City Desk

Washington Post Blog Post Critical of Washington Post Disappears from Web Site

The Washington Post on Wednesday evening deleted from its Web site a sizzling and brilliantly constructed blog post that criticized the paper's editorial board. Metro education reporter Bill Turque, in a Wednesday afternoon item on washingtonpost.com, explained to readers why they might have noticed an anomaly in the paper's coverage of a high-profile hubbub centering on D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee, as the entire city knows, got herself in big trouble last week when comments she'd made to Fast Company magazine surfaced on the Web. Among other things, Rhee stated that a round of controversial layoffs last October had dumped teachers who had had sex with DCPS children.

It was an unsubstantiated charge that demanded elaboration, and that's where the local media comes in. Turque pushed as hard as anyone for details, badgering Rhee and her lieutenants for specifics on the abusive teachers. But in the end, he got scooped—not by the Examiner or Washington City Paper, but an in-house competitor: Jo-Ann Armao, another bulldog reporter and a member of the paper's editorial board.

As has happened on previous occasions, the Post editorial board got an early heads-up from the Rhee administration. The results popped up in editorial page copy Tuesday morning, leaving Turque and many others in the dust.

After the story had settled down, Turque apparently felt compelled to tell readers why one compartment of the Post had an exclusive while another sat there empty-handed. So he got into it: The edit board's Armao, wrote Turque, has a solid relationship with the chancellor. The fact that the opinionmongers nailed the scoop, published it, and didn't invite Metro to share in the bounty, continued Turque, only goes to show what Post editors have been telling the public for years: That there's a firewall between the two sides of the newspaper.

In Turque's words: "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."

Turque had more. He said that Armao & Co. were entitled to speak with Rhee and then write favorable things about her reforms, as they had done on many occasions. Churning out opinions, after all, is what editorial boards do, he noted.

Toward the end, the Metro beat writer sharpened the edge, arguing that the Post editorial board has excavated a safe harbor for Rhee. And like any good blogger, he threw in an example—the time when Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty came under fire for somehow allowing Fenty's twin sons to enroll in the outstanding Lafayette Elementary School in upper Northwest last August. The powers that were failed to give any kind of explanation as to how the Fenty kids managed to land in such a prized out-of-boundary school. Reporters hounded administration officials for days—weeks!—on the matter and got nowhere.

The Post editorial board, meanwhile, printed a rationale for the Lafayette placement—that the twins needed to be in separate classes, and the in-boundary school for the Fenty family wasn't big enough to accomplish such a separation. The editorial came off as a regurgitation of whispers from some top official in the Fenty-Rhee axis. In any case, that argument about keeping the twins apart had many drawbacks, as Loose Lips columnist Mike DeBonis has noted.

Savor the words that convey Turque's scorn for the coziness between the edit board and schools officials: "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."

When something that juicy gets taken down, phone calls are in order. Reached in his office right in the middle of the State of the Union Address, editorial board chief Fred Hiatt wouldn't get into it. "I don’t have anything to tell you," he said.

A newsroom source, however, confirmed that the post had indeed been taken down. The problem, according to the source, was that the post contained more opinion than allowed in the blog post of a beat writer. Translation: No posts with passion, outrage, and great writing are allowed on washingtonpost.com. Well, at least not if you're on a beat.

Late Wednesday night, Posties were working on a new version with duller elbows. Compare the new thingie with the original, retrieved and pasted below, in all its glory:

One newspaper, two stories

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?

Nope.

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  • Wassup

    Good work Erik, keep it up!

  • Anonymous

    lololol... Fenty, Rhee, et al keep this act going much longer and they're going to make Marion look like a saint.

  • Wassup

    Perhaps WaPo can double up on Sally Quinns opines on the demise of the Georgetown dinner party circuit. Oops, judging from the comments on the current story that wouldn't go over so well!

  • Contrarian

    The rewrite is now up for the unsuspecting consumer...

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/author/wmitchell/ Will Atwood Mitchell

    Link added for the "new thingie." Thanks, Contrarian!

  • old man

    for every employee that loves their job but sometimes hates the way things are done at their job, we feel you Bill Turque. Excellent reporting by WCP that gives some perspective on the internal dynamics at the Post. I sure do wish that the WCP could develop a revenue stream/business model that would support a bigger staff and more indepth coverage of DC. For all the WCP faults they provide perspective, invaluable in a culture with so many moving parts.

  • Truth Hurts

    Great reporting on this.

  • Trulee Pist

    It will take editorial board chief Fred Hiatt four days to respond.

  • Mt Pleasant

    Bill Turque os furious with Michelle Rhee and has been blabbing around the newsroom that he is going to get even with her to the point that his coworkers were willing to tell me that.

    This is a "Firestorm" created between Howard Beale, I mean Bill Turque and his sources at the Washington Teachers Union. A union teacher friend of mine bragged that she has been in contact with Bill Turque and feeds him "dirt" that the union has been digging up on Rhee's fiance, former NBA player and current Sacramento, CA mayor, Kevin Johnson. And you know? Johnson was a jock in high school and probably did sexually assault women. I'm sure they got him.

