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.

9 Comments »

  1. Update: Washington’s City Paper adds lots of details to what happened here.

    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/01/27/washington-post-blog-post-critical-of-washington-post-disappears-from-web-site/

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 28, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  2. This is precisely the kind of story we need to know more about. I’m no great fan of the “old” (pre-”new philanthropy”) school district. But the “new” school district – to be run, better, faster cheaper by the “new” superintendent (e.g. NYC, DC, Pittsburg), backed by the new philanthropy (e.g.,New Schools, Broad, Gates) and supported by a host of “new” nonprofits, is no less prone to controlling information, CYA politics, and working the back stage. This leaves those of us who care about real reform (measured only by student outcomes) with the unenviable choice of: A)pointing out that the emperor is short on clothes, only to be rewarded with social and financial ostracism OR B) keeping our mouths shut and becoming conspirators after the fact.

    Thank god for the beat reporters who simply want the story. They may help the timid get the gumption to hold their betters to account before they drive real reform off a cliff.

    Comment by Marc Dean Millot — January 28, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Turquemakeastand. Heh. Is that east or west of Kleinzakastan?

    Comment by GGW — January 29, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  4. It’s in the same general Rheegion. The next morning, of course, I thought of the obvious play on Turque and kicked myself for not coming up with it sooner: The education beat reported at the Post is Michelle Rhee’s Turquemada.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 29, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  5. I really appreciate this blog and the comments. It hits the real issues.

    Comment by jlp — January 30, 2010 @ 7:58 am

  6. Great Post, Robert, but watch out – you may have inadvertently gotten tripped up by Rhee-speak.

    You say, “Six teachers were suspended for corporal punishment, two had been AWOL and only one faced allegations having sex with a student.”

    But the post editorial said, “Included in that group, according to information released by the chancellor’s office on Monday, were six employees who had served suspensions for corporal punishment and two employees who had been absent without leave on multiple occasions. The most disturbing case involves the teacher suspected of having sex with a student.”

    Notice the difference? Your statement implies that all six were teachers, while the Post statement only confirms that one is a teacher. The rest are referred to as “employees” – the same language used in her letter to the city council. [I have the pdf letter, but not the link]. Maybe all of the employees really were teachers, but we don’t really know yet, and I’m sure you’re not the only one innocently spreading that assumption around the internet. It’s the way Rhee has operated with great success in the past.

    For instance, there’s the story of DCs increasing NAEP math scores, while most other scores across the country are stagnant. Rhee doesn’t mention that the scores have been rising in DC for over a decade during the tenure of several other superintendents. No – this becomes another nationally touted Rhee miracle and a justification for her to continue her bold reforms.

    Michael Petrilli of Education Next and The Fordham Foundation made this case, but he corrected himself and backed off on his blog when presented with the indisputable facts. http://educationnext.org/the-one-winner-in-todays-naep-release-michelle-rhee/

    So let’s keep listening carefully to her words and keep pressing her on the details of those abusive “employees.”

    Comment by E Favorite — January 30, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  7. Very interesting, E Favorite. That distinction had eluded me. Of course the larger issue is whether or not Rhee implied that all or even a large subset of the dismissed teachers were bad apples. I know the conventional wisdom in the blogosphere was no, she did not. I don’t agree. I thought that was precisely what she was implying. A single digit number out of 266 is small, whether it’s a large single digit number or a small one.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 30, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

  8. Also – the official report uses the term “sexual misconduct” – a very broad term, not “sex with children” which pretty much means intercourse, right?

    It will be interesting to see jsut what this teacher is accused of.

    Comment by E Favorite — January 31, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  9. [...] of a neutral perspective. In fact, for quite some time, the only two sources I really trusted were Bill Turque at The Washington Post and the person whom I now sit next to in thew newsroom here at WAMU, Kavitha [...]

    Pingback by Michelle Rhee, a “thank you” and a promise. | DCentric — October 15, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

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