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Sprayed sperm and
Washington Post tabloidization

by Terry Michael | August 19, 2010

“Man Accused of spraying semen led a normal life. Suspect never had any issues. Showed no indication of bizarre behavior.”

You just read the headline and sub-heds for a story in the Metro section of last Sunday's (August 15, 2010) issue of the ink-on-dead-trees edition of The Washington Post. It led the front page of a section charged with reporting important District of Columbia news. It did so only four weeks until a local election, featuring a Post-endorsed young mayor who seems to think DC’s treasury is his personal piggybank for friends--though you wouldn’t necessarily know much about that from the meager space devoted to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s alleged transgressions. But I digress.

Just when I thought the Post couldn’t outdo itself in wasting space to pander to prurient interests, some genius editor decided to hype an account of a 28-year-old accused of spraying semen on “three women inside the Giant supermarket on Muddy Branch Road.” (“He’s never had any issues,” his mother...said in an interview. “He grew up in the church.”)

If you made it this far, you’ve either burst out laughing or you’re wondering, “Where the hell’s Terry going with this?” Stick with me, friends of journalistic excellence.

Two summers ago, it became clear to me that fewer adults were in charge of editing The Washington Post, one of the most politically influential papers in America--an arbiter of opinion, with clout to steer us away from disasters like Watergate, or encourage them, as in the Post’s neo-conservative boosterism of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In a twelve part July 2008 “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” series, the paper that brought down a corrupt president with investigative reporting by two local Metro desk staffers used its limited investigative resources to exploit the baser interests of a dwindling number of customers. Jesus may have needed 12 disciples to help him get the word out, but God published only ten commandments; so why, writing at the time I asked, do editors of The Washington Post require a dozen units of space to “investigate” the sad demise of a young woman?

This is not to say the Post didn’t, in the intervening time, also produce some fine investigative pieces, like Debbie Cenziper’s expose last October of the theft of $25 million by HIV-AIDS Industry “non-profits” colluding with the local DC HIV-AIDS administration to bilk taxpayers of millions, and Dana Priest’s “Top Secret America” this summer, exploring the frightening national security build-up since 9/11.

But the Post once again descended into tabloid hell this July, with “Lurking in the Schools,” wasting the investigative talents of three reporters and devoting hundreds and hundreds of column inches beating to death the story of a Virginia suburban sexual molester. Page after page was squandered on this anomalous tale, so far out of proportion to reality it reeked of the slimy Dateline NBC “To Catch a Predator” series, which fabricated news instead of covering it.

Sure, newspapers are in crisis, losing a business model that worked for decades, trying to find ways to attract revenue-producing readers. But the Post parent corporation is profitable, able to fund reporting that serves the purpose of the First Amendment, educating us for our civic responsibilities.

I remain a devoted reader and a fan of the Post and its great reporters and editors, like Dan Balz, the premier political journalist of his generation, and Marcia Kramer, a talented former Metro desk copy editor, who Ben Bradlee said “transformed [the Metro copy desk] into a first-rate, highly regarded organization.” I went to college with both, so I know them well. And I am sure more talent like theirs fills the newsroom.

But leadership has to come from the owners, sending signals to top managers that pandering is no substitute for quality journalism. And they need to lay down the law that flouting journalistic ethics will not be tolerated, as the Post unfortunately has done in the case of Mr. Ezra Klein and his band of “Journolist” liberal policy advocates masquerading as journalists. Apparently, the Post believes the telegenic Mr. Klein is just too cute to fail, because he’s still employed.

Maybe I’m just an aging curmudgeon. But I take seriously my 1969 Univ. of Illinois journalism degree, informed by news values from the Progressive Era. The Progressives were foolishly infatuated with social engineering by “experts,” but they sure as hell were right about the importance of fair, dispassionate and proportionate reporting.

Back to my digression above: Post editors, how about a little more serious reporting in the print edition about the paper’s endorsed candidate for mayor? I’ve been noticing that some of the really interesting stuff about Adrian Fenty only appears on your web pages.
________________________________

Terry Michael is director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, for the past 21 years teaching college journalists about politics. He is a former political press secretary. He writes opinion and analysis at his “libertarian Democrat” web site, http://www.terrymichael.net

 



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