This piece originally appeared in The New Republic on Oct. 2, 1995.
In the months following the November elections, The Washington Post has devoted hundreds of column inches to the convulsive debate over affirmative action. The paper's editorial page has published no less than five editorials roundly endorsing the practice. Top-flight reporters have been dispatched to the heartland to document the pique of "angry white males." What has gone unreported, however, is the growing backlash against affirmative action at the Post itself.
In the past ten years, the newspaper industry has committed itself wholeheartedly to a course of "compensatory" or preferential minority hiring. In 1985, journalists of color held 5.76 percent of the newspaper jobs in the nation. By 1993, they had nearly doubled their representation, to 10.25 percent. These dramatic gains, achieved during a period of cutbacks and layoffs in newsrooms across the country, have been produced through the determined efforts of editors at the highest levels. Virtually all major papers now boast minority recruitment staffs and in-house diversity units. Job fairs for black and Latino journalists are held all over the country each year. Internships, the surest route to full-time reporting positions, are heavily slanted in favor of minority applicants: in 1994, nearly 40 percent of all newspaper interns were members of minority groups.
In striving to make their newsrooms look more like America, some papers have gone even further. The Los Angeles Times issued, and later withdrew, a list of forbidden phrases: "gyp," "Dutch treat," "illegal alien." In 1993, Max Frankel of The New York Times told the New Yorker that one of his first actions as executive editor had been to "stop the hiring of non-blacks and set up an unofficial little quota system." The Post, however, has moved further and faster down this road than almost any other paper. "In terms of percentages," says Leonard Downie, the Post's executive editor, "I think you'll find we have been much more aggressive than other places." Minority journalists account for 18 percent of the professional staff at the Post—well above the national average and disproportionate to the pool of aspiring minority journalists.
The Post has also been unusually candid about the newsroom tensions that underlie its multicultural vision. "There is racial friction in our newsroom, as there is in all newsrooms," says Downie. "Institutions that were predominantly white male in the past are going through growing pains. What's different about The Washington Post is we have not hidden that. We have commissioned studies about how things work. We've had lots of very public discussions about things. We've constantly exposed ourselves to self-criticism and to public view. And I think we're better off for it."
The Post's candor is indeed admirable: editors at every level readily shared with me critical internal reports and responded frankly and at length to all my questions. But candor, unfortunately, is not the only reason that the Post presents a revealing and important case study in the mechanics of affirmative action. Despite real achievements, its well-intentioned efforts have gone awry, in ways that have implications for the politics of newsrooms across America and for the way that news is covered—and not covered—by newspapers in the future. Determined diversity hiring at the Post has provoked an affirmative action backlash, fanning racial tensions among white and black reporters as both groups feel aggrieved and victimized by discrimination. And the new editorial culture, in its eagerness to avoid offense at all costs, has sought to achieve not simply a racially balanced workplace but racially balanced news coverage, carefully edited to respect the increasingly brittle sensibilities of the relevant groups. The result has been to compromise the paper's traditional role as a gadfly in Washington, D.C., and in the nation as a whole.
If any organization could justify racial preferences as restitution for past sins, it would be The Washington Post. As the monopoly daily in a majority-black city, the paper had compelling reason to diversify what had been an overwhelmingly white newsroom. Twenty-five years ago, the Post—like most newspapers—was a largely white, middle-class bastion. There were no black assignment editors, no black foreign correspondents, no black reporters on the National staff. And its paternalism toward the black community was legendary. In 1950, for example, publisher Philip Graham famously agreed to suppress news of a race riot in exchange for a promise by authorities to integrate the city's swimming pools.
In 1972, a contingent of black reporters, including the pathbreaking journalists Herbert Denton and Leon Dash, filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging they were victims of a racially discriminatory glass ceiling. Under an informal agreement, the paper grudgingly stepped up minority hiring, installing a black reporter on its National desk and bringing aboard several black sportswriters. If the Post was at first reluctant in its embrace of diversity, it soon got with the program. In the mid-'80s, the paper redoubled its affirmative action efforts following the publication of several internal reports lamenting the slow pace of integration. By 1986, the Post had hired its first full-time minority recruiter and set new, more aggressive affirmative action goals: one out of every four hires had to be a minority, and one out of every two a woman.
Over the years, these diversity efforts have been propelled by a peculiar series of racial psychodramas. On September 28, 1980, the paper ran the now-notorious story of "Jimmy," an eight-year-old heroin addict. Although written by a 26-year-old black reporter, Janet Cooke, the piece dripped with racial innuendo. Heroin, Jimmy supposedly told Cooke, "be real different from herb. That's baby s—. Don't nobody here hardly ever smoke no herb. You can't hardly get none right now anyway." The accompanying drawing featured a dazed-looking young man, his scrawny arm gripped by a giant fist as a needle is inserted. Black readers, including Mayor Marion Barry, immediately denounced the Pulitzer Prize-winning story as racist and preposterous; but the Post defended it almost to the end. When it was exposed as a hoax, the paper was mortified.
Then there was the infamous magazine incident. In 1986, the Post endured a prolonged black boycott after the debut issue of its Sunday magazine featured a cover story about a black murder suspect, along with a column by Richard Cohen about white jewelry-store owners who, fearing robbery, refused to buzz young black men into their stores. Hundreds of black protesters, led by talk-show host Cathy Hughes, dumped thousands of copies of the magazine, some in flames, on the steps of the Post's building on 15th Street. They repeated the ceremony every Sunday for thirteen weeks, stopping only after Post publisher Donald Graham apologized and agreed to a series of appearances on Hughes's talk show.
The Cooke and magazine incidents, says managing editor Robert Kaiser, were "the product of a different newspaper." And, indeed, there's no question that the Post has, over the years, benefited greatly from its enhanced racial and sexual representativeness. "When all of our staff came from the same background, we missed what was going on," says Downie, who argues persuasively that a diverse staff is necessary to covering a diverse community.
Yet it is also true that, after a decade of determined diversity hiring, something at newspapers in general, and the Post in particular, has gone wrong. According to advocacy groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), a rising tide of racial prejudice is washing over America's newsrooms. In Muted Voices, the NABJ's 1994 Print Task Force report, the authors write that their findings are "indicative of despair. ... Black journalists are strangling with their pain." Much of this pain, however, seems to be caused less by old-fashioned bigotry than by a sort of post-affirmative action racism. "[T]he idea that an African-American has been hired because of a political agenda of management or external pressure [is] still alive," the report laments. To hear Muted Voices tell it, black reporters and their (mostly white) bosses are living in different worlds. While two-thirds of black journalists surveyed by NABJ said newsroom managers are not committed to retaining and promoting blacks, 94 percent of managers say they are. Ninety-two percent of the managers say promotion standards are the same for blacks and whites; 59 percent of black journalists say they think blacks have to meet higher standards. At the Post, tensions are running particularly high. "A great deal of babbling goes on here about diversity," says National reporter John Goshko. "Nobody is happy. Many of the older white males feel that they are being discriminated against. Many minorities, particularly blacks, feel discriminated against. Each side will give you chapter and verse." White reporters, especially white middle-aged males, have become increasingly hostile to racial preferences. "We used to say: 'Let's go out and get the best guy in the world,'" says columnist Richard Harwood, the Post's former deputy managing editor. "'Let's get the best, without regard to anything else.' If there is, over time, a policy of giving considerable preference on the basis of color, your standards change. And I think that's the problem we're facing."
