Are WaPo's news & opinion sections really separate and independent?

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Yesterday, Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote a lengthy blog post for the paper's site in which he explained how it came to happen that his article Tuesday morning reported that DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee had not commented on or explained her controversial claims about teachers having sex with children, while an editorial in the same edition of the paper did include such an explanation. Turque's explanation basically boiled down to Rhee having a good relationship with Jo-Ann Armao, who writes the Post's education editorials.

Turque then wrote that because of Rhee's "obvious rapport with Jo-Ann" -- who, it should be noted, Turque described as "a dogged journalist who pursues her own information" -- "DCPS has a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures--kind of a print version of the Larry King Show."

Turque concluded:"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."

Well, the powers that be at the Post didn't like that, and Turque's post was pulled down sometime yesterday, and replaced with a new version -- one that omitted the "Larry King" line, and omitted the bit about the dynamic being an unhealthy thing for Post readers.

I happen to still have the original version open on my computer, as I had been thinking of writing something about it.

Somewhat ironically, I was going to praise Turque for his post -- including the portions that have been excised. He introduced some transparency to the Post's operation, and he was critical of what he apparently views as a situation in which the Post's editorial board is not serving its readers well. I think those are both good things. Reporters shouldn't be in the business of remaining silent when they think other reporters are doing things badly. Just think how differently things might have gone if a few Washington Post reporters regularly and publicly spoke out against Ceci Connolly's war against Al Gore, and called for her to be removed from the 2000 campaign beat.

But I was also thinking of taking issue with something Turque wrote:

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.

I don't doubt Turque's assertion that he has little contact with Armao, or with his implication that he doesn't know what the Post's editorial writers are doing and they don't know what he is doing.

But I've always bristled at the Post's insistence* that its news and opinion sections are "wholly separate and independent operations." They aren't, really. They can't be truly separate as long as they report to the same people -- and, ultimately, they do. If they really were "wholly separate and independent," as I have explained in the past, they would more frequently take issue with each other's work. Here's something I wrote in 2006 after a Post editorial directly contradicted the paper's news reports:

If the newsroom is right, its work and credibility are being falsely and unfairly undermined by one of the most powerful media institutions in the nation: The Washington Post editorial page. And there should be no doubt: the editorial does undermine Post reporters. For example, a reader asked [Howard] Kurtz during his April 10 online discussion, "Doesn't it make the reporters look foolish when the editorial page is so dead on with their analysis while the reporters are basically carrying the water of those who are against President Bush?"

But maybe Post reporters are so selfless they don't care about protecting their own reputations. In that case, maybe they should consider their responsibility to their readers. If the newsroom is right and the editorial board is wrong, Post readers -- and the nation -- are being misled about matters of enormous importance by one of the most powerful media institutions in the nation. Isn't that something that a newsroom that stands among the nation's most influential should confront head-on and try to stop?

Finally: With every Post newsroom employee who has commented publicly on this matter refusing to weigh in on the substantive merits of the editorial, does anyone really believe that the newsroom and editorial board are truly "separate," as they all claim? If they really are so separate, why are Post reporters so reluctant to contradict the editorial? The editorial board certainly isn't reluctant to contradict Post news reports. That certainly looks like a situation in which the two departments aren't free from interference from each other -- one very much seems to have the upper hand.

More and more, it seems like the Post uses the fiction of complete separation between news and opinion to justify a lack of accountability -- particularly for its opinion pages. Just yesterday, Ari Rabin-Havt explained that the Post's ombudsman can't do anything about errors in the paper's editorials or columns.

Back to the present: Bill Turque wrote something that was critical of the Post's opinion pages. The offending passages were then disappeared, without so much as an explanation. They did, however, leave in Turque's statement that the paper's opinion and news operations are wholly separate and independent -- a statement that is badly undermined by events of the past day.

* And that of other newspapers, though the Post seems to make this claim more often than most, perhaps owing to the generally poor quality of its opinion pages.

UPDATE: The Washington City Paper's Erik Wemple explains how Turque's post came to be pulled:

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wasn't happy with Turque's scribblings when he caught wind of them around 8 p.m. He walked into the office of Post Managing Editor Liz Spayd, pointed out the item, and "expressed my unhappiness," says Hiatt. Then he left.

Spayd says she then pulled the item from the site, on the following grounds: "Where it went over is where it ascribed motive to Chancellor Rhee's decision to speak to our editorial board and, more importantly, I don't think that he should be challenging or seeming to assess the stances of our editorial board or questioning their integrity, and I think that that blog did that."

So, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt got a blog post by news reporter Bill Turque pulled from the Post's site. But the Post's opinion and news divisions are completely separate and independent. Yeah, right.

UPDATE 2: Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander reports on the mess:

That irritated Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, who Wednesday evening alerted Managing Editor Liz Spayd. Both Spayd and Hiatt described it as a brief conversation in which Hiatt made Spayd aware of the blog post.

Spayd immediately called Turque on the carpet. Soon, the blog post disappeared. ...

"She was pretty hot," Turque said of Spayd. "She said it was completely inappropriate" and that "I had no place as a beat reporter taking on the editorial board."

Spayd gave a similar version of what she said to Turque in her 5th floor office. "I don't think it's appropriate for a reporter in our newsroom to be challenging the views, or challenging the integrity, of our editorial board," she told me. "And I also don't think that he should be ascribing motives of Michelle Rhee as to who she picked to speak with."

Wow, if that doesn't make clear that the idea of a separation between newsroom & opinion at the Post is a fiction, I don't know what will.

But wait: Alexander has more:

Spayd told me that she thought it would have been fine for Turque to explain the "church and state" separation between the news and editorial sides of The Post. "Going beyond that, I think, is not the job of a news reporter."

What? Look, this is simple: If the newsroom is not allowed to write about the editorial side, there is no separation between the two. If Fred Hiatt is able to get a blog post produced by the newsroom pulled because a beat reporter has "no place ... taking on the editorial board," there obviously is no "'church and state' separation" between the two. There is quite obviously a power structure in place in which the newsroom is subservient to the editorial side.

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