The Washington Post‘s Salahi Blockbuster: Local Meets National
Last Tuesday, the Washington Post announced that it would be closing its news bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Correspondents from those outposts, the announcement said, would be heading back to the mother ship, the better to report on the Post’s core mission of covering Washington.
When asked by in-house media reporter Howard Kurtz what was going on here, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said, "We are not a national news organization of record serving a general audience. Nor are we a wire service or cable channel."
The Brauchli remarks prompted much brow movement among folks in the Post newsroom as well as media watchers. Well, if the Post isn’t a national news organization, why does it invest so much in covering the federal government? And if the Post isn’t serving a general audience, just what kind of audience is it serving?
Those questions have preoccupied the strategy sessions of Brauchli and his boss, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, not to mention other top company thinkers. Yet within minutes of Brauchli’s strange pronouncements, a few hard-working reporters started framing an answer.
As guests started filing into the White House for Tuesday night’s state dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reporter Robin Givhan and Reliable Source columnist Roxanne Roberts double-teamed the scene. They watched as a Marine called out the names of the more than 300 lucky ones who’d been invited to the high-profile affair.
When the names of Tareq and Michaele Salahi rang through the corridor, Roberts went into I-can’t-believe-I-just-heard-that mode. She did some thumbnail social calculations: “How on earth did they manage to get an invitation to the Obamas’ first state dinner? I knew they were not wealthy. I knew they were not politically connected, and I didn’t know of any connection to the Indian government,” says Roberts, who checked the guest list for the Salahis. They weren’t on it.
Handsome, well-dressed, all smiles—the Salahis at first glance looked just as dignitarian as any other folks who walked down the White House red carpet. Roberts knew otherwise, based on the various items that she and Reliable Source co-columnist Amy Argetsinger had written about the couple. The Salahis won mention in the Reliable Source whenever their family dispute over ownership of their $4 million Oasis Winery in Fauquier County took another ugly twist. And the name surfaced again following Bravo’s announcement that it would be taking its “Real Housewives” franchise to Washington, an opportunity that Michaele pounced on.
Givhan, too, had a short history with the Salahis. She'd gone to a salon opening attended by the couple, not to mention a camera crew from "Real Housewives"; she left after a producer tried to get her to sign a nondisclosure form.
With their strange appearance at the White House, the Salahis were on the verge of breaking out of their blurby confines on the Reliable Source page and onto A1. The first step in that direction was an e-mail that Roberts sent to Argetsinger saying, in effect, guess who's here? Argetsinger postulated that the couple had simply crashed the party, a notion that was slow to catch on with her colleagues. “No one I was talking to that night was willing to believe the gate-crashing thing,” says Argetsinger.
Team Post on Tuesday night settled on throwing in a line about the couple in the news wrapup of the dinner: “The most curious and unexpected sighting: Tareq and Michaele Salahi. The notorious Fauquier County vineyard socialites, who are filming ‘Real Housewives of D.C.,’ swanned in, even though their names did not appear on the official guest list.”
Then, restlessness. Argetsinger couldn’t sleep that night because she thought other media outlets would be all over the story, eclipsing the small mention in the party summary that the Post had just printed. In a preemptive strike, she threw a post on the Reliable Source blog early Wednesday morning, digging into the mystery and including a quote from the source: “Tareq Salahi told us in an e-mail overnight that their connecton came from the fact that a team from India is scheduled to play the U.S. in his next polo tournament. ‘They are very excited in this first ever cultural connection being hosted on the DC National Mall since Polo is one of the primary sports in India,’ he told us.”
Later that day, the Posties secured White House confirmation that the Salahis had crashed the affair, sealing the story as a Washington Post exclusive. The gossip columnists then went their separate ways for the holiday, figuring they’d pretty much finished their business with these Virginia socialites. Then the 24-7 media biz crashed their party, requesting all manner of interviews and sound bites on their reporting. More stories, official White House photographs, more stories, official investigations, and more stories followed.
When Argetsinger returned on Saturday night from her Thanksgiving “break,” a car service was waiting to take her to CNN studios for some chit-chat on the Salahis.
And just like that, the Post was leading the march on a national story for a general audience. Granted, this was a national story with local roots: The reason that the paper was so far ahead on the drama is that other outlets had no idea what poseurs the Salahis were. A Thanksgiving Day story in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, discussed how the state dinner reflected the “heightened profile” of Indian Americans—good, but standard, stuff.
While the Los Angeles Timeses of the world hustled over the weekend to confirm what the Post had nailed by Tuesday night, the Post was busy running away from the field, via this piece on the Salahis' life and times and this piece on the couple's charity work, not to mention this piece on their attempt to get into the White House via a contact at the Defense Department. The point here—this wasn't a story that the Post's competitors could match via parachute over a holiday weekend.
When asked how the Salahi reporting fits into the Post’s evolving strategy, Brauchli passed the inquiry onto spokesperson Kris Coratti, who issued the following statement: “We cover news of interest to our audience, whether it is local, national or international. That hasn’t changed and that won’t change. This particular story fits squarely into our strategy: it is both for and about Washington.”
In corralling its little secret about the gate-crashers, the Post was reaping a nice return on investment. For 20 years, the company has paid Roberts to stand around at parties in search of tidbits and occasional long narratives. If anyone was to arbitrate who belonged at a state dinner and who had slipped past the Secret Service, it was she.
“There was probably no other reporter in the press area who had written about Salahis before that night and questioned their presence at a White House state dinner. It’s kind of a fluke from that standpoint—I happened to be the right place at the right time,” says Roberts.