Not surprisingly, the Post's minority journalists see things quite differently. Far from coddling them, they say, the Post has ensured that for reporters of color the path of upward mobility is treacherous. Like Alice and the Red Queen, they must run twice as hard merely to stay in place. "You see a glass ceiling slowly turning into lead," says Metro reporter Ruben Castaneda. "You realize there's no future." "Everyone in management has good intentions," says Gary Lee, a black reporter on the Post's National staff. "But there's an entrenched newsroom culture that doesn't change." Even the Asian Americans are grumpy and radicalized. "Some [Asian reporters] think it's not a very welcoming atmosphere," says Metro reporter Spencer Hsu. "There are issues of mentoring and racial typing that can have a significant impact on our careers."
"It is a paradox," muses assistant managing editor David Ignatius, "that this liberal institution that professes to care deeply about the community has a bad reputation in the African American community and has had some very unhappy African American staffers." In the past five years alone, fifteen black reporters have quit the paper. Some of the departed have written biting accounts of their time at the Post. In her 1993 memoir, Volunteer Slavery, former Post reporter Jill Nelson argues that racial insensitivity at the paper shattered her self-esteem and stymied her career. After editors at the paper caught her forging her supervisor's initials on a travel voucher for expenses incurred while reporting on Martha's Vineyard, they suspended her for a week. Nelson thought she knew why. "When it comes to spooks, there are no short cuts, no bending of the rules, no forgiveness," she wrote. "We answer to a higher authority ... the dictates of American racism."
Nathan McCall, author of the 1994 autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler, is a Post reporter currently on leave from the paper. In 1987, when the Post tried to hire McCall from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, editors at the paper inquired about a three-year gap in his résumé. He told them he had spent the time traveling and "finding himself." In fact, he'd been serving a prison sentence for holding up a McDonald's at gunpoint. Post editors upbraided him for being less than honest but hired him anyway. Despite this kid-glove treatment, McCall, too, claims his career at the Post has been marred by racism. "Because of the myths, I could never seem to settle down and relax and write with flair the way I knew I could under normal circumstances," he wrote. "Nobody makes allowances for black folks anywhere."
These portrayals of the Post as a hotbed of racial iniquity have devastated the paper's top executives—executive editor Downie, managing editor Kaiser and deputy managing editor Michael Getler. Children of the '60s all, they feel impelled to diversify not only because of legal and political pressures but because of personal inclination and social conscience. "There is a moral dimension to this," says Kaiser. "We've learned a lot, we white guys, in the last twenty or twenty-five years or so."
With penitential eagerness, they urge me not to view the Nelson and McCall books as contemporary indictments of the Post. "Jill Nelson left the Post a really bitter person, really unhappy," says Getler. "It is possible that today, with some of the institutions we've got in place, this talented writer could go to somebody and say, 'I feel like my career's going nowhere. I feel people aren't listening to me. I feel there's a racist attitude on the part of some of my editors. And I'm mad. I want you to do something about it.'" In October of last year, Getler invited Nathan McCall to host a brown-bag lunch on race in the newsroom. "These things happened to Nathan quite some time ago," says Getler. "I wanted him to see the paper has grown and changed." Getler pauses. "There are people in Nathan's book who feel that he trashed them," he says. "They were upset to read in this best-selling book that they were racists.... I tried to encourage those people to come to the lunch, to ask, `Why did you say that about me?' But they didn't want to do that." Neither McCall nor Nelson would talk to me for this story. Nelson was summering on the Vineyard; McCall, who has a movie deal in the works, was, according to his agent, "all media-ed out."
In 1993, the Post commissioned an internal task force on newsroom life, headed by Getler, then the paper's assistant managing editor for foreign news. For five months, Getler roamed the newsroom, trying to find out why, as one reporter he spoke to put it, "Very few people appear to be happy, most seem afraid." At the end of his labors he issued a ninety-page study, henceforth referred to as the Getler report.
The report, Getler wrote in the introduction, was "a growl from the belly of the Post." What people growled about mostly was race. Black staffers accused the Post of harboring a bias against them:
Racial and ethnic minority staffers say the Post is not doing what it can, and should, by them. ... Many African-Americans complained that, to be given good stories or challenging beats, they must work harder than whites at the same experience level. ...
At the same time, white staffers said they felt threatened by the Post's rigid hiring targets. "One editor offered a common reaction," wrote Getler. "'When you start to push for more black editors and more women, and maybe a few gays, the middle-aged straight white male is the last one you're going to worry about.'"
Getler and the other members of the Post's diversity task force concluded the report by calling for the appointment of a deputy managing editor to oversee diversity issues. "Our group feels strongly," Getler wrote, "that the new person must be the third-ranking editor in the newsroom, with authority from the executive editor and the managing editor to make things happen." The job went to Getler. "I was surprised," he says modestly.
A friendly, approachable man who spent many years as a reporter and editor before becoming the Post's diversity czar, Getler now spends his days patrolling the newsroom, blasting stereotypes and preaching inclusion. "There is racism, whether it's conscious or unconscious," he explains. "Most people say, 'Me? I'm not a racist. I'm a nice guy.' But you can have attitudes that you're not even aware of." Getler has set about remedying those attitudes. "The Post," he says, "is a very candid place. It's not defensive about itself. It's a place where you can say anything you want. ... It's a place that lays open its warts in order to fix them."
But the confessional culture of diversity management can have ugly consequences. Things are said that would ordinarily be left unsaid. Whether viewed as resurgent racism or justified resistance against preferential treatment, the white backlash against blacks at the Post is undeniable. Many Post staffers allege that in playing the numbers game, the paper has been forced to hire inappropriate people, reporters who lack the skills to do daily newspaper work competently. "It's definitely a huge advantage in this business to be a minority," says one reporter. "Like, a giant, giant, giant advantage. There is just a different standard. White people have to knock their heads against the door and be really exceptional. Whereas, if you're black, they recruit you, they plead with you, they offer you extra money." Even more maddening, these reporters say, is when these over-indulged recruits then complain of racism. "They're denying the truth," says one reporter. "There's a strong argument to be made that we should do this. But there's no argument to be made that they're not getting a leg up." Says another: "If you're based in a mostly black city, of course you need some black reporters and some editors. I don't know what the answer is. I just know that the solution can be quite irritating. And then it's doubly irritating when they then complain."
Kevin Merida, a lanky and dashing black reporter with a soft voice and easygoing manner, laughs out loud at the suggestion that minority journalists are being hired and promoted ahead of schedule. "The biggest myth in journalism," he calls it. To the contrary, he says, the newspaper business brutally limits the aspirations of African Americans. "A little light is always going on in your head," he says. "There's a general sense of feeling, somehow, that your value, your worth, is not completely taken into account." He says, "There's a sense that you're not valued as you would like to be valued."
Merida's consternation is puzzling to white reporters. The Post's National staff is tiny, the waiting list, endless. But Merida didn't have to slug it out at the bottom in Metro with everybody else. After being lured away from The Dallas Morning News, where he was an assistant managing editor, he was immediately dispatched to the National desk. He's got what would seem a plum job, covering Congress and the '96 campaign. Moreover, he has the latitude and standing to pursue stories of special interest to him. "I'm a black man," he says. "The black experience is part of who I am. And I try to incorporate that in my coverage." Merida cites three recent examples: a sympathetic profile of embattled senator Carol Moseley-Braun; a story criticizing the art in the Capitol as colonialist and lacking in racial diversity; and a story about how the Senate had condemned Khalid Muhammad for his statements about Jews, yet seemed to be holding Senator Ernest Hollings, who disparaged "African potentates," to a different standard.
Merida's insecurity about his position in the newsroom may, more than anything else, be a function of the tokenist assumption—the suspicion that he got his job because he was black. At The Dallas Morning News, Merida advanced from reporter to AME in one fell swoop, a precipitous promotion that has dogged him all the way to Washington. "Have you ever heard of that happening in the entire history of the news business?" asks one white Post reporter. "There's supposed to be a very clear path. It's like being a private, and suddenly you're a general." It's the classic plight of the affirmative-action baby, whose genuine accomplishments are tainted by a preferential system beyond his control.
