The Washington Post Scrubs a Post about the Post

And readers would never know

On Wednesday, Bill Turque, the Washington Post’s education beat reporter, posted an excellent blog item showing his readers a little bit of the inside game at his paper. It was titled “One Newspaper, Two Stories”—a title that, by the end of the day, would become more apt than Turque ever could have expected.

That’s because editors pulled the post off the site Wednesday night, replacing it hours later with a new, dialed-back version.

And there was plenty to dial back. Originally, Turque had set his sights on his colleagues on the editorial page, who take a very different approach when it comes to writing about the city’s schools.

The proximate cause of Turque’s post was a Fast Company interview in which D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee explained that an October round of layoffs did away with “teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of schools.”

The magazine didn’t clarify whether Rhee meant that all of the 266 teachers who were left jobless had such serious infractions on their records, or just a handful. And the disclosure of the possibility of sexual abuse was news. So Turque pressed the district’s office, again and again, for numbers that could shed some light.

Eventually the paper got the numbers—but not Turque. Instead, the district passed them on to Jo-Ann Armao, an editorial board member who regularly, and relatively sympathetically, writes on Rhee’s efforts to remake the city’s troubled school system.

Turque was happy to share why he thought he was frozen out of the information:

Where this gets complicated is that board’s stance, and the chancellor’s obvious rapport with Jo-Ann, also means that DCPS has a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures—kind of a print version of the Larry King Show.

That’s tasty. Tasty enough that I tweeted the Larry King bit, after being alerted to the Washington City Paper’s claim that Turque’s item was the “Best Blog Post by the Post About the Post,” a sentiment with which Politico media writer Michael Calderone agreed, as did Michael Birnbaum, Turque’s fellow education reporter at the Post.

In part, Turque’s post appealed to me as a rare look at a newsroom’s internecine battles. But it also was a pithy explanation of the games sources play, of the different jobs of the beat reporter and the editorialist, and a reassertion of the oft-doubted wall between the two. It was a refreshing and honest item—the kind of behind-the-scenes story that I know many readers would like to see more of.

But all that audience engagement proved to be a bit too much for Post higher-ups. As Erik Wemple of the Washington City Paper noted last night, Turque’s post was pulled from the site and given a nice scrubbing before going back up. Gone was the Larry King crack, among other shifts, deletions, and rewrites. Turque’s strong closing paragraph, where he reassured readers that he didn’t give a damn about what went on over on the editorial page, was neutered to the point of near-incomprehensibility.

But there was no indication whatsoever that the blog item had been rewritten. A little weird, considering that the original version had already draw praise from the paper’s most dogged hometown observers at the City Paper, and—not to inflate the importance of a couple of tweets—from Calderone and yours truly.

The Washington Post made it clear to me that they’d have no comment on the decision not to note the changes.

But, suffice to say, readers of Turque’s blog who hadn’t seen the City Paper’s coverage of the matter would have no idea that his points had been dulled down, or know why. (That certainly held true for the PR staffer who returned my call seeking comment, and initially said that she didn’t understand my query, considering that as far as she could see the item hadn’t been changed.)

In a way, this reminds me of a similar ham-handed episode from this summer involving a Post decision to pull online content without initially telling its readers: the sudden disappearance of a Dana Milbank/Chris Cillizza online video suggesting Hillary Clinton ought to quaff “Mad Bitch” beer. At the time, CJR’s Greg Marx wrote that:

In the absence of some extraordinary circumstance, simply removing material from your site is the wrong thing to do. If you feel that material you’ve published crossed some line of tone or taste, and that it went so far that you cannot in good conscience keep it up on your site, the responsible thing to do is to own up to the mistake publicly, not to make the item in question disappear.

That’s a good standard. And, it’s important to note, one that makes the truth of Turque’s accusations a bit beside the point. If the papers editors think his post crossed the line, they should say why—not only publicly, but on their own site.

Erik Wemple’s follow-up reporting adds a little nuance to Turque’s charges, as well as some explanation about the paper’s reasoning behind the decision to pull portions of the post. That’s a start.

But readers shouldn’t have to go Googling to get it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.