City Desk

Why Did the Washington Post Magazine Run Another Wanda Fleming Column?

xxfiles

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."

Fanta? Sunkist?

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."

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  • http://newcolumbiaheights.blogspot.com andrew

    The Post seems to be taking the Adrian Fenty method of public relations -- avoid questions.

  • edward

    If you run into her again, ask her to show you the scar of the thyroid operation she claimed in a previous essay to have undergone. She maintains it was gone without a scar, but this is impossible. There is a big scar, and it almost encircles your throat. If the doctor does it carefully, he or she can follow the crease in the skin of the neck, but there is a scar. Furthermore, she indicates thyroid cancer. The follow-on treatment regularly followed in cases of thyroid cancer is a treatment with radioactive iodine, in which the patient is kept in isolation for three days. Strange she doesn't mention this. Maybe she forgot about it while luxuriating in the fact there is no scar evident on her neck.

  • Dan Brown

    hmmm..weird comment....The author is featured with a very large scar on her neck in the photo the Post carried ( and the neck shot appears on the writer's blog. Just click and look. I reread that piece and no where did the author say she was not left with a scar. I believe the surgeon alluded to it being a small scar. I clicked on the photo and the neck shows a clear slice scar on the throat. I love how City Paper readers love to pile on people. Pretty pathetic, pretty loserish actually. And Erik's piece was about 12% informative, rambling and typical of the diatribes run against the Post.

  • edward

    1. Is that a scar? 2. Is that a scar from a thyroid operation?
    That's why I asked Erik to check it out the next time he runs into her. I find it a little low for the thyroid, which is about halfway up the neck. It would be a little awkward for surgeons to get at it from that cut, if it is a cut and not the imprint of a necklace or something like that.
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_YdEiMoMgR0s/ST1coEE4fcI/AAAAAAAAAKE/ap7-tdOAe_A/s1600-h/knife+fight+laughing.JPG

  • michael barrett

    This woman needs to be stopped. I thought the child molestation story was a deliberate deception, designed to give a man convicted of gross acts a newspaper clip that he can point to claiming it was all a mistake. With that clip, he can launder his reputation and perhaps gain access once again to children. That's why the families of the girls are so upset and demanded the Post set the record straight. The clip from the magazine doesn't have the correction that the Post appended to the online story.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Erik C. Wemple

    12 percent!!??? I'll take it!

  • Jim in DC

    To be proud (albeit, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suppose) that your relentless effort to assassinate Ms. Fleming's character is "12% informative" reveals much more about your own journalistic standards than anyone else's. That means your article is 88% something else that's usually associated with fertilizer. To your credit, you've obviously succeeded in bringing folks with far too much time on their hands out of the wood-work--people with time to speculate very personally, graphically and uncharitably about Ms. Fleming's past health issues.

    Your "story" is so derivative--such an effort to make something from nothing for the sole purpose of targeting an individual whom you've decided for some reason that you don't like--as to be pointless. It is nothing but ginned up speculation that this free-lance writer who once-upon-a-time wrote an essay, some nuances of which caused something of a tempest among those most directly involved, lacks credibility with respect to a totally unrelated essay months later. Why would she name the exact drugstore, people involved, etc.? It's an essay based on life's experience, not a police report.

    You archly pose questions about Ms. Fleming's credibility based on your own transparent desire to get mileage from an old controversy, then you pat yourself on the back because you tried, but supposedly were foiled, in your so-called sincere efforts to investigate the truth of an essay Ms. Fleming wrote about some shoplifting kids in her neighborhood. Sit back for a minute and think about how petty and absurd your efforts running around the neighborhood behind her looked. Why would Ms. Fleming talk to you after your publication rail-roaded her a few months ago? Nothing she could have said would have changed your hit-job. And a "late hit," at that.

  • Matty B

    Wemple's observations are not threadbare, but legitamate concerns coming from someone who moniters the news.