The Post's diversity goals have spawned a burgeoning bureaucracy administered by Jeanne Fox-Alston, director of hiring and recruiting. In 1986, she was plucked off the Post's graphics desk and instructed to revamp the paper's personnel office so that, in her words, it "focused more on women and minorities." These days, one of her tasks is to winnow out white males, some of whom she regards as having an overly developed sense of entitlement. "Some of them have had some really good stories," she says. Fox-Alston is a small, reedy woman in her early 40s, with a gray topknot and the tight, pursed mouth you see on the assistant principal. "They've put their years in. Maybe they've even won awards. And they see people being hired who perhaps don't have as much experience as they do. Why?" Mockingly, Fox-Alston's voice keens into the upper register. "'It must be because I'm a white male,'" she whines. "Well, there's more to it than that." Fox-Alston elaborates. "There's one guy from a New Orleans paper who's been trying to get hired here for quite a while. And he wrote the deputy managing editor a letter, saying, 'Friends at the Post tell me the only reason I haven't been hired is because I'm a white man.' Now, in talking to the deputy managing editor about this particular candidate, I said, 'Well, it's true that on his résumé he has some good experience and stuff like that. But you know, he's terribly annoying, and he's not as good as he thinks.'" Fox-Alston leans back in satisfaction. "He didn't get hired."
The New Orleans journalist she is referring to, editors say, is Tyler Bridges of The New Orleans Times-Picayune, a talented, aggressive reporter who, as it happens, has written extensively about white racism. He has been praised in the Post itself for breaking the David Duke story. "Over the years," says one Post editor, "Jeanne has been little more than a bar against the paper getting the best. She seems to have something against white males. She doesn't like people who have achieved." Bridges, for his part, says he doesn't consider himself a victim. "So far, the paper has been very fair to me," he says.
Fox-Alston's own journalistic credentials are somewhat skimpy. She was a reporter for the now-defunct Kansas City Times for two years in the early '70s. She's been a copy editor at The Detroit Free Press, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She also worked on the Post's graphics staff. "I did that for eighteen months or so," she says. "Then I became director of hiring and recruiting." According to the Getler report, Fox-Alston has "found or helped persuade to come here" 57 percent of people hired by the Post in the last five years. As the Post's diversity vetter, how much power does she actually have? "She has a negative power," chuckles one former Post editor. "If you don't have a rabbi somewhere else, and she doesn't like you, she can bury you." Says Rem Rieder, a former Post editor now at American Journalism Review, "I get calls from people all the time: 'Jeanne slam-dunked me, anybody else you think I should call? Or can you call somebody?' Of course, the world is full of people who want to work at the Post. And, unfortunately, not all of them can."
While earnestly troubled by blacks' career anxieties ("African-American reporters ... have powerful things to say about the Post as a workplace"), the Getler report presented the grievances of white males as "myths" to be "corrected": "Diversity does not mean excluding white men or threatening their jobs. It does not mean ... hiring unqualified or less qualified people." Resistance to affirmative action is to be dispelled through re-education: "White men's concern about how diversity affects them should be addressed. ... They should be closely involved in diversity training to help them define their role in a changing newsroom."
But diversity training may not be sufficient to stem the current white backlash against affirmative action, which sometimes bubbles over into pure racial animosity. In my discussions with white reporters and editors, I was surprised to hear many of them question, in the coarsest terms, the ability of their minority colleagues. "She can't write a lick," for example, or "He's dumb as a post." Or worse: "When she files, you literally don't understand what she's saying. And you have to go back to her again and again and ask: What are you trying to say?"
The ugliness of these sentiments suggests that covert racism may be simply inflamed by the push for diversity. But at the Post, the explosive interaction of aggressive hiring with instinctive white anxiety has given such feelings a pretext. Even President Clinton acknowledges that federal law requires that minorities be hired from the relevant pool of qualified applicants, not in proportion to their population in society at large. In other words, the Post's goal—to reproduce in its building the precise ethnic makeup of its community—is not only irrational but arguably illegal. "The concept of diversity begins with the idea that a newspaper's staff and coverage should reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of its market," concludes the Getler report. But to comply with the Supreme Court's standards, the Post should instead be tailoring its goals to the pool of qualified aspiring journalists. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, blacks and Hispanics compose 10.6 percent of the available pool of college graduates; within that group, the pool of students expressing an interest in communications is a mere 13 percent. Even without making allowances for the Post's attempt to skim off the best people from the best schools, the attempt to mirror the 32.3 percent of blacks and Hispanics in metropolitan Washington itself seems flamboyantly unrealistic.
In 1994, the paper made 38 new hires. Of those 38, ten were members of minority groups. "Our goal for about the past eight years has been that at least a quarter of our hires be people of color," says Fox-Alston. In pursuing this goal in spite of a minuscule pool, the Post has committed itself to a course of quite extraordinary affirmative action; and so the complaints about compromising standards, while undoubtedly overstated by aggrieved white reporters, are corroborated by the stark numerical reality.
The Post, of course, is in an agonizing position. If editors refuse to adjust their traditional hiring standards, they will end up with a nearly all-white staff. But if they do reach out aggressively to ensure proportionate representation for each relevant minority, they transform not just the complexion but the content of the paper.
One flashpoint for aggrievement is the Post's designation of "black slots," cordoned off for African Americans only. Some, such as the race-relations beat on the National desk, have been vacant for months as the paper combs the country for a suitable black hire. "We were told that if we gave it to somebody else, it would have a major adverse morale effect on black staff members and would immediately set us up for all kinds of mumbling and have-you-walked-in-my-shoes kind of stuff," says a National editor. Many white reporters say they are weary of being told in interviews that they could not even be considered for particular jobs. When David Mills, a black cultural writer on the Style section, departed for Hollywood over a year ago, a parade of reporters inside and outside the Post applied for the job, only to be told that they were the wrong color. The position was finally filled in August by Esther Everem, an African American from New York Newsday.
Political pressure to promote minorities can also result in some of the most talented black journalists being put in jobs they don't want and are not cut out for. Consider the circumstances surrounding the promotion of Eugene Robinson, a foreign correspondent who is now the paper's Foreign editor. When Mike Getler was kicked upstairs, the next in line for his job of AME-Foreign was Jackson Diehl, also white and male. "It wouldn't have looked good to promote yet a third white male, all in the name of Getler and this task force to promote minorities," says one Post reporter. "There needed to be a minority somewhere in that announcement." The job was offered to Caryle Murphy, the paper's Pulitzer-winning correspondent in Cairo. Murphy said no thanks. So the Post called on Robinson, a black reporter who had just hauled his whole family to the paper's London bureau. Robinson, too, was happy where he was. His family was happy. His wife had found a job in London. He said no, and no again. "They just put incredible pressure on poor Gene to come back and take this job as Foreign editor because they wanted a black, and they just couldn't find anyone else to do it," says a source on the Foreign desk. Admits Robinson: "They did have to cajole me. I was happy in London." There were other complications. "Gene is an interesting story," says a Foreign editor. "Here's a guy who was a fantastic correspondent, a really fluid, graceful writer who liked being abroad. ... And frankly, he was a better correspondent than editor.... They brought him in because they were looking to promote blacks into prominent management roles. In some cases that works fine. In other cases, the Post has suffered because you have a great correspondent who's not writing anymore."
