Why Did the Washington Post Magazine Run Another Wanda Fleming Column?
A seasoned consumer of news had every reason to furrow a brow at the XX Files column in last week's Washington Post Magazine. The first-person essay touts the author's one-woman campaign against kiddie thieves in a local pharmacy.
Here's a sampling: "As the child scurries past me with his pilfered beverage, I reach out for the hood of his coat. I pull him in and press my hand on his back. 'Put it back,' I say. Though he's the one in trouble, my own heart races. A whimper seeps from his mouth; a gurgle of stuttered syllables follows. 'I'm s-s-orry. I'm s-sorry,' he repeats."
It's a powerful, well-told episode, but how do we know it ever happened?
First of all, the neighborhood isn't identified by name—only as a "well-to-do neighborhood of popular restaurants that serve not food but 'cuisine' and shrimp that is never spicy fried but 'Crispy Dangerous.'" The police officer hanging out at the store isn't identified by name—only as a cop whose "stern countenance is surpassed only by a severe haircut and biceps so chiseled that any squirming thief could be brought to his knees with one arm twist." The beverage being heisted by the kid isn't identified by brand—only as "orange soda."
One more: Not even the store is mentioned by name—only as a "chain pharmacy." And the Post didn't even attach one of those anonymity explainers here, which could easily have been worded as follows: "The chain pharmacy requested anonymity over fears that publicizing its troubles with teen pilfering could depress sales of Diet Coke."
And lurking behind all this anonymity and uncheckable data is columnist Wanda E. Fleming, author of one of the most embarrassing episodes in the mag's history. In January, Fleming wrote a column in the same space titled "Suspended Disbelief," about the travails of a friend's husband who'd been accused of child molestation by a girl. The man accepts a plea, spends some time in jail, and comes home to find out how it feels to be treated like a monster.
Except it didn't happen that way. The man hadn't accepted a plea agreement but, rather, was convicted in a trial. Another critical point: He didn't have just one accuser; he had "more than one" accuser, according to a black-eye-inflicting editor's note by the magazine's editor at the time, Tom Shroder. "The inescapable conclusion is that the man’s guilt was not as ambiguous as presented. No names were used, but the families of the victims only too readily recognized the circumstances and were understandably upset by the implication of the story," wrote Shroder.
Not exactly your garden-variety, Page A2 correction.
Weeks later, Fleming wrote a blog post about the problem with her piece: "In a 750 word 'personal essay,' much is omitted."
Despite all that, Fleming managed to regain favor at the magazine in time for her piece on petty theft from a pharmacy. One commenter wondered how she'd pulled it off so quickly:
This story asks us to believe an unverifiable anecdote; normally, that's okay, but this writer does not deserve that trust. In her last contribution to the XX Files just a few months ago, this writer totally misrepresented the facts about a child molestation case, resulting in a correction and an abject apology from the magazine editor in his column. What gives? Why are we supposed to believe this?
I put the "What gives?" question to Debra Leithauser, the current editor of the magazine. I asked whether Fleming was put through any extra paces, whether staff had checked out the pharmacy, whether the security people were interviewed, and so on.
This is the answer that came back: "As editor, I am responsible for what appears in the magazine. Right now, I am focused on the future, and we have an incredible new magazine launching next week."
As media critic, I am responsible for critiquing what has appeared in the magazine. Unfortunately, I cannot critique stuff that will appear in the magazine in the future, unless I am given access to galleys.
In rebuffing questions about Fleming, Leithauser is in good company. Questions in hand, I contacted Managing Editor Raju Narisetti (who oversees the magazine), Managing Editor Liz Spayd (who doesn't oversee the magazine), and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli. The questions remain unanswered.
It's unclear whether the silence is the first step in the Post's implementation of the Brauchli Doctrine (i.e., newspapers spend too much time explaining themselves) or whether the Fleming issue is just too sensitive to touch.
Perhaps it's all just a resource question. The Post, after all, has suffered through four buyouts this decade, and maybe they don't have the people to fact-check any freelance columns, even one filled with anonymous characters and penned by someone who prompted an editor's note.
So I took it upon myself to track down this nameless pharmacy and figure out whether Wanda Fleming had ever nailed some fresh-faced kid trying to steal a generic orange soda. Fleming herself is listed as living near the Tenleytown commercial strip, and the "Crispy Dangerous" shrimp she refers to appears to come off the menu of a Thai restaurant in Tenleytown.
Next stop, Tenleytown CVS. I show the Washington Post Magazine story to a clerk at the store. He skims through, as customers pile up behind him. "That's what it sounds like," he says, acknowledging the problem identified in Fleming's column. He requests anonymity, like everyone else in this whole damn affair. When I ask him about the incident in which Fleming busts some kid, he says he doesn't remember it.
That means nothing, of course. No clerk can possibly monitor everything that goes down in a store. There are only two people who know whether that incident happened—Fleming and the unnamed alleged thief.
I head over to Fleming's house, hoping to have a long sit-down to discuss the incident and perhaps track down the boy and the cop—anyone else who can corroborate this story.
Fleming opens the door. I identify myself as a reporter for Washington City Paper and note that I've tried to contact her via e-mail and phone. Fleming closes the door, saying, "I'm not speaking to anyone."