The Washington Post editorial board is pissed beyond words about Bill Turque‘s Wednesday blog post regarding the board’s relationship with D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the post, which the paper temporarily deleted from its site last night, Metro education reporter Turque blasted editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao for furnishing Rhee a “print version of the Larry King Show.”
When reached today for reaction on Turque’s strong words, Armao said, “I am not talking about it in any way, shape, or form,” noting that she’s not even gossiping with friends who’ve approached her on the matter. When asked why she’s going covert on this one, Armao said she was busy with a bunch of other things. I said, “Aw, come on,” and then pointed out that the journalistic thing to do is to open up.
Armao then apologized in advance for hanging up. Dial tone.
Perhaps Armao is busy counting the reasons why she’s so pissed at Turque. They’re right there—-or were right there—-in the item he posted yesterday afternoon. First he noted that Armao has more success getting Rhee on the line than he does. Then he noted that the ed. board had been “steadfast” in its support for Rhee. And then he noted one case in which that support, in his view, afforded Rhee safe harbor—-a flareup in which the mayor’s kids miraculously landed in a fabulous out-of-boundary school. Though Rhee has never explained how that all happened, the editorial board gave her a pass on the matter, offering an “innocent explanation” to excuse what appears to be an abuse of power.
Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wasn’t happy with Turque’s scribblings when he caught wind of them around 8 p.m. He walked into the office of Post Managing Editor Liz Spayd, pointed out the item, and “expressed my unhappiness,” says Hiatt. Then he left.
Spayd says she then pulled the item from the site, on the following grounds: “Where it went over is where it ascribed motive to Chancellor Rhee’s decision to speak to our editorial board and, more importantly, I don’t think that he should be challenging or seeming to assess the stances of our editorial board or questioning their integrity, and I think that that blog did that.”
Asked whether Turque is going to be in trouble for such transgressions, Spayd declined to comment.
Both big shots in this drama agree that Hiatt never recommended any course of action and didn’t participate in the decision to take the item down. Nor did he preside over or take part in the removal of its juiciest passages and its re-posting on the site.
Nor did Hiatt hang up when asked to comment on the post. In his trademark calm, he listed his concerns with it:
- “It’s my own feeling—-and the policy that most people at the newspaper try to follow—-that when anyone has reason to be unhappy with anyone else, we try to bring it to each others’ attention rather than putting it into print.”
- “To suggest that Jo-Ann Armao is in anybody’s pocket is so far from the truth that it sort of takes my breath away….I have had a lot of editorial writers work for me. None of them have been more diligent and assiduous about getting both sides of any story and being fair minded than Jo-Ann.”
- “In this case, I find it particularly strange to say that the statement landed in our laps because of our editorial views, for a couple of reasons: Tom Sherwood also seems to have come up with it, and I don’t see anyone accusing him of anything other than being independent-minded reporter.” Also, Hiatt claims that Rhee called a Metro reporter and apologized for the uneven distribution of her statement. An inquiry on that question to the Metro desk fetched a no-comment.
Now here’s what City Desk readers should take away from the Turque crisis:
- Hiatt’s right about Armao being a fabulous editorial writer; as we’ve noted on this blog before, she’s done great reporting and has a record of holding public officials to account. Rhee, however, is certainly not tops on that list, and Turque is on terra firma in shaming the board for its editorial on the Fenty kids’ accession to Lafayette Elementary School.
- The Post is a complicated and fascinating place. As Turque pointed out in his post—-in both the original and edited versions—-the fact that the editorial board had a scoop and the news side didn’t speaks to the strength of the vaunted “firewall” separating the two. Yet Hiatt managed to sneak through an opening to report his displeasure to Spayd.
- The entire episode speaks to the newspaper’s inability to graduate from Web 101. A lot of news organizations—-this one included—-treat their blog work like the inviolate, sacred space that it has become. You don’t just take down a post because it pisses someone off, especially someone within the organization. And if you edit or change or delete or remove or alter a post in any way, you make that plain to the reader. To this moment, the edited Turque post contains no alert that the original has been bowdlerized. The subtext here is that, Hey, it’s just a blog post—-it’s not the paper. You can take it down, pass it around, whatever.
- The transparency that Turque provided in his piece is just the sort of content that today’s savvy readers crave. That he seeded it with a couple of elbows and some juicy language bolsters the case in his favor. After this spanking, you can bet that Turque’s next few blog items are going to be boring as shit, custom-designed to stay off the radar of his superiors. It’s time to give creative, talented reporters like Turque some space to breathe on the paper’s blogs. Loosen up, Post!