Many reporters, meanwhile, resent being viewed as walking monuments to the paper's virtue. "I worked the night police," says Carlos Sanchez, who left the paper in 1994 and is now working at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I had nothing to do with the Hispanic community unless they were killed. One evening I show up for work. And [Metro Editor] Milton Coleman is there, conveying his apologies for not informing me prior to that evening that I needed to attend a formal dinner with him. I wasn't dressed for dinner. I was extremely uncomfortable.... But I went." To Sanchez's chagrin, the dinner turned out to be a love-in with local Hispanic community leaders at a Salvadoran restaurant. "I found myself kinda being showcased," he says. "That bothered me."
Editors at the Post insist their diversity campaign has more to do with improving coverage than redressing past grievances. All the same, it doesn't always follow that a reporter of a particular ethnicity is the best person for a particular "ethnic" slot. Take, for example, the protracted battle over whether or not to hire reporter Douglas Farah. Farah is the son of Christian missionaries from Kansas, but he was born and raised in Bolivia and grew up fluent in Spanish and steeped in the culture and politics of Latin America. Ethnically, however, he's no more Hispanic then, well, Mike Getler. From 1987 to 1989, Farah was a stringer for the Post, based in El Salvador. There, he risked his life for the Post with his prizewinning reporting on death squads and Colombian drug kingpins. One fine day it dawned on someone that the Post ought to hire Doug Farah. So he was flown up to Washington for a round of interviews. The problem was, no one could testify decisively as to Farah's ethnic pedigree. He was slightly swarthy looking, with a mustache, but his name was indeterminate. Finally, then-AME-Foreign Mike Getler, according to several of those present, just blurted it out. "Gee, Doug," he said. "Everyone is just so excited at the prospect of hiring such a talented Hispanic reporter!" "Gee, Mike," Farah reportedly responded, "I'm happy to be a Hispanic reporter if you'd like me to be, but I'm from Kansas." Getler's face fell. "You are?" "Yeah." Around the room, according to one of those present, "everyone just looked at Doug ... like he'd just messed his diaper. It was not the correct response."
Why was Farah's putative Hispanicity such a big deal? At the Post, aspiring foreign correspondents are usually required to serve on Metro before being dispatched abroad; and Farah's backers had been selling him to Metro as a perfect match for the section's newly created Latino Task Force on coverage. After Farah's whiteness was unmasked, the Metro desk hired Graciela Sevilla of The San Diego Union-Tribune to fill the slot. Ironically, Sevilla ended up leaving the Post after less than a year. "I knew that they really wanted to bring in more Latinas," says Sevilla, now at The Arizona Republic. But they didn't have a clear sense of why. Farah, meanwhile, seems to be thriving. Finally hired by the paper in 1992, he has spent the past month shuttling between Havana and San Salvador, and could not be reached for comment.
Questions about a possible tradeoff between diversity and quality are received with discomfort and indignation. "No, no, no," says former Post newsroom personnel director Tom Lippman, now a reporter with the paper. "The notion that the hiring of nonwhite people involves the compromise of standards is an unacceptable notion. We don't accept it. We shouldn't accept it." Says Mike Getler, "That is wrong, that is wrong, that is wrong. We want to diversify the staff, but only with good people. A person's professional skills and capabilities are still the determining factor." Milton Coleman, asked how his Metro section got to coveted parity, replies, "By simply hiring the best people for every single job."
But as the Post's internal documents show, these assurances are misleading, if not substantively false. Early this year, Jeanne Fox-Alston prepared a report for the AMEs on the subject of minority recruitment, in hopes of discovering why the pool of young minority journalists seemed, in her words, "so small and so shallow." Admitted Fox-Alston in her report: "We have a difficult time finding experienced minority journalists at the top of their form (or close to it) for significant and specialized jobs, whether assignment editing jobs on any section or a specialty beat on a staff like National." Hiring decisions, she wrote, "should be made with the understanding that we will continue to fall short of our goals for minority hiring if we aren't more flexible and creative." The Getler report alludes to similar tradeoffs. "Senior managers said they value staffs with a good mix; but several also said that, when deciding which reporters to assign to which beat, they feel themselves balancing the need to preserve the Post's standard of excellence against calls for greater diversity." The report's conclusion: "People must not be placed in jobs for which they are not `ready,' but the word 'ready' is subjective."
It's a common enough argument, one made by many advocates of proportional representation: merit standards are subjective and should be adjusted when possible to secure racially balanced results. The trouble is that the paper can't come out and say it, except in tightly circulated internal documents. On the record, therefore, editors insist that the Post's standards are unrelenting. These evasions create the impression that the Post has something to hide, fueling white paranoia and resentment.
But there is an even nastier consequence. The antagonism is heightened by legions of lazy editors who fudge the real reason for hiring and promotion decisions. Increasingly, affirmative action is used as a pretext, an all-purpose excuse to brush off white candidates whom the Post would never hire anyway. "They told me I was perfect for the job," one frustrated white male told me. "I was just the wrong color." Says another: "They told me they would have loved to hire me, but there were racial factors at work." Were these candidates told the truth? "This is hard for me," says Kaiser. "I suspect that [diversity] has been used as a pretext at the Post. And I'm enormously sorry about it."
Says a veteran Post reporter: "You hear this all the time, and it's crap. I remember years ago, when I applied for a job, I was told by the person who interviewed me: 'Gee, you'd have a better chance if you were black or a woman.' Well, the fact of the matter is, there were a lot of honkies hired after me. Let's get real." The reporter reapplied when he had more experience and was hired by the Post without a problem.
As white and black resentments feed on themselves, the Post seems unable to escape from the vicious circle. As the situation gets worse, the rhetoric grows more extreme. Until the only solution, it seems, is remedial education.
"U.S. news organizations have been slower than other corporations to embrace diversity training," explained the Getler report. "The Post should be at the forefront of this initiative." Post employees, wrote Getler, needed to "take a long hard look at ourselves ... [at] newsroom culture [and the] ... assumptions and values we bring to it." This they could not do alone. "We need an objective outsider," he wrote, "to help us begin the process and determine a clear picture of this culture." The Post needed a diversity consultant.
In the absence of formal sensitivity training, Getler wrote, citing an earlier report, the Post would be forced to "rely on a few journalists ... to serve as the conscience of the newsroom." And "conscience" is indeed the operative word here. For diversity training at the Post has less to do with improving coverage than allowing guilty editors to feel the glow of involvement. "We are," says Getler, "trying to improve our newsrooms and ourselves."
On this humid August morning, Getler sits behind an oak desk in his large, glass-paneled corner office, laying out his grand vision of harmonious integration at The Washington Post. "The fact is," he says, "these issues exist. You wind up doing things unthinkingly that are perceived by your staffers, or your readers, in our case, as racist. And you need be conscious of that." Getler leans forward in his chair. "Newspapers need to be alert," he says in a patient singsong. "They need to be aware. And they need to get over this idea that all this stuff is corny and politically correct."
Some of Getler's dearest friends at the Post are dubious about his newfound enthusiasms. Says one Post editor of the paper's former Bonn bureau chief: "We all think Getler had a brain transplant in a German hospital." Even those sympathetic to diversity are leery of the attendant caring, sharing and soul-baring. "It's just all these stupid exercises, which anyone under 30 had in high school and thought were trite and foolish then," says one reporter. "But for these 50-year-old white guys, it's like the shades have been lifted from their eyes. It's a great revelation."
The prophet of the new order is diversity consultant Rafael Gonzales, hired in 1994 to comb the newsroom for traces of insensitivity. President of Rafael Gonzales Enterprises, a San Jose-based diversity firm, he has already trained top Post managers and in late September and October is slated to move on to the rest of the professional staff.
