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Dorothy Brizill 
Letter to Leonard Downie, executive editor, Washington Post on
Journalistic ethics
March 19, 2008




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Letter from Dorothy Brizill Reply from Leonard Downie

Mr. Leonard Downie, Jr.
Executive Editor
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20071 

Dear Mr. Downie:

Because of recent events, it is important to me that I personally write to you to express my deep concerns about the current coverage of the District government by the Washington Post. On March 7, 2008, the Washington City Paper published an article based on the emails that that newspaper had secured after filing a FOIA request for all email communications between the Post and high-level Fenty administration officials during 2007. The Loose Lips article, titled, “Access and Allies,” detailed “the Washington Post’s cozy year with the Fenty administration” (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/display.php?id=34681). Among the emails it publishes is an exchange between Post reporter David Nakamura and the mayor’s press secretary, Carrie Brooks:

On Jan. 31 of last year, Nakamura e-mailed Brooks with this jokey breaking news: “Fenty is really putting [DC Watch maven Dorothy Brizill] in her place. . . . Priceless!” “I had nothing to do with it,” she fired back. “Good grief,” Nakamura quipped, “these regular citizens asking questions has got to stop!” Replied Brooks, “I agree. But he’s a man of the people.”

A week after the City Paper article, on March 12, 2008, Post columnist Marc Fisher posted an article on his blog, Raw Fisher, that is to date the Post’s only response to the City Paper article (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher/2008/03/how_the_sausage_is_made_a_repo.html). In this article, “Making Sausage: A Reporter’s Emails,” Fisher dismisses the concerns that Post readers have raised about the City Paper article, and echoes Nakamura’s slur about me when he writes about “the picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses at mayoral press conferences.” He quotes Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, who equates the work of a reporter with the making of sausage and notes it “is not always pretty.” He goes on to praise Nakamura as an “aggressive and competitive beat reporter doing his job,” and claims he did nothing unethical or improper in guaranteeing favorable coverage in exchange for advance notice. I joined other Post readers in posting several critical comments on Fisher’s article, which I would recommend that you read. My comment was:

Marc, I’m not buying your rationalization and approval of the partnership between the Fenty administration and the Post, in which the administration gets favorable coverage and the ability to dictate how the Post will cover the story and whom it will interview, in return for giving the Post advance notice of its decisions and appointments. You may consider that a fair exchange, and it may be for the newspaper and the administration, but it isn’t for the readers, because it deprives readers of fair, full, and critical reporting on their government. If you were reporting on any corporation other than the Post, you would call it insider trading, and you would condemn it.

As Quibillus Maximus and secuitat have pointed out in their comments on your article, you’re wrong when you say the Post could come back the next day and give a fuller and more complete version of an event, fairly quoting the administration’s critics. It could publish those follow-up stories, but it doesn’t, because that would jeopardize its cozy relationship with the administration. Your newspaper has many good reporters in Metro who do maintain their independence and their ties to communities, and who report on stories that would cast a shadow over the glowing self-portrait of the Fenty administration that we find in the Post. But they find their stories spiked by their editors or, at best, buried on page B8.

And, on a personal matter, I take offense that you share David Nakamura’s contempt for “regular citizens” such as myself, when you write about the “picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses at mayoral news conferences.” I ask picky questions like, “Isn’t this supposedly new initiative just a new name for the same initiative that went into effect a few years ago?” “How much is this going to cost?” “How are you going to pay for it, since it isn’t in the budget?” “This seems to violate District code; why do you think it is legal?” “What qualifies the nominee for this position?” Picky questions that, because they may prove embarrassing for the administration, the Post doesn’t ask.

In summary, getting a day’s jump on your competitors isn’t worth the price of putting the paper in the tank for the administration.

As a “regular citizen,” civic activist, as well as a subscriber to the Post, my reaction to the Washington City Paper article in the past two weeks has gone from concern to dismay and finally to anger. It provides solid proof of the community’s growing perception that the Post is allied with the Fenty administration and both in its editorials and news coverage gives that administration uncritical support, especially with regard to its school takeover. But, in addition, it clearly shows that David Nakamura, Marc Fisher, and others at the Post are either unaware of or dismissive of the work of “regular citizens,” such as myself, to improve the District, which allows them to hold us up to ridicule and contempt. (What I found most offensive was that after I sent Fisher a personal email about his comment on the “picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses,” he replied with an email in which he tried to convince me that his comment was meant as a compliment.)

As for myself, twenty-five years ago I began working as a local neighborhood civic activist in Columbia Heights, fighting crime, drugs, violence, and blight at the height of the District’s crack epidemic. I was one of the leaders of the citizen’s movement to reform the District’s homeless program by defeating Referendum 009. I initiated efforts to improve the management of the District’s scattered-site public housing program, which caused the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to name me as its “citizen of the year.” I had a major role in the development and implementation of the District’s first community policing pilot project.

And what I learned about the District’s administration, departments, agencies, and city council from these local efforts led to my engagement in more citywide projects and to my work as a good government watchdog to ferret out fraud, waste, and mismanagement. I worked on efforts to spur economic development of city-owned parcels in Columbia Heights, and protested politically motivated mismanagement of these parcels by the Barry, Kelly, and Williams administrations that delayed development for decades. I worked to ensure community input into and oversight over WMATA’s construction of the Green Line. After failing to convince the DC government to begin a website to distribute official information, in 1997 I created DCWatch.com, which for years was the sole Internet resource for government information such as bills pending in the city council, executive orders from the mayor, and so on. And I have regularly cooperated with Post reporters. For example, after securing the DC Water and Sewer Authority’s database of lead level readings in the drinking water for every District household address, I provided it to David Nakamura so that the Post could disseminate it widely. I have investigated and filed formal complaints regarding violations of the District’s election, campaign finance, personnel, and ethics laws, including illegal campaign contributions to Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelly, and Anthony Williams; the illegal solicitation of contributions in the Kelly and Williams administrations; massive fraudulent signatures on Mayor Williams’ reelection petitions in 2002; violations of the District’s election laws by the 2004 slots initiative committee; and violations of federal law by the 2006 slots initiative proposal. And last year I raised the alarm regarding the Fenty administration’s plan to delete government emails after six months, alerting the Post and other news media.

Moreover, David Nakamura, Marc Fisher, and the Post should also know that during my twenty-five years as what they would derisively classify as a “gadfly,” I have never been compensated or sought compensation for my work, nor have I compromised my integrity by striking deals with any mayor or government officials.

In closing, as a “regular citizen” of the District and as a subscriber to the Post, I strenuously object to what appears to be the Post’s belief that the end justifies the means in the quest for a story, that reporters should compromise their integrity and independence, and that of the newspaper, to get the story. As the Post’s executive editor, I hope that your could discuss the concerns raised by the City Paper story and by my letter with your colleagues at the Post, and review how your reporters and editors interact with government officials.

Dorothy Brizill
Regular Citizen

cc:    Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page Editor
    Deborah Howell, Ombudsman
    Jo Ann Armao, Editorial Board
    Robert McCartney, Metro Editor
    Marcia Greene, City Editor

Ms. Brizill,

Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns and suggestions. There has already been discussion here about how reporters should communicate with sources.  We want our coverage of any government to be fair but also to hold government power accountable to our readers. We believe we've done that with the District government and will continue to do so.

Len Downie

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