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The Washington Post is standing behind last Sunday’s Style section feature on the gentrification of H Street NE—-even those parts that have been proven wrong. “The bottom line is, I think the story speaks for itself,” says Marcia Davis, a Style assignment editor.
“U-Turn on H Street” was a classic WaPo swipe at the complicated racial politics of renewal along this long-suffering corridor. The story’s author, DeNeen L. Brown, took a breezy, poetic approach to the topic, occasionally dipping into second-person storytelling. After describing an encounter with a clever shopkeeper, for instance, Brown writes, “you wonder whether the newcomers would catch that kind of humor, appreciate that kind of street wit that doesn’t come with a degree.”
The “newcomers” in Brown’s piece are basically the white people who have moved into the H Street vicinity. And they take a pretty thorough beating in the piece. Which is fine, so long as the facts hold up.
On Monday, they appeared to be taking a beating. In an online discussion of the piece, two posters wrote in to take issue with the money anecdote in the Brown story. That anecdote goes like this: One night, Courtney Rae Rawls, 26, was tending bar at H Street’s the Argonaut. She was serving a table of white people. These people found some chalk lying around and started writing on the table. Rawls asked them to stop. Here’s the rest of the story, verbatim from the story:
“Please, guys, quit writing on the table. Nobody wants to rub their elbows in chalk.”
The customers laughed. They picked up the chalk again. Exasperated, the bartender yelled: “Come on, ya’ll grown people!”
A white woman at the table mocked: ” ‘Ya’ll grown people!’ What kind of language is that?”
The woman: “You ought to be glad I bought a $500,000 house in your black ghetto neighborhood.”
The online chatters—-one claimed to have witnessed the confrontation from a table by the jukebox and one claimed to have been at the table—-took issue with the Post‘s rendering of events. From the person near the jukebox: “The white students were writing on the table but they did not say what Ms. Rawls said they did.” And from the person at the table: “Contrary to what appeared in the story, the confrontation did not take on any race/class overtones until Ms. Rawls said ‘Y’all wouldn’t act like this in your own neighborhood.'”
These issues got a vetting earlier in the week on City Desk, which received many comments on every side of the issue. But no official response from the Post came over the blog lines.
Seeking answers, City Desk called Brown earlier in the week. Brown responded, kind of: Everything’s off the record, she said, except to say, “I stand by my story.”
So City Desk went to Davis, who edited the H Street piece. Davis took issue with City Desk’s blog post from earlier in the week, arguing that it was unfair to drop such a piece before having called the author. (*City Desk response here.) She also said that the title of the item—-“Memo to Post Style Section: Do Some Goddamn Reporting”—-was also unfair in light of how much reporting Brown pumped into the piece.
City Desk posed a few issues to Davis. They’re after the jump, with her responses:
CD: Once you found out on the Monday chat that people had differing versions of the Argonaut story, did you try to get to the bottom of it all?
Davis: “There was an attempt to try to find them before the story ran. Here’s the thing I want to say: DeNeen is an award-winning journalist many times over and for whom I have to write another letter for another award today. She is known for tackling very sensitive issues, and she does not shy away from the fault lines in our society, of which race is one.”
CD: In its reporting of the Argonaut incident, City Desk has found out a couple of things: First, the story mistakenly says that Rawls was serving a table of white people. In fact, as she told City Desk on the record, she was merely a patron of the Argonaut at the time. Also, an online chatter has alleged—-and Rawls has confirmed—-that Rawls told the people at the table that they wouldn’t do that in their neighborhood. [ADDENDUM, 3:05 P.M.: Rawls said she was not responsible for any racial escalation.]
Are these correctable mistakes?
Davis: “[Those points don’t] negate the essence of that incident….I have a problem with the City Paper nitpicking…what is in essence a true point….I am confident that DeNeen accurately reflected the information that she got in the course of reporting this story.”
CD: Are your evidentiary/reporting standards any higher when reporting about racial confrontations than when reporting on, say, a clash over a dog park?
Davis: “We struggle to reach the highest level of standards on every story….I think DeNeen did that.”
CD: The opening scene of your story featured an interesting encounter between a white woman and some black men. The black men are represented as “Three invisible men, residents who lived in the meantime, the in-between years when this street was desolate, neglected by the city, when some white people would not be caught walking in this block of H Street.”
These men are never identified by name. Did the reporter confirm that they were in fact residents of the corridor?
Davis: “Mr. Wemple, I think that I’ve given you enough of my time. I think you can nitpick a story to death, which seems to be a part of the City Paper‘s DNA when it comes to the Washington Post.”
Questions that didn’t get answered:
- In the story, your reporter asks Ward 3 resident Joe Englert why white people move into a neighborhood like H Street. Elsewhere, the story makes all kinds of representations about white gentrifiers on H Street. Why is it that the story doesn’t interview a single white H Street homeowner?
- Your story stated lives in Glover Park; he actually lives in Cleveland Park. Is that something you’ll correct?
* Journalists love to hammer media writers for failing to reach out by phone before publishing a critical story about their story. When they use this counterattack, they often have something to be ashamed of. Over the years, Slate media critic Jack Shafer has been outspoken in his scorn for the old “you didn’t call me” defense. A media critic who’s out to savage a piece of journalism, argues Shafer, has no more obligation to call the author than does the book reviewer who’s out to savage a book. Says Shafer: “It’s a way to deflect the focus from what was written to something else—-you, hurt feelings, or unprofessional conduct.”