This spring at Pugwash, the Post's annual retreat for top management, Gonzales instructed the paper's senior editors to form a circle. He then placed large cardboard placards around their pale necks. One sign read: "Ignore me." Another read: "Laugh at me." Still another read: "Don't take me seriously." Managing editor Kaiser is at first reluctant to explain how the sign-wearing exercise worked. "I think it's Rafael's trade secret," he confides. Finally, he explains how Gonzales worked his wizardry. "We had a half-dozen signs around our neck. We couldn't read them ourselves. We had to interact and follow the instructions." Kaiser loved it. "It got across forcefully and effectively the idea that stereotypes do govern the way we deal with people."
In another exercise, Gonzales instructed the editors to say, "folk" ten times, then asked them to name the white part of an egg. "Yolk," they all said, with visions of "folk" in their minds. No, the white part of an egg. Get it? This exercise, Gonzales says, was meant to show "we all have filtering systems for how we process information. We all have biases." There was yet another exercise, one in which editors had to pick out the number of F's and S's and O's in a paragraph. Marvels Getler, "You'd think it would be the simplest thing in the world. But almost everybody got it wrong." He adds, "Please don't take these—exercises—out of context. They really do show you very graphically that things are not what they seem."
In the wake of this revolutionary conversion, the paper's elder executives are eager to do more. Starting in mid-September, the next cohort of Post managers will submit to diversity training. Then, a few months later, all the paper's reporters may have to do the same. "We're not going to go around here with a cat-o'-nine-tails," says Kaiser. "But people see something coming like the Getler operation and they say, 'Oh God, let me hide under my desk.' Well, we want to get those people out from under their desk. We want them to participate. We think they could learn a lot." Asked if he would compel participation, Getler responds, "It's a fair question." In the end, he says, he thinks he will. "Everyone here has diversity problems," he reasons.
If the Post does decide to make sensitivity training compulsory, not just for managers but for reporters as well, it will be going a step beyond other papers that have adopted the practice. Already, many Post reporters are talking mutiny. "You want diversity? Fine, have diversity," says one reporter. "Just don't waste my time with stupid psychobabble game-playing." Says another: "I find the whole idea juvenile and offensive. If someone tells me to put on a sign like that, I'll tell them to shove it up their ass." Even minority journalists are wary, suspecting a re-education camp atmosphere. "You're talking about a lot of people who are sort of professionally cynical about everything," says Roberto Suro, a deputy editor on the Post's National desk. "Reporters are not touchy-feely. We tend not to like talking about ourselves. If you force people into these kinds of things, they get their backs up."
Internal frictions over diversity are hardly unique to newspapers. Tendentious "sensitivity" campaigns have divided many organizations in recent years, from Fortune 500 companies to the federal government. In a sense, then, the Post is like any big company struggling to come to grips with racial change.
But the Post is not just any company. Newspapers exist to challenge and unsettle public sensibilities, not to pander to them. And when this vital institution is hampered in that mission, the consequences are felt far beyond the institution itself. A newspaper's mandate—to be an arbiter of truth, an enemy of euphemism, a check on social complacency—is directly at odds with the ideology of diversity management, with its ethos of sensitivity and conflict avoidance at all costs. In other words, when diversity consultants move from the boardroom into the newsroom, the integrity of newspapers is compromised in fundamental and revealing ways.
The first law of diversity training is that "we are all biased," condemned to view the world through the prism of our own prejudices. Gonzales, in adapting his practice to the newsroom, has given this hardy perennial a new twist. Just as we are all racist, all stories are racist. "I have met very few people in my wanderings who intentionally did things to reinforce stereotypes," he says. "They say, 'Hey, what's the problem? It's good journalism. I want to be provocative.'" According to Gonzales, it's not that simple. "All human beings have biases," he explains. "With that said, all stories are biased. That's why you've got to weave diversity training into writing training."
But it's unclear how sensitivity training can be "woven" into a profession which has traditionally held that reporters should tell the truth as they see it, without fear or favor. Public reaction, hostile or not, is not supposed to be anticipated and muted in the editing process but embraced as a healthy consequence of the search for truth, since the charge of bias is best dealt with in the marketplace of ideas.
In this regard, diversity journalism is of a piece with "community journalism," a new, feel-good school of newspapering whose premise is that editors should let readers' comfort level dictate the boundaries of their coverage. And so race alone is not responsible for the new ethos of the Post. To some degree, the paper is now engaging in equal-opportunity pandering, talking down to the black urban community in the same way that it's increasingly talking down to the white suburban community. "There's a hundred-year tradition of powerful journalism upsetting middle-class Americans," says a high-level Post editor unhappy with the trend. "Today, with the rise of a black middle class, some of the middle-class people we offend are going to be black. What I'm trying to suggest is that diversity in the newsroom is a subset of the larger issue of middle-class America sort of being upset about what journalists do and papers increasingly caving to them. And a whole philosophy growing up, as far as I'm concerned, to rationalize the cave."
Although top editors are undoubtedly sincere in their commitment to diversity, there is also a financial basis for the new skittishness. As Bob Kaiser points out, the Post's penetration in its market is broader than almost any other major newspaper's. "We have a bigger black readership than any metropolitan paper in America," he says. "And we're extremely proud of it." Citing a bale of "positive" reportage about African Americans, Kaiser adds: "There are powerful business reasons for making sure we're staying connected to those people, writing about their world."
These efforts to reach out to groups previously absent from news coverage can be unobjectionable, praiseworthy, even necessary. The problem occurs when sensitivity to "community reaction" takes priority over the need to report aggressively on painful social problems. This is a special temptation in Washington, with its large coterie of upscale black professionals. "Our black middle-class readers are very sophisticated," says reporter Jacqueline Trescott, who has been with the Post for twenty years. "They resent being identified with the underclass. They care about minority progress and achievement being highlighted.... If the problem stories are not balanced with solution stories or success stories, it becomes a real challenge for the paper to maintain credibility."
Thanks in part to these pressures, the Post's coverage of the majority-black city in which it is located has grown increasingly timorous and protective over the past decade. Aggressive coverage of the social pathologies at the heart of Washington's black underclass—chronic welfare dependence, adolescent childbearing, neighborhood crime and violence—has increasingly given way to human-interest puffery. "Making the McScene—Southeast Mickey D's Is The Late-Night Place to Cruise," chirped a front-page story on July 18. "Police said that other than occasional fights [and] a few people engaging in low-level drug dealing ... the scene is largely mellow." An April 9 story touted the virtues of the newly opened Foxtrappe Private Towne Club, where Washington's "educated and affluent African-Americans" can "rub elbows, use gold credit cards and exchange business cards." Meanwhile, reporter Katherine Boo's outstanding—and empathetic—story on delinquent black girls languished in the Post's computer system for over a month amid concerns that it wasn't "upbeat" enough.
Stories about controversial black leaders tend to be blandly upbeat to the point of sycophancy. A pre-election profile of Cora Masters Barry praised her Afrocentric take on life. "Cora Barry, Standing Firm," gushed the headline. "Marion's Wife Knows Who She Is." The paper's sympathetic treatment of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan has also been peculiar. After receiving the minister cordially for a two-hour on-the-record chat—during which he ranted repeatedly about Jewish control of the media—reporters and editors assigned Nathan McCall, who had converted to Islam while in prison, to write it up. Although the front-page story acknowledged that "many of the questions and much of Farrakhan's talk dealt with his reportedly disparaging references to Jews and Judaism," McCall suspended his journalistic skepticism and generously gave the minister the benefit of the doubt: "Farrakhan expressed a desire for the media to 'print the truth' about him and his message. ... He said that as a spiritual leader, he is concerned about the welfare of the entire nation."
