Who Censored the Washington Post’s Rhee Item?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 28th, 2010

Tensions flaring over Turquemakeastand?

Late night weirdness at the Washington Post, a paper that boasts arguably the best education coverage of any daily.  A hard-hitting blog post by reporter Bill Turque, which took on both DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and his own newspaper’s editorial page, disappeared from the paper’s website for several hours, only to return with some of the more pointed turns of phrase removed.

Turque, who has clashed with Rhee over his tough reporting, has been covering the fallout from the chancellor’s latest controversial statements—a quote in Fast Company defending her dismissal of over 200 teachers last year.  “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.  Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”  she told the magazine.  Critics, including the head of the city council, erupted and demanded to know why Rhee didn’t say this at the time and whether law enforcement had been alerted. 

Turque pressed Rhee to explain her controversial statement—how many of the 266 fired teachers had abused their positions? — and got nowhere.  But on Tuesday, he read Rhee’s answer–in an editorial in his own paper.   Six teachers were suspended for corporal punishment, two had been AWOL and only one faced allegations having sex with a student.  The editorial cited “information released by the chancellor’s office on Monday.” 

Turque took to his D.C. Schools Insider blog and explained that the Post’s news desk operates independently of the editorial page, with education editorials written by Jo-Ann Armao.  That’s when it got really interesting.  Turque wrote:

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.

Sometime around 8pm last time, Turque’s piece vanished from the Post’s website.  When it returned a few hours later, the phrase describing the Post’s editorials about Rhee as “protective and, at times, adoring” was gone.   Other sections of the piece were similarly watered down.

Here’s Turque’s original post (a cached version of which is still available):

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.

And the current, revised version:

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

 Having spent the better part of my career in journalism, I was thrilled to read Turque’s original blog post, and delighted the paper showed enough respect for its readers to lift the curtain on its processes. By explaining the behind-the-scenes machinations and showing how powerful people maneuver to affect coverage and spin perceptions, they were treating readers like grownups, holding both Rhee and the paper itself accountable.   But what happened?  Why change the story?  Sounds like a great piece for Howie Kurtz, the Post’s media critic. 

I hope they let him write it.