The Washington Post on Wednesday evening deleted from its Web site a sizzling and brilliantly constructed blog post that criticized the paper’s editorial board. Metro education reporter Bill Turque, in a Wednesday afternoon item on washingtonpost.com, explained to readers why they might have noticed an anomaly in the paper’s coverage of a high-profile hubbub centering on D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Rhee, as the entire city knows, got herself in big trouble last week when comments she’d made to Fast Company magazine surfaced on the Web. Among other things, Rhee stated that a round of controversial layoffs last October had dumped teachers who had had sex with DCPS children.
It was an unsubstantiated charge that demanded elaboration, and that’s where the local media comes in. Turque pushed as hard as anyone for details, badgering Rhee and her lieutenants for specifics on the abusive teachers. But in the end, he got scooped—-not by the Examiner or Washington City Paper, but an in-house competitor: Jo-Ann Armao, another bulldog reporter and a member of the paper’s editorial board.
As has happened on previous occasions, the Post editorial board got an early heads-up from the Rhee administration. The results popped up in editorial page copy Tuesday morning, leaving Turque and many others in the dust.
After the story had settled down, Turque apparently felt compelled to tell readers why one compartment of the Post had an exclusive while another sat there empty-handed. So he got into it: The edit board’s Armao, wrote Turque, has a solid relationship with the chancellor. The fact that the opinionmongers nailed the scoop, published it, and didn’t invite Metro to share in the bounty, continued Turque, only goes to show what Post editors have been telling the public for years: That there’s a firewall between the two sides of the newspaper.
In Turque’s words: “The news and opinion columns of The Post are wholly separate and independent operations. This assertion frequently draws a torrent of skepticism, but if this episode does nothing else, it should give the lie to the notion that there is some sort of sinister linkage.”
Turque had more. He said that Armao & Co. were entitled to speak with Rhee and then write favorable things about her reforms, as they had done on many occasions. Churning out opinions, after all, is what editorial boards do, he noted.
Toward the end, the Metro beat writer sharpened the edge, arguing that the Post editorial board has excavated a safe harbor for Rhee. And like any good blogger, he threw in an example—-the time when Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty came under fire for somehow allowing Fenty’s twin sons to enroll in the outstanding Lafayette Elementary School in upper Northwest last August. The powers that were failed to give any kind of explanation as to how the Fenty kids managed to land in such a prized out-of-boundary school. Reporters hounded administration officials for days—-weeks!—-on the matter and got nowhere.
The Post editorial board, meanwhile, printed a rationale for the Lafayette placement—-that the twins needed to be in separate classes, and the in-boundary school for the Fenty family wasn’t big enough to accomplish such a separation. The editorial came off as a regurgitation of whispers from some top official in the Fenty-Rhee axis. In any case, that argument about keeping the twins apart had many drawbacks, as Loose Lips columnist Mike DeBonis has noted.
Savor the words that convey Turque’s scorn for the coziness between the edit board and schools officials: “Where this gets complicated is that board’s stance, and the chancellor’s obvious rapport with Jo-Ann, also means that DCPS has a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures—kind of a print version of the Larry King Show.”
When something that juicy gets taken down, phone calls are in order. Reached in his office right in the middle of the State of the Union Address, editorial board chief Fred Hiatt wouldn’t get into it. “I don’t have anything to tell you,” he said.
A newsroom source, however, confirmed that the post had indeed been taken down. The problem, according to the source, was that the post contained more opinion than allowed in the blog post of a beat writer. Translation: No posts with passion, outrage, and great writing are allowed on washingtonpost.com. Well, at least not if you’re on a beat.
Late Wednesday night, Posties were working on a new version with duller elbows. Compare the new thingie with the original, retrieved and pasted below, in all its glory:
One newspaper, two stories
Many of you may have noticed something more than a tad odd Tuesday morning in our coverage of Chancellor Rhee’s now immortal comments to “Fast Company.” My story, which appeared on the front of the Metro section, said that Rhee had yet to explain or elaborate, and that there would be no comment until later in the day. My Monday evening blog entry said pretty much the same thing.
The editorial page told a different story. Citing “information released by the chancellor’s office on Monday,” it said that of the 266 teachers laid off in October, six had served suspensions for corporal punishment, two had been absent without leave on multiple occasions, and one was on administrative leave for allegedly having sex with a student.
So, after asking DCPS about this since Friday—and being promised a response all day Monday—I read the answers in an editorial. Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood also had Rhee’s explanation on the air Monday.
But it’s the disconnect between the editorial page and the news section that I feel requires some kind explanation. So let me try.
The news and opinion columns of The Post are wholly separate and independent operations. This assertion frequently draws a torrent of skepticism, but if this episode does nothing else, it should give the lie to the notion that there is some sort of sinister linkage. I have little-to-no contact with Jo-Ann Armao, who writes The Post’s education editorials (full disclosure: Jo-Ann hired me in 2002 when she was the assistant managing editor for metro news; but we’re all allowed a lapse of judgment now and then). About the only time we cross paths is at news events involving District education. Jo-Ann is a dogged journalist who pursues her own information.
That includes talking to Chancellor Rhee. And while I don’t have their call sheets in front of me, I would wager that the Chancellor talks to Jo-Ann more than she does to me. (After a well-documented period of silence, the Chancellor started taking my calls and e-mails again last summer)
That’s fine. Chancellor Rhee can obviously talk to whoever she wants about whatever she wants. While some of my colleagues don’t agree, my view is that Jo-Ann isn’t responsible for watching my back journalistically any more than I would be expected to align my reporting with her points of view.
The chancellor is clearly more comfortable speaking with Jo-Ann, which is wholly unsurprising. I’m a beat reporter charged with covering, as fully and fairly as I can, an often turbulent story about the chancellor’s attempts to fix the District’s public schools. The job involves chronicling messy and contentious debates based in both politics and policy, and sometimes publishing information she would rather not see in the public domain.
Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring.
That’s what editorial boards do. They form opinions and write about them. People can buy in.
Where this gets complicated is that board’s stance, and the chancellor’s obvious rapport with Jo-Ann, also means that DCPS has a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures—kind of a print version of the Larry King Show. This happened last September during the flap over the out-of-boundary admission of Mayor Fenty’s twin sons to Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase.
The chancellor repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether policies and procedures had been followed to place the kids in the coveted school. A few days after the dust settled, an editorial offered, without attribution, an “innocent explanation”: the Fentys neighborhood school, West Elementary, had only one fourth grade class. Lafayette’s multiple fourth-grade sections made it possible to separate the twins, which studies show is developmentally desirable.
Are Fenty and Rhee gaming the system by using the editorial page this way? Of course. Is this a healthy thing for readers of The Post? Probably not. Is it going to keep me from doing my job effectively?