Walking Backward Trying to Go Forward

An incredible thing is happening over at the Washington Post.  A kind of back-and-forth between Bill Turque and the editors about his blog.  Yesterday Turque posted a revealing bit on the reasons why, during this recent flap of Michelle Rhee’s comments, that the Post seems to publish two versions of the same story. This is no surprise to many of us who have complained about the Post in the last few years.  In terms of Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty the Post acts more as their public relations firm than a newspaper. Turque’s article was proof of the pudding.  To read the most revealing version, though, you had to get online early – because the editors went to work and sliced and diced the remarks that, I am sure, were most stinging in their truth.  Here is the article as it first appeared:

One newspaper, two stories

By Bill Turque
Many of you may have noticed something more than a tad odd Tuesday morning in our coverage of Chancellor Rhee’s now immortal comments to “Fast Company.” My story, which appeared on the front of the Metro section, said that Rhee had yet to explain or elaborate, and that there would be no comment until later in the day. My Monday evening blog entry said pretty much the same thing.

The editorial page told a different story. Citing “information released by the chancellor’s office on Monday,” it said that of the 266 teachers laid off in October, six had served suspensions for corporal punishment, two had been absent without leave on multiple occasions, and one was on administrative leave for allegedly having sex with a student.

So, after asking DCPS about this since Friday–and being promised a response all day Monday–I read the answers in an editorial. Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood also had Rhee’s explanation on the air Monday.

But it’s the disconnect between the editorial page and the news section that I feel requires some kind explanation. So let me try.

The news and opinion columns of The Post are wholly separate and independent operations. This assertion frequently draws a torrent of skepticism, but if this episode does nothing else, it should give the lie to the notion that there is some sort of sinister linkage. I have little-to-no contact with Jo-Ann Armao, who writes The Post’s education editorials (full disclosure: Jo-Ann hired me in 2002 when she was the assistant managing editor for metro news; but we’re all allowed a lapse of judgment now and then). About the only time we cross paths is at news events involving District education. Jo-Ann is a dogged journalist who pursues her own information.

That includes talking to Chancellor Rhee. And while I don’t have their call sheets in front of me, I would wager that the Chancellor talks to Jo-Ann more than she does to me. (After a well-documented period of silence, the Chancellor started taking my calls and e-mails again last summer)

That’s fine. Chancellor Rhee can obviously talk to whoever she wants about whatever she wants. While some of my colleagues don’t agree, my view is that Jo-Ann isn’t responsible for watching my back journalistically any more than I would be expected to align my reporting with her points of view.

The chancellor is clearly more comfortable speaking with Jo-Ann, which is wholly unsurprising. I’m a beat reporter charged with covering, as fully and fairly as I can, an often turbulent story about the chancellor’s attempts to fix the District’s public schools. The job involves chronicling messy and contentious debates based in both politics and policy, and sometimes publishing information she would rather not see in the public domain.

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

That’s what editorial boards do. They form opinions and write about them. People can buy in.

Or not.

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. This happened last September during the flap over the out-of-boundary admission of Mayor Fenty’s twin sons to Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase.

The chancellor repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether policies and procedures had been followed to place the kids in the coveted school. A few days after the dust settled, an editorial offered, without attribution, an “innocent explanation”: the Fentys neighborhood school, West Elementary, had only one fourth grade class. Lafayette’s multiple fourth-grade sections made it possible to separate the twins, which studies show is developmentally desirable.

Are Fenty and Rhee gaming the system by using the editorial page this way? Of course. Is this a healthy thing for readers of The Post? Probably not. Is it going to keep me from doing my job effectively?

Nope.

Compare it to the article that is online and you will easily find the differences without anyone having to point them out.  What is the Post afraid of? The revelation that they are duplicitous in their coverage of city officials.  Anyone who has read the recent editorials in support of Michelle Rhee knows this. Their adherence to the belief that Ms. Rhee is the best thing DCPS has ever had happen to it is adamant.

Those of us working in the toxic atmosphere that is DCPS under Michelle Rhee understand what it means to have deaf leadership – which is what seems to be happening at the Post.  They might do well to study this lesson from the Zen Master Caotang on leadership:

From Discerning Feelings

If the leader cannot minutely discern people’s psychological conditions, and the feeling of those below is not communicated above, then above and below oppose each other and matters are disordered. This is how leadership goes to ruin.

It may happen that a leader will presume upon intellectual brilliance and often hold to biased views, failing to comprehend people’s feelings, rejecting community counsel and giving importance to his own authority, neglecting public consideration and practicing private favoritism–all of this causes the road of advance in goodness to become narrower and narrower, and causes the path of responsibility for the community to become fainter and fainter.

Such leaders repudiate whatever they have never before seen or heard, and become set in their ways, to which they are habituated and by which they are veiled. To hope that the leadership of people like this would be great and far-reaching, is like walking backward trying to go forward.   Letter to Shantang

This ancient letter could have been slipped into the letters to the editor today it has so much relevance to what is happening in DCPS, and at the Washington Post.  Just listen to any interview with Michelle Rhee in which she claims collaboration to be overrated or look at how she treated both the Hardy and Ellington communities, not to mention P.R. Harris and all the other schools where changes were often made against the community’s wishes.  Time for the deaf ears to open and the blind eyes to see.

2 thoughts on “Walking Backward Trying to Go Forward

  1. That quote is from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership translated by Thomas Cleary. This is a collection of “political, social and psychological teachings of the Chinese Zen adepts of the Song Dynasty.” If you can’t find it by itself this book is in the collection Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary Volume 1, Shambhala Press. When I came across that quote I thought it an apt description of the problems in current DCPS leadership. I find Zen Lessons very helpful for the classroom, which is usually how I use it, but that quote, when I came across it, hit home.

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