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An inappropriate blog item causes a stir

Washington Post reporter is called on the carpet for expressing an opinion in a blog. The CityPaper says, "The Washington Post editorial board is pissed beyond words about Bill Turque's Wednesday blog post regarding the board's relationship with D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

by Washington Post Ombudsman

In his "D.C. Schools Insider" blog on Wednesday, education reporter Bill Turque offered a fascinating behind-the-scenes explanation of how The Post's newsroom and editorial page operate independently.

He described being scooped the previous day by a Post editorial. It had included information from the office of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on her recent claims to a national business magazine that some teachers had been laid off because they "had sex with children," hit them or were chronically absent. Turque wrote that Rhee's office had provided fresh information to the editorial board -- but not him -- and noted that The Post's editorial page support of Rhee had been "steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring." He said this, coupled with Rhee's comfort level with editorial board member Jo-Ann Armao, who writes education editorials, had assured Rhee a "soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures -- kind of a print version of the Larry King Show."

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. In its place, readers saw this: "We are unable to locate the page you requested." And when the blog item reappeared several hours later, it had been noticeably altered.

"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."

Hiatt merely "alerted me" to Turque's blog post, Spayd said, but it was her decision to pull the blog post and to have it rewritten to eliminate some of the references she considered objectionable.

In his initial blog post, Turque had written:

"Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring."

The rewritten version reads:

"Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast."

Elsewhere, the original version read:

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

The rewritten version reads:

"Where this gets complicated is that [the] board's stance, and the chancellor's rapport with Jo-Ann, means that DCPS may prefer to talk to her than me."

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."

Turque, recalling the Wednesday night session in Spayd's office, said he told her that his original blog post had been "pretty carefully considered" and that "I don't go off half-cocked on these things."

Turque said his original item had been read by his editors, including education editor Craig Timberg and Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, a high-ranking editor who oversees The Post's local coverage. Both took the blame.

"This whole thing was my fault," Garcia-Ruiz messaged me. "I saw the original post, approved it, and should have edited the opinion out of it. The issue of beat writers straying from analysis to opinion in blog posts is one we dealt with when I was [in his previous job as Sports editor] and I know better. When it was brought to my attention last night, I edited the piece as I should have done originally, called Bill to explain why I made the changes I made, and then republished it."

Similarly, Timberg said he had approved the post. "I feel really badly about the way this turned out," he said. "I feel as though I misjudged the extent to which there was room for a rough and tumble conversation" in the blog. "I feel like I've embarrassed the news organization and I wish that weren't so."

The controversy over the blog item was first reported by Washington's CityPaper, which updated with details through today.

Hiatt and members of the editorial page staff are steamed by Turque's item.

"I felt the original post was inaccurate, both in what happened and about the editorial board," Hiatt said today. He said he disagreed with Turque's characterization of the editorial board's treatment of Rhee. And he also said that Rhee had called Turque's immediate supervisor, education editor Timberg, on Tuesday to apologize for not giving the newsroom the same information that had been provided to the editorial page. And he added that Turque's blog had noted that Rhee's office had also provided the information to NBC Channel 4s Tom Sherwood.

Timberg confirmed that Rhee had called him Tuesday, at his request. "She was apologetic" and said "she had intended to get the information to Bill but there was an internal problem." Timberg said he told Turque in "general terms" about her call and told him he should expect his own call from Rhee.

Late today, Turque confirmed that he subsequently spoke with Rhee, before he wrote his blog on Wednesday, and she had apologized for him not receiving the same information given to Sherwood and the editorial board. He said Rhee told him her office had "botched" the release of the information and that Turque should have received it.

But isn't that relevant, given that his blog post might leave the impression that Rhee had intentionally kept him out of the loop?

"Yes," Turque said, "I understand how they could see it that way."

This afternoon, Spayd met with Turque, Timberg and Garcia-Ruiz. Turque said she told them that there's nothing wrong with beat reporters being "analytical" or having a "conversational tone" in blogs.

"But she said she thought I had crossed the line into opinion...that I had no business making."

— Ombudsman
Washington Post





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