    Bill Turque is an editorialist with an ax to grind with both the Post editors and with Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee. His columns are editorials written to create exposure and readership for himself. He regularly goes to the union for background on just about everything and reports the union's message.

    According to friends at the Post Bill never really believed that Michelle Rhee suggested that "all" the RIF'd teachers were sex abusers. However they told me he wrote the stories that way to "hammer away" at her until she cracks. One of my friends at the Post, a hardcore feminist called him, her words and not mine, "a misogynist." Erik, you should look into that one because if it's true, that Bill's personal prejudices are spinning out of control like with his above column, this should be fun to watch.

  • Deke

    If Armao can break news in her opinion pieces, why can't Turque state opinion in his blog posts?

  • Fred

    Good job.

  • Arlington Aaron

    However you see Turque's piece, can't we all agree that the above linked edited version of the column should be labeled as such? Its very 1984 to just decide that Turque never said these things on the WaPo site.

  • between the lines

    When test scores for black DCPS students went up by three points...and those for white DCPS students went up by four points, Turque's lede wasn't that scores went up. His lede was that the gap between white and black kids widened. I couldn't believe my eyes and didn't understand how an increase for all students wasn't the lede.

    Now I understand.

  • http://notionscapital.com Mike Licht

    So much for the WaPo journalism/opinion "firewall."

    Editorial: We read you loud and clear.

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  • Jennell

    Mt. Pleasant, if everything you said is to be taken as truth (which I do not believe) you cannot deny that the WaPo, a newspaper, is censoring what readers should read. Therefore, a thinking person would have to ask themselves, what is WaPo really trying to hide by censoring readership. Do they want us to walk blindly and believe JoAnne, friend of Rhee, or get different thoughts on the matter. Thank you City Paper for showing the WaPo, owners of Newsweek, for what the paper truly isn't, CREDIBLE!!

  • trulee pist

    Wait a minute, Mt. Pleasant. Are you saying, Bill Turque "regularly goes to the union for background on just about everything and reports the union's message." That is shocking. What kind of reporter does this Turque fellow think he is? Why doesn't he just go to Rhee and print what he's told? Oh, yeah. Rhee's office doesn't talk to him. They direct their dictation to the WaPo editorial board.

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  • kings

    To Mt Pleasant - you're like the Post editorial board without the writing skills.

  • Lew

    Mt. Pleasant
    According to friends at the Post Bill never really believed that Michelle Rhee suggested that "all" the RIF'd teachers were sex abusers. However they told me he wrote the stories that way to

    Here's what Rhee said:
    "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" she said.

    Here's what Turquee wrote:
    Now we have Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's assertion, in the February issue of Fast Company magazine, that some of the 266 educators laid off in the October budget reduction had had sex with students, while others had hit them.

    Turque conditioned her comment.
    And when Ms. Rhee spoke with Armao and responsed to the Council, she dropped the "had sex with" bit.

    Nice try Mt. Pleasant.
    Next time, stick to the facts.

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  • Anonymous

    "According to friends at the Post..."

    Hate to break it to ya, honey bunny, but you ain't got no "friends" at WaPo.

  • DC resident

    Pass the popcorn. I'm loving this. Go City Paper!

  • Mt Pleasant

    Wow, there are some confused people here. I stopped by 1150 15th St for lunch today, picked up my lady friends, walked over to Vermont Ave and dished over this incident at Spice Express. It was cold and windy but the curry warmed me up. The story is juicy but not in the way some people want it to be. Keep hunting Erik, every article on this will get you 50 comments.

    the rest of you, don't be hatin.

  • trulee pist

    The story is juicy but not in the way some people want it to be.

    Do tell. Don't be holdin' out on us.

  • Dennis

    Oh, I smell a Pulitzer for Erik Wemple. NOT! You're my fucking hero, pal.

  • Dennis

    And boyishly handsome, too.

  • http://millerlittlejohnmedia.com Amanda Miller Littlejohn

    Love the news being made behind the news. Great media reporting.

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  • Mt Pleasant

    Fred Hiatt and Liz Spayd have to come up with a plan for where Bill Turque is going to work in the future, at the Post or someplace else. Joann Armado, the author of the piece is even-handed and critical of politicians and is the last person that anyone in the Post newsroom would think was handling Fenty or Rhee with kid gloves. No one outside the Union thinks that. Turque is on his own there and has basically made everyone in the newsroom his enemy. Turque needed to bring up the topic with Joann first before putting it in print, he did not. Why he chose to shame a woman in print while being critical of a woman politician has been the talk of the newsroom. Juicy enough?

  • Really

    MT Plesant....Then the folks who work at Washpo must be blind or deaf or dumb to really think "Joanne Armado" is "even handed and critical of politicians"

    The undying support from the Washpo for the Fently-Rehee combo is a joke in this town.

    As women I don't see why either shouldn't have been shamed. You’re wrong you’re wrong.

    Also Rhee isn't a women politician. She is PR hound.

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