The Story the Post Lost
For a brief few hours today, The Washington Post was praised for a gutsy blog post on washingtonpost.com that acknowledged the "disconnect" between the Post's editorials and its newsroom coverage of high-flying schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. "Disconnect" is one way to put it -- "existing in parallel universes" would also be a fair description of the newspaper's reported facts about Rhee's ongoing management problems and PR blunders -- versus the endless, glowing praise heaped on her by the editorial page.
While Hardy school parents are justifiably outraged by the ongoing mismanagement of their school -- including the removal of a cherished principal -- Ellington students wonder if their institution will continue to exist in Georgetown, and DCPS teachers as a whole seem threatened with a new disparaging comment from the Chancellor each day, all one finds on the Post's editorial page is a Candide-like reverie showering compliments and applause.
Reporter Bill Turque, charged with reporting facts about Chancellor Rhee, finally spoke up about the contradiction on the newspaper's blog. City Paper quickly termed it the "Best Blog Post by the Post About The Post." But that link was broken several hours later and Turque's brave blog was no longer available. Thanks to City Paper, here is Turque's blog "D.C. Schools Insider," in its entirety.
One newspaper, two stories - Bill Turque
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. Or not.
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?
We agree. Georgetown residents -- and all other readers of the Post -- deserve better. (UPDATE: After furious reaction from the blogosphere, the Post re-posted a toned-down version of Turque's blog at 10:41 pm.)