin “KJ” Johnson and D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Written by the prolific and wonderful Wil Haygood, it was a timely and well told piece, full of insights on this now-very-public relationship.
Yet it stopped me dead in my tracks when it vouched for KJ’s bona fides in the fidelity department. The fleet-footed point guard spent 12 seasons in the NBA, and here’s how the story characterized his romantic record over that period:
“Unlike some, he was no womanizer in the NBA.”
Now that’s a whopper of a categorical negative. Saying someone didn’t fool around over more than a decade in the NBA is like saying someone went to a beer festival and had nothing to drink. The NBA culture of fucking everything in sight is too well established to belabor here.
So what testimony does the Post display for this stunning contention? That of KJ’s mom: “He had always said it was too hard in the NBA with all the traveling to have a serious relationship,” the mother is quoted as saying.
Time to take this thing apart, piece by piece.
No. 1: The quote from the mother doesn’t even support the contention that KJ wasn’t a womanizer. In fact, it supports the possibility that he was. After all, if it’s too hard to have a “serious relationship” in the NBA, what the hell do you do? Right: You womanize.
No. 2: Since when does a journalist rely on a mom to substantiate whether her son is a good man? Sydney Trent, Haygood’s editor on the piece, responded as follows when asked about the reliance on KJ’s mom: “While we quoted his mother we also verified the information from other sources.”
And then, under a subhed that reads, “Negative Publicity,” Haygood delves into some events that occurred at the St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit that founded to create a network of charter schools. Haygood writes the following:
Then came the darkness: The local press wrote about a 1995 case in Phoenix in which a 16-year-old accused Johnson of fondling her in a sexual manner. Police declined to bring charges following an investigation. In 2008, there was a similar allegation made against Johnson by a high school student at his St. Hope Sacramento High School. Rhee considered herself familiar with the inner workings of St. Hope High and didn’t believe the charges against Johnson.
“It was a hard thing for me,” she says. “I actually knew firsthand about the accusations. I knew them not to be true. Kevin just said, ‘If people want to throw stones, let them.’ ” Johnson’s accuser later recanted and no charges were filed.
There’s no way Johnson could have asked for a more favorable treatment of these events. As City Desk reported last November, the details of the St. Hope episode raised far more questions about the protagonist than Haygood even comes close to acknowledging. Here’s a more definitive abridgment:
Rhee didn’t merely “consider herself familiar” with the “inner workings” of St. Hope. Oh no, that way understates her role in KJ’s alleged misdeeds. According to a federal investigation into shoddy management practices at St. Hope, Rhee performed “damage control” when KJ came under fire. When inappropriate touching complaints against KJ surfaced, for example, Rhee essentially pulled an Al Haig, telling a school worker that “she was making this her number one priority and she would take care of the situation.” After that, the administrator discovered that KJ’s lawyer had contacted the woman who’d accused KJ of the sexual misconduct, and the accuser dropped the complaint.
In perhaps the most blatant instance of whitewashing, Haygood’s story suggests that there was only one instance in which Johnson stood accused of inappropriate sexual moves at St. Hope. In fact, the allegations form a much larger, stinkier pile than that. Three separate instances of KJ advances appear in the federal report. Here are excerpts from the investigation (Note: the excerpts refer to “members,” code for members of AmeriCorps, the national volunteer group that had placed workers in St. Hope):
Accuser No. 1:
One Member, [REDACTED] (Ex. 19 hereto), reported that, in the February/March 2007 time frame, she was entering grades into the SAC High database system per Mr. Johnson’s instructions at the St. HOPE office at night, purportedly as part of her AmeriCorps service. [REDACTED] contacted Mr. Johnson to inform him that she had completed the grades and wanted him to review them. About 11:00 pm, Mr. Johnson arrived at St. HOPE and instructed [REDACTED] to gather her things and come with him. Mr. Johnson drove to [REDACTED] apartment, which is managed by St. HOPE Development and houses its AmeriCorps Members, purportedly so that they could review the students’ grades. While in [REDACTED], in which another AmeriCorps Member had a separate bedroom, Mr, Johnson laid down on [REDACTED’s] bed, [REDACTED] sat on the edge of the bed to show him the grades, at which time Mr. Johnson “layed down behind me, cupping his body around mine like the letter C. After about 2-3 minutes or so, I felt his hand on my left side where my hip bone is.” Further, although not detailed in her written statement, [REDACTED], during the interview, demonstrated, while explaining, that Mr. Johnson’s hand went under her untucked shirt and moved until his hand was on her hip.
The report alleges that Johnson subsequently tried to pay off the woman.
Accuser No. 2:
Another former Member, [REDACTED] (Ex. 20 hereto), reported that, while attending a St. HOPE sponsored trip to Harlem, NY, from June 26 to July 16, 2006, Mr. Johnson, on three occasions, “brushed [her] leg with his hand,” including once “flip[ingj up the edge of her skirt. Other times, she stated, Mr. Johnson kissed her cheek, brushed up against her as he walked past, and massaged her shoulders. ([REDACTED] reported another incident that occurred in Sacramento, CA, in which Mr. Johnson touched [REDACTED’s] inner thigh with his hand while enroute to a restaurant. [REDACTED] said she did not report the incidents to AmeriCorps officials at that time because she feared she would be terminated from the program and because Mr. Johnson was assisting her in obtaining acceptance into the United States Military Academy, where she subsequently enrolled.
Accuser No. 3:
In addition, former SAC High teacher Mr. Erik Jones (Ex. 12 hereto) reported that a former AmeriCorps Member, [REDACTED], reported to him, sometime in 2007, that, while at SAC High, Mr. Johnson had inappropriately touched her. Mr. Jones stated that [REDACTED] had reported that Mr. Johnson started massaging her shoulders and then reached over and touched her breasts. (Attempts to interview [REDACTED] have been so far unsuccessful.)
How could the Post have simply overlooked this publicly available testimony? When asked about the wider body of evidence against KJ at St. Hope, Trent responds: “The accusations were investigated by police and Johnson was exonerated. We made decisions that balance fairness and space.”
There’s every reason to chronicle this fascinating relationship—-this city has needed an authoritative take on the matter for some time now. Bits and pieces in gossip columns do only so much to fill out the tale. Yet why suppress the most delicious parts? Why not put it to Rhee: A federal report cites three instances of inappropriate sexual behavior by your fiance toward young women. What say you?