To many in the newsroom, this good-news barrage, in the face of the city's moral and fiscal meltdown, has a saccharine quality to it. "Pick up the Sunday magazine these days," grumbles a disgruntled Post editor. "Every third issue, there's some black family on the cover, and then inside, a hacky sentimental story about what a wonderful, struggling black family this is. And they have kids! And they go to school! And they actually celebrate Christmas together! ... I agree we need to do stories about things that are working. The problem is that a lot of the stories we do about a black middle-class family struggling but surviving are sickly sweet and you can see right through them." As Post columnist Juan Williams points out, this triumphalist focus on black advancement is not only misleading, but irresponsible. "We're trying to be understanding and sensitive and politically correct about our dealings with black people," he says. "When in fact, the people who suffer the most as a consequence of the Post's actions tend to be poor black people, because they end up with a government that is badly run and lacks in accountability and does not provide basic services. And I think the Post just needs to be a good newspaper and expose the kind of abuses that are foisted by black officials on black people living in the city."
But black journalists like Williams run the risk of being labeled gutless traitors. Consider the case of Leon Dash—a driven, brilliant journalist who has long concentrated his reporting on the least attractive features of black Washington. In 1986, his exceptional Post series on the teenage pregnancy epidemic among inner-city black youths punctured the conventional liberal wisdom that the crisis of black teenage parents was simply one of ignorance about birth control. Dash was one of the first reporters to note that for underclass pubescent girls, "a child was a tangible achievement in otherwise dreary and empty lives."
In October of 1994, the Post devoted eight days to Dash's "Rosa Lee" series, which probed the intertwined pathologies of a three-generational family of black, welfare-dependent petty criminals. The riveting series examined the intractability of underclass poverty, crime and drug use across generations. It won Dash a Pulitzer. Many black Post reporters, however, read the series with dismay. "I didn't like the Rosa Lee stories," says Kevin Merida. "We spend too much time in journalism chronicling failure and despair. Is this what we have to do to win a prize? Write about black pathology? I just don't know what good a series like that does." Black reporters' complaints about the series prompted an anguished round of brown-bag lunches and assemblies, in which top Post editors defended themselves against the charge of conspiring to besmirch the black community. Downie issued a flurry of penitent memos, promising to redouble his efforts to publish "solutions stories." Dash, meanwhile, has been made a newsroom pariah. "Since the series came out, black people at the Post have shunned me," he says. "They are still shunning me." Dash says the brown-bag lunches were unpleasant experiences for him. "People kept asking me, why didn't I focus on Rhodes scholars and college graduates? Why didn't I focus on people who have overcome these situations? Well, because those people aren't part of the generation that is trapped in this permanent underclass."
Unfortunately, reporters like Leon Dash may be a dying breed, given the climate of victimism and aggrievement that prevails in today's newsrooms. For a glimpse of the paper of the future, consider the fifty-eight-page instruction book on "Content Audits," published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The brochure instructs editors to map their coverage out on a grid and compute "total number items," "total minority items," "percent minority"; and to rate stories "P" for positive ("Shows minorities smiling [unless text contradicts smile], achieving, in respected role, etc."), "N for Negative" ("the old arrest shot or other negative roles") or just "Neutral." ("Daily life. Not bad or good.") To "reap the rewards of the audit," papers are urged to "develop a pool of senior-level minority editors who can sit in on news editorial meetings and flag insensitive stories or narrowly focused pictures."
At the Post, the commandment to avoid offense at all costs dovetails conveniently with a long history of timorousness about racial matters. Over the years, for example, the paper has taken many hits for its tortured coverage of Mayor Marion Barry. Though the Post pleaded Barry's case in three glowing editorial endorsements—in '78, '82 and '86—Barry continues to pillory the paper as part of a white conspiracy to harass him. Then, of course, there's the '86 magazine boycott, the impact of which should not be underestimated. "I've come across a number of stories in my career where that incident was mentioned," says one Post reporter. "'Change this, tone this down, do this, do that.' There is a feeling that if we say anything more complex than 'The sun rises in the East,' we step in shit."
In a memo circulated in December to the paper's editors, Joann Byrd, the Post's ombudsman, elaborated on this theme. "The distance between the paper and many in the black community is an enormous and difficult challenge for the Post," she wrote. "It is the prism through which a huge segment of the population sees all the paper's reporting—and judges it to be indifferent or racist." Byrd's concerns were reflected in the Getler report, which concluded that one of the best ways to ensure responsible minority coverage was "to have minority editors to help steer us in a positive direction in our coverage of issues involving minorities."
At the Post, that burden rests squarely on the shoulders of Milton Coleman, assistant managing editor for Metropolitan News. In Volunteer Slavery, Jill Nelson refers to him as the Post's "spook gatekeeper"—and that does seem to be what Post publisher Donald Graham had in mind when he handpicked Coleman as his Metro editor in 1986. After interviewing six candidates for the job, Bradlee and Downie had settled on Kevin Klose, an editor on the National desk who is now the head of Radio Free Europe. But in an unusual move, Donald Graham overruled them. "He said, 'Uh, guys, you made the wrong choice,'" recalls an editor. "'The next Metro editor's gonna be Milton Coleman.'"
Coleman's purview has been expanding ever since. "Milton Coleman has enormous power here," says one Post reporter. "The top editors here are all guilty white liberals who want to do the right thing and are very unsure of themselves. So Milton has enormous moral force." Juan Williams explains how this works in practice. "Every story that's racially sensitive gets run by him," he says. "The top editors have encouraged him to look at stuff, so he does. Unfortunately, there are lots of reporters who have complained over the years that their aggressive instincts have been muted by his editing." In one notorious incident, Coleman refused to let a reporter refer to Louis Farrakhan as controversial. "Milton said we could not say, 'Louis Farakkhan, the controversial minister from the Nation of Islam,'" recalls a Post staffer, formerly of the City desk. "He made us take out the word 'controversial.' He kept saying, 'You can't say that about him, you can't say that about him....' Well, if we couldn't say he was controversial, what could we say?"
Over the years, Coleman has distinguished himself as a reporter and editor by his honorable behavior in tight spots. As Janet Cooke's editor on her objectionable "Jimmy" story, he courageously took full responsibility for one of the most notorious screw-ups in journalism. "I think, if I can gore my own ox, [everyone] kind of took it for granted that Coleman should know" whether the story presented an accurate picture, he told the Post's ombudsman, Bill Green. In 1984, Coleman took on the most prominent black leader in the country when he told a fellow Post reporter that Jesse Jackson had referred to Jews as "Hymies" in private conversation. Though the mention was buried in the thirty-fourth paragraph of the reporter's story, the disclosure hit the Jackson campaign like an earthquake. Jackson, furious, insisted the reference had been off the record, and Coleman was vilified as a traitor within the black community.
Coleman's coverage of local black leaders, with whom he is socially close, has been less fearsome. After joining the Post in 1976, Coleman went to work on the City desk, where his germinal reporting experience was covering the glamorous, dashiki-clad activist and City Council member Marion Barry. Barry was a much more dynamic figure back then, and Coleman's coverage was celebratory. "Many blacks feel that a part of their own future is wrapped up in Marion Barry's success as mayor," Coleman wrote at the time. "He is a symbol—the most visible symbol—of those blacks who grew up in the '60s, began to achieve status, affluence and power in the '70s, and don't want to lose it in the '80s."
Coleman became Metro editor just as Barry's nighttime escapades were beginning to attract serious notice in the paper. "Milton was coming home to Metro," recalls Art Brisbane, a former Post Metro editor now editing The Kansas City Star. "He had covered Barry. He knew the District political scene extremely well. He was coming home in a position of really significant influence. He saw the Barry situation and just intuited an opportunity to improve the relationship between the newspaper and the mayor." Coleman explains his decision simply. "One day, I had lunch with the mayor. ... Afterwards, I told Len that, as somebody who read The Washington Post pretty regularly since 1982, the guy I had lunch with was a much more sophisticated, astute politician than the guy we had been portraying, and that part of my mission would be to change that. And Len agreed with me."
