City Paper is not for tourists
In an internal communique, Washington Post Metro reporter Robert Pierre lashed out at the paper’s management for running the ongoing series on the murder of Chandra Levy. Pierre wrote that he found it “unconscionable” that the paper would devote a year and 12 chapters to the murder of a white woman, when around 200 people per year are murdered in the District—most of them male African Americans. The other local murder that “captivated” the Post, in Pierre’s telling, claimed the life of New York Times journalist David E. Rosenbaum. “Also white,” writes Pierre, who directed his outburst at Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell.
Then Pierre puts his rhetoric into overdrive: “Seems like either an awful big coincidence or just recognition that, to us, a white life is worth more than a black one. I personally hope that people march on the paper and throw the papers back. It is absolutely absurd and dare I say, racist, at its core.” Pierre goes on to discuss how he wrote up a couple of inches of copy on a recent murder victim, but his editors cut it over space concerns. “But we can devote 12 days, thousands of man-hours, and a year of investigation to one white woman.”
Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says he hasn’t discussed the matter with Pierre. Pierre didn’t return a request for comment.
Investigative chief Jeff Leen responded to Pierre’s criticisms by pointing out—as he has in another forum—that the Chandra thing is an expose of bad policing and the impact of pack journalism on a criminal investigation—as opposed to a prurient look at the murder of a glamorous white woman.
Leen has asked people to withhold their judgment till they’ve read the entire series.
Check out the truth about all this, in twelve parts, after the jump.
1) The series sucks for journalists and media critics. I hate the series because it doesn’t advance the story too much. Each time I read a chapter, I get a familiarity attack and wonder why I am wasting my time. Other people steeped in media have found the same thing, whining about the Post‘s commitment of resources to this old story, wondering what’s new here, what’s groundbreaking. It’s a lot of snobbish insularity that adds up to not much. And, of course, it’s premature; we are all reserving our judgment until we’ve read the whole thing.
2) The series is great for the non-media critics—i.e., the public.. I interviewed a regular old reader of the Post last week about the series and expected the same attitude and nastiness that I’d been hearing from my friends in the media. That didn’t happen. She just went on and on about how readable and digestible the thing was, and how inherently fascinating the story was. Of course, she was reserving judgment because she was only a few chapters in at the time.
3) Pierre’s Rosenbaum charge is specious. The Rosenbaum case was fascinating on its face. Here was a white guy who went out for a walk in his quiet neighborhood of upper Northwest and ended up dead. The EMTs who came to “rescue” him thought he was a drunk who’d passed out. Turns out he’d been bludgeoned in a robbery. He was basically left to die on a gurney in a hallway of Howard University Hospital. The paper’s Metro section wasn’t fascinated with this case and did kind of a cursory job in reporting on it. The one guy who was fascinated with the case was columnist Colbert I. King, the former deputy editorial page editor. King sunk his chompers into this case and never, ever let go. Via several of his trademark Saturday columns, King told every last maddening, incompetent twist of this story—a body of work that may well have fetched a Pulitzer for the Post, if only it had shown the good sense to pass it along. King is a black man. Of course, it’s best to withhold judgment on the Rosenbaum….oh, no, that case is finished.
4) The Post is no slouch on investigative reporting on minorities. In his rebuttal to Pierre, Leen cites numerous investigative projects that have indeed focused on African Americans, including its 1998 Pulitzer-winning series on shootings by D.C. cops, another on closing homicides, another on group homes for the mentally retarded, etc. Of course, let’s withhold our comparisons till the Chandra series concludes.
5) Rosa Lee! If Pierre thinks one year and 12 quickie stories is too much, try reading one of these installments with your morning coffee! Leon Dash spent four years on the story of Rosa Lee Cunningham, a project that dripped out in eight parts. Refill, please! And while you’re getting caffeinated, be sure to withhold your opinions on the Chandra series till all the rehash is complete.
6) What about Bob Kaiser? I’ve had it up to here with people who say that the Chandra series presents, like, a new way to present investigative journalism. Leen himself has said it. Obviously those folks don’t know a thing about Gerald S.J. Cassidy. Does “Citizen K Street” mean absolutely nothing to you morons? It’s fair, at this point, to render judgment on whether the recycled Chandra story line embodies novel storytelling techniques.
7) Watch box episode is overplayed. I swear, if I ever see another reference to Gary Condit’s creepy disposal of a Tag Heuer watch box, I will, um, not wait to render judgment on this execrable series of stories.
8)Levy family wearing out welcome. My heart goes out to them; my compassion goes out to them; my sympathy goes out to them; my best wishes go out to them. But my time, at this point, can no longer go out to Chandra Levy’s heartbroken parents. I just can’t process any more of their thoughts on this case. Of course, I will attempt to withhold judgment on just how little interest I retain in their reflections until the current series concludes.
9) Is writing a series about one white woman inherently racist? Pierre’s argument is yes, it is, considering that black men are falling all around us in great numbers. Where’s the investigative team on that story? This is one question that’s fully debatable without withholding judgment on the series until it concludes.
10) Protesters won’t materialize just because Pierre writes in an internal message that he’d welcome them. And it’s unlikely that people would throw their papers back at the building. No one subscribes to the paper anymore, so there’s nothing to throw; maybe they’ll make big signs saying “washingtonpost.com” and throw them at the building. If Pierre really wants to see picketers out front, he must show some organizing skills—call the NAACP, meet with student groups, fire some people up. Every great movement has a leader, and the Washington Post-is-racist-because-it-shares-the-public’s-fascination-with-Chandra-Levy uprising is no different. In Pierre’s defense, perhaps he’s delaying his organizing until he finishes reading the entire series.
11) New revelation: Cops and prosecutors argue over case! As if that’s never before happened—but perhaps more will be revealed if only we withhold judgment till reading all chapters.
12) Chapter 10 is titled “A Jailhouse Informant.” If that chapter comes in as strong as its title suggests, this incremental retelling of a well-known story could be….worth it! Think about it—if the last chapters of this beast contain a few reportorial gems, the Post will have solved perhaps the hottest cold case in the country. That is the only justification for doing the series. Don’t believe Leen for a second when he says that the story is actually an “accountability” series about lapses in police work and about the role of pack media in a high-profile killing. Sure, those may be components of the story but let’s not pretend that there’s some greater, more noble calling here. At least not in the first nine chapters. As for the rest, you know what to withhold.