    At best, Fleming is guilty of lazy journalism - if you are going to focus a column on your own personal experiences, you better nail every particular detail with precision. I want to know what type of sneakers the boy was wearing, what color his sweatshirt, if his jeans were frayed, etc. That is not only how you keep your prose interesting, but how you ensure that your story is credible. Anything less should be regarded with suspicion. To not even mention the store name and neighborhood (remember the five W's?) is tenuous.

    Are we saying that Fleming deliberately lied? Not necessarily, but the ambiguity with which she treated her article is enough to give us pause.

  • ANDREW59

    Nope. Totally Disagree. If I was reading Stop Thief in a collection of other personal essays, I would not be asking myself, "Hmmm,was it CVS or Rite Aid? OMG!!! I can't tell if it's a Walmart or not."

    Pay attention folks. XX Files is not your community policing newsletter. It's not the Metro section. Pay some more attention. If it did originally mention SUNKIST or FANTA OR CVS, the WAPO would have rightfully cut and edited most of that excess. As a reader, I did not find this essay the least bit ambiguous. A parent sees a child stealing and has to make a decision. If you want a novel, read one.

    And Wemple's observations? . jesus f----his recent batting average is about 6%, forget the 12. He is really insufferable when he gets like this. He fancies himself as a crusader?? So he goes to the lowest thing a person on the newspaper foodchain can be--an unprotected low paid freelance writer. Puffs out his chest, comes an inch away from defamation, smirks through every one of his syllables, and then pretends to be doing the community a big service by pissing on this woman through speculation?. Wonder why Fleming didn't let him in her house, offer muffins and a nice long sit down chat?

    The narrative was beyond tight, flawless and powerful. I, as a very old "seasoned" reader did not need more luxurious adjectives...or to hear that the soda was not just orange. Didn't need to hear that the kid's sneakers were frayed, and his raincoat was what, tartam plaid LL Bean? And frankly, even as cynical as I am, I did NOT appreciate the implication that someone who has made an error previously is suddenly a full blown pathological liar who "needs to be stopped?" Let's all be so pristinely judgemental of ourselves.

    What I need in this city and from this "ALTERNATIVE NEWSPAPER"is some real work. Instead of pontificating about this trite crap and pretending that some minimum wage CVS serf who probably was not even employed there when this happened is going to answer your questions on record, here is a great idea. How about doing the actual investigative piece?

    WHY is this or any drugstore profiling minors, stopping them and asking for receipts,( and I would not be surprised if actually unzipping their knapsacks)?
    ARE they doing it to all children or just the "suspicious undesirables (read boys and minorities)?"

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Jason Cherkis

    I'm not going to wade deeply into all the back and forth here.

    But for the reporter to shut down the door on Erik says volumes about her integrity. If she can't face questions concerning her writing, she should quit writing or be fired.

  • Jens Börkson

    did a curious freelance columnist send out a mass e-mail to all her sympathizers in an attempt to sabotage wemple?

    what kind of reader would be outraged that the paper is doing reportorial digging and watchdog fact-checking to illuminate Postie incongruities and, perhaps, fabricated tales?

    i wonder what the IP addresses of these cats would reveal.

  • Dave

    I 2nd Jens. These pro-Fleming commenters seem fishy.

  • Piscataway

    I'm with Wemple. Fleming's mistakes were huge and caused a lot of heartache for the family of the molested girls. She either deliberately withheld important information that would have changed the story, or didn't look for the information, hoping the blurring of details would mean she didn't have to check her facts.

    And then there is her blog, on which it's clear she doesn't think she did anything wrong--the victim's grandmother's letter has apparently not moved her at all--AND starts maundering about "what are facts" and "whose truth?" and how she only had 750 words, so lying was her only option. Apparently the fact that a once-good magazine had to apologize publicly for her is irrelevant, since it all depends on what is meant by "facts." As someone above pointed out, she has no business publishing what she writes.

    But the final indignity is that Erik Wemple is paying more attention to the Post Magazine than anyone who works there. Cheers City Paper for pointing out that somebody cares.

  • http://amandabynesnudiesny.xanga.com lilikindsli

    GBi8oQ I want to say - thank you for this!

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