But other reporters were bothered by the degree to which Coleman became socially close to Barry and other black city officials. During a routine staff meeting around that period, reporters erupted, according to several in attendance, claiming Coleman had a racial agenda. "People felt that stuff was being held, watered down, refocused," said one Metro reporter. "And one of the things that Milton said during that meeting was, 'Look, you know, I have to answer to these people. These people are my neighbors and friends. And you guys are a bunch of white folks, you don't know what I'm talking about, but I live in black Washington.' It just shocked people. We felt like those people, Charlene Drew Jarvis, whoever, were calling the tune." And, indeed, it was after Coleman's arrival on the City desk that the Post's coverage of the Barry administration changed perceptibly. "The city was roiling," recalls a Metro editor. "There was a stepped-up investigation of Barry. The Post had ratcheted up its coverage. There were rumors that he was taking drugs, that his administration was corrupt, that people were being paid off. Suddenly those stories became very, very hard to get in the paper."
Coleman soon developed a reputation in the newsroom for quashing stories critical not only of Barry, but of other black city leaders. Here are some of the more notorious examples:
In early 1987, Barry's interference with city contracting was the focus of an investigation into his administration conducted by the U.S. Attorney. Before the investigation had even begun, Post reporter Sharon LaFranier had filed a long story about how the D.C. government's minority contracting program was enriching cronies of the mayor. "It was a great story," says then-City editor Rem Rieder. "But Milton hated it. ... He went through and identified thirty or forty specific things that he had a problem with. Sharon went back and tried to address every one of them. Then he came up with new concerns. After a while, we got the sense that this was something he just didn't want in the paper." A watered-down version of the article finally ran—after the election, and after The Washington Times had already gotten there first.
In 1987, Metro reporter Karlyn Barker discovered that the city's annual Riverfest was turning into a personal bacchanalia for the mayor at the city's expense. A band of Riverfest committee members marched into the Post and confronted Coleman, arguing that Barker had gotten it wrong, that the story shouldn't run. (Ironically, one of the people in the meeting, going through the motions for appearance's sake, had been Barker's source for the story.) Coleman sat on the piece for weeks, running a weakened version only after the Riverfest committee had held a pre-emptive press conference announcing changes. "I was so on the money," Barker, now at The Orange County Register, recalls. "The Post sat on the story until the city's defense was out, then led with the city's defense. I was furious."
Also in 1987, Barker learned that Barry's ex-wife, Mary Treadwell, who was sent to prison for stealing funds from a city housing project, had been released and immediately granted a $28,000-a-year job with the city parole board. Rieder, Barker's editor at the time, excitedly brought the story to the news editor, where it was slated for page one. The Post editorial page prepared an accompanying editorial. When Coleman got wind of these developments, he said, according to Rieder, "That's not a story." Coleman went to complain to Downie, and the series didn't run on page one. It didn't run at all. Three days later, after other news outlets deemed the revelation a story and all hell had broken loose, the Post finally ran a brief item on page D5 in its "Update on the News" column.
Coleman disputes the facts of none of these instances. In the case of the first two, he says his motives have been misread: "The pieces did not fail to appear for reasons of race." In the case of the Mary Treadwell incident, he admits to "underplaying" the story. "In retrospect, my news judgment was wrong," he says.
In the late '80s, as Barry's nightly indulgences became common knowledge, Coleman went to war with his City editor, Mary Jo Meisner. Meisner pushed consistently for more aggressive coverage of the mayor, and reporters say that it was a terrible time on the Metro desk. "Remember how difficult this would be for him," says one Metro reporter. "These are mostly white reporters, going on TV, getting good strokes at The Washington Post, getting known, getting famous, by pointing out on the front page of The Washington Post the human frailties of a proud black man and his administration. This was supposed to be the new African American political class. Fourteen, fifteen years after they take power from the white aristocracy, it's all going down the drain. And Mary Jo is shouldering Milton aside and controlling the coverage. It really contributed to a lot of the tension between the two of them." After the trial, Meisner quit, complaining that Coleman too often viewed stories through a racial prism—"killing, dismembering and soft-pedaling" coverage of Barry and his friends, she told Regardie's.
When it came to Barry's comeback campaign in 1994, the Post's coverage was, if anything, more uncritical than before. "Nonexistent," one reporter calls it. "A farce," says another. "It's amazing how little context we provided for readers." How did the paper that had broken Watergate miss the story of political corruption right under its nose? The Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, says: "I would not dispute the notion that coverage of Barry, particularly after the primary, was weird. We just could have done a better job. And there you could argue that we were feeling somewhat sensitive, especially since Barry was openly running against the Post as a part of the white power structure."
Midway through the campaign, Barry announced that his constituency was able to overlook his many transgressions because blacks were more forgiving than Jews. "You never saw it in the daily paper," says one bitter Post reporter. When Barry surrounded himself with old cronies like Ivanhoe Donaldson, who had served time for his corruption in a previous Barry administration, the Post didn't report that, either. When city residents called the Post, offering tips about how Barry was paying voters to turn out for him, how he was giving homeless people alcohol, sending checks to outside wards, "those tips were not valiantly investigated," says one Post editor. "The old college try was not put at it, and I don't know why." On January 3, Barry was sworn in as mayor. "As Barry spoke, a jubilant crowd of 2,000 supporters cheered, applauded and stomped their feet, giving the inauguration ceremony the feel of a victorious basketball game or a revival meeting," wrote the Post. "The new mayor called on District citizens to unify behind him and believe that their battered city could accomplish the impossible."
Milton Coleman's office is decorated with Boy Scout paraphernalia and posters of black Olympians. Sitting atop his television set is a mirrored chrome sculpture of the word "no." He sits in granite stillness as I query him about his editorial philosophy. When he speaks, his voice exudes a quiet authority. "Any story we do, I think: What is the first thing that people who want to criticize us are going to say?" he says. "And are we going to leave ourselves open to valid criticism? I want our stories to be as bulletproof as possible. And that has nothing to do with race." I ask him about the relationship between diversity and coverage. "I don't see diversity as a cultural experiment," he says. "The reality of the world is not overwhelmingly a white, male reality. There's no need to diversify the newsroom if it's not going to influence coverage."
Coleman gives an example of what he is talking about—a 1994 series written by Keith Harriston, a black reporter, and his white editor, Mary Pat Flaherty, on rampant corruption in the D.C. police department. "Law and Disorder—the District's Troubled Police" was a finalist for a Pulitzer. "That was a series that, had we been saying, 'We don't want black folks,' would not have been written." he says. "So diversity translated into coverage." But wait a minute. Three years earlier, hadn't Coleman killed a piece that predicted and decried precisely the problems Harriston documented? And wasn't the piece written by a white reporter, Sari Horwitz? Coleman shakes his head. "I'm not going to discuss how we edit the paper with your readers," he says. "All I will say is that Sari Horwitz's report was never published because it was never completed. And it was never completed for a host of reasons. Some of which had to do with her editors' time. Some of which had to do with Sari's time."
Others see it differently. "Milton kept placing obstacles in its way," says a Post editor. "It was the equivalent of placing 100,000 tasks in front of you. Well, you haven't proven this. You haven't asked that. This was an explosive, fascinating, well-done series. And his reaction was completely negative and extremely discouraging."
Horwitz's story was about the D.C. police department's hiring binge, which she termed "a disaster in the making." Scrambling to meet a looming congressional deadline, the department was having trouble finding qualified candidates to fill the number of slots. As a result, Horwitz wrote in her story, critical background checks were being cut short. Cops who failed to meet minimum residency requirements were being hired anyway—cops who couldn't read, couldn't write, couldn't understand cause and effect. Unfortunately for Horwitz's story, almost all of the problem cops, due to the residency requirement, happened to be black. Though Horwitz had quoted both white cops and black veteran cops denouncing the lowered standards, Milton "hated the piece," says an editor. "He was concerned about community reaction. He thought it would look like the Post was piling on."
By 1993, Horwitz's class of crooked cops was out on the streets. It wasn't long before they were being arrested in droves, for crimes ranging from shoplifting to rape and murder. Horwitz turned over her notes to Keith Harriston.
During a seminar on investigative reporting last month, Coleman praised the Harriston piece as an example of the stellar investigative reporting coming off the City desk. The reporters and editors in the room, many of whom knew the tangled tale of Horwitz's piece, were "aghast," said one attendee. Finally, the tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface boiled over. Steve Luxenberg, assistant managing editor for investigative (reporting), spoke up. "The rumor was that Milton killed that piece because he was trying to protect his friend Ike Fulwood," Luxenberg mused to the group. Fulwood had been the police chief at the time of Horwitz's squelched series. Coleman denied the charge; but deputy investigative editor Marilyn Thompson jumped in. "Wait a minute, Milton," Thompson reportedly said, "What's the real story here? People have said the story was killed because of race." Coleman denied that charge as well; but when pressed by editors for the precise reason why the piece was killed, "he never did give a satisfactory answer," says one who was present. "People thought it was pretty outrageous for him to bring up Keith Harriston's piece. Sure, now that these cops are out there and it's come to light, we finally wrote about it. But we could have prevented it."
Coleman's reputation for racial protectiveness used to be a sore spot at the Post. "Len and I have dealt with this complaint more than once over the years," Kaiser admits. In 1986, after Coleman had killed one too many stories, prompting a revolt on the City desk, Downie and Kaiser chewed him out. "They made it clear that whatever you're doing, you can't do it this way; that you don't want a mutiny of your top reporters," recalls one high-level Post editor. "Milton had to pull back a little bit and be not quite as interventionist and outrageous."
But today, Coleman's anxieties more closely coincide with the Post's sensibilities. What used to be known as squelching or gutting stories has become "sensitivity" to the "community." "As an African American," says Bob Kaiser, "Milton gives us real sensitivity and adequate representation." Says Leonard Downie admiringly: "Milton tends to look at stories from about five or six different directions. It's not just a sense of journalistic responsibility, but a responsibility to the city, a responsibility to the community.... He's helped us understand a lot of things."
Rather than taking reporters who complain about Coleman seriously, the top Post management blame their grievances on racism, to be corrected through diversity training. "I wouldn't want to be quoted saying this about my own staff," one top Post editor told me. "But I think there is a certain amount of, 'Who is this big black dude telling me my story's not good enough?' I can't read minds or psychoanalyze. But I think what Mike [Getler] is doing will help to change that." "People are always misreading my motives," agrees Coleman. "That's why we're talking these issues out in the newsroom."
These internecine squabbles would be no more than gossip for newsroom groupies, were it not for the tangible consequences: the Post has become a paper that too often mistells or misses stories. Call it no-fault journalism. "If a story has to do with race, the process is made very cumbersome," says James Ragland, a former Post City Hall reporter now at The Dallas Morning News, who quit the paper in frustration after the '94 mayoral campaign. "Stories that should get in the paper without any trouble become much more difficult. I understand the need to be sensitive, but it goes overboard, to the point where the journalistic function is compromised." Ragland, who is black, points out that the Post's squeamishness has a perverse result: most of the victims of black officials' mismanagement of public housing, jails and schools are themselves black.
Other reporters complain that their aggressive instincts are being stifled by the Post's obsessive race consciousness. "I wanted to do a piece on D.C.'s minority set-aside program, which is a total and complete boondoggle. Six big firms in D.C. get all the money," says one reporter. But the reporter has decided not to. "I thought to myself: Oh God, do I want to do this, knowing the hassle they're going to put me through? ... And then I thought, forget it. The hoops I'd have to get through to put that story in the paper could be career-threatening."
Coleman is far from the only Post editor killing pieces these days. Sensitivity is infectious. In early 1993, Metro reporter Sandra Evans spent months following around a Prince George's County social worker, meticulously documenting the neglect and abuse that goes on in the social service system. She told the story from the point of view of the social worker. Unfortunately, the social worker was white, and all the kids were black. When the story got done, her editors wouldn't run it. "They told her straight out, the problem with this piece is it looks like a white woman imposing her values on this black world." Evans defends her choice of a white social worker—"She was enthusiastic and personable"—but says that she understands her editors' objections. "The paper's trying very hard to make sure that people see the diversity of the people around us, and not judge them by subjective standards," she says. "And ultimately, if you're white and middle class, you're going to see the world through white, middle-class eyes."
In the new, post-sensitivity era, even pictures are gerrymandered. In 1994, Susie Linfield, then the Arts editor of the paper, wanted to run, on the cover of the Sunday Arts section, a picture of two black women dancing with a local band. The picture was supposed to accompany a story about the Northeast Groovers, a local go-go group. But Style editor Mary Hadar and assignment editor Alona Wartofsky objected vehemently. They insisted it was racist to show black women wearing tight clothing and dancing. Linfield recalls being surprised by their reaction. The picture was an unstaged documentary shoot, taken by a black photographer and approved by a black photo editor. Hadar and Wortofsky complained to Kaiser, who, in an angry meeting, accused Linfield of "endangering the paper" with her racial insensitivity. Linfield, now a visiting professor at New York University, remains somewhat amused by the drama. "The Post's attitude toward blacks is basically that of a parent toward a crazy child: 'Don't upset them.' The Post sees it as enlightenment, but it's really just another form of racism, because it's based on condescension and fear. It's normally intelligent people getting thrown into a frenzy of defensiveness and losing all perspective."
Linfield's editors, of course, see the episode differently. "Susie liked dramatic images," says Kaiser. "But there was a strong feeling that showing semi-clad, sweaty women jiving like this was, ah, not representative of the world of the Northeast Groovers. So the picture was journalistically misleading." "Sure, race was part of the discussion," agrees Mary Hadar. "But I don't think we were overreacting."
After encountering the racial strife at The Washington Post, it's tempting to despair that major American institutions will ever achieve both racial integration and racial harmony. If the Post, which tries so hard and means so well, is failing so dramatically to achieve its goals, what hope is there for the rest of us?
"When racial things come up in this newsroom, we should talk about them," says Len Downie. "We should not run away from them. We ought to talk about them." In fact, the more everyone talks, the worse everyone feels. "It's a truism in this world of diversity training that things get worse before they get better," says David Ignatius hopefully. "And maybe that's what we're seeing. When people are talking about issues that are really painful, you're not going to hear violins start playing."
By focusing obsessively on the ideals and the instruments of diversity, by exhorting its staff to reflect endlessly on their own resentments, the Post is ensuring that the resentments will never be transcended. Not every pain has to be shared. At the Post today, pain has been promoted into a norm, a credential, a personal and professional qualification. David Nicholson, a black assistant editor on the Post's book review, puts it well. "I wish that everybody would just shut up and do their jobs, and quit bitching about how badly they're treated because they're gay, how badly they're treated because they're a woman, how badly they're treated because they're black. If everyone just shut up and did their jobs, we could have the best goddamn paper in the country. But we're too busy aping the fragmentation of the larger society. And I don't think any good's going to come of it."
Indifference is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it denotes neutrality and a desire for objectivity. In recent years it has become fashionable to criticize objectivity, to attack it as a mask for interests. For journalists, however, such a view is dangerous. If objectivity is not possible, then journalism is not possible. And a newspaper's indifference to the subjects of its coverage is the sign of a newspaper's integrity. Or so it used to be.