Since the end of the war, The Washington Post has launched a full-scale attack against the Bush administration and the evidence supporting its war in Iraq.
On Sunday, Aug. 10, the paper reported in a nearly 6,000-word cover piece by staff writers Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus: “President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their subordinates-in public and behind the scenes-made allegations depicting Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program as more active, more certain and more imminent in its threat than the data they had would support.”
“On occasion,” the two wrote, “the administration advocates withheld evidence that did not conform to their views. The White House seldom corrected misstatements or acknowledged loss of confidence in information upon which it had previously relied.”
Whatever one’s position on the war, it was the most involved-and, in many ways, the most nettlesome-report for the administration to date, and a guidepost in the ongoing op-ed dispute over the war.
While certainly an earth-rattling, policy-dictating piece on its own merits, the nuclear-evidence tome also marked a kind of capping-off point for the period in which The Post has outrun The New York Times and others, setting the national agenda on both the rebuilding of Iraq and the search for weapons of mass destruction at a time when those two storylines promise to greatly shape the character of the forthcoming national election.
In short, The Post is hot.
“I hate to sound like an old fart,” incoming Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism dean Nicholas Lemann said. “But this was the strategy that [former executive editor] Ben Bradlee devised and bore fruit, most famously during Watergate. Bradlee was, when Howell Raines was still in short pants, flooding the zone and doing it with great success. It’s The Post ‘s way of being in the world with The New York Times .”
“If you want to make a publication a must-read, you have to break news,” said David Von Drehle, a senior writer on The Post ‘s national staff, sounding very much like Mr. Raines. “You have to tell people stuff they’re going to find nowhere else. You can’t be interested in American politics, in the White House and foreign policy, and not read The Washington Post . It’s not an optional read right now.”
“What The Post tends to do is cede 95 percent and not compete, and take 5 percent and really go at them, which is a combination of work from the vaunted national desk and reporting on whatever is the super-big story of the moment, such as the war in Iraq,” Mr. Lemann said. “So they very often will beat The Times on individual stories.”
Post executive editor Len Downie said the paper began formulating its approach to the W.M.D. story while embeds were still dragging mess kits around training camps in Georgia: a heavy concentration of effort on a group of stories that would set the agenda for the coming election season.
“It really dates back to Powell’s speech in the U.N.,” Mr. Downie said. “If you look back at the way we covered it, we took the individual points and the individual assertions [Mr. Powell made] and did individual stories examining those assertions. Which included W.M.D. Which included nuclear-weapons capability. Which included ties to Al Qaeda, and looked at the pros and cons. And some of the same reporters have been following those lines of coverage ever since.”
Adding to The Post ‘s heft has been the paper’s ongoing coverage in Iraq, where Mr. Downie said his directive once the large-scale shooting stopped and the special sections ended was to “not let up.” To this end, two reporters have covered the terrain with special distinction: Anthony Shadid, whose vivid, moving vignettes of the lives of everyday Iraqis won him national and international notice when the war began and have continued, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, charged with covering the American reconstruction effort.
Speaking from Basra on Monday, Aug. 10, Mr. Shadid said that his coverage, like the war effort itself, became harder once the major fighting ended.
“Just by circumstances, during the war the focus was on Baghdad,” Mr. Shadid said. “Now we have to look at the forces of Middle East politics, of religion and the economy. It’s a much more nuanced story.”
Later, Mr. Shadid added: “You really do get the sense that The Post is committed to this story.”
Time managing editor Jim Kelly singled out his own magazine’s work and that of Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof for successes in the W.M.D. story, but proclaimed: “For newspapers, it’s hard to beat anyone like Gellman and Shadid.”
And a lot of how powerful The Post becomes as a result of the W.M.D. story depends on how important the story ultimately becomes.
“In fairness, the entire report is much stronger in The Times ,” Mr. Lemann said. “There’s no comparison. The Times ‘ report has a much more far-reaching and ambitious mission.”
Soon, the New York Post will expand its Latino coverage to go beyond the personal and professional ups-and-downs of the multiracial media entity known as “Bennifer.”
In September, the Murdochian death-and-Lizzy tabloid will unveil a 24-page section targeted at young, second- and third-generation Latinos in English, that will eventually be issued weekly, edited by former Latina editor Sandy Guzman.
“What I want to do is capture contemporary Latino culture in 2003,” Ms. Guzman said. “You’ll see a stress on the community, on politics, on the outer boroughs. It’s taking a microscope to the community and covering it with Post style.”
This is not unfamiliar territory for the city’s tabloids. In addition to the Spanish-language Hoy , the wholly owned subsidiary of Newsday , the Daily News puts out “VIVA,” an insert published 10 times a year in the Sunday Daily News , and an English-only “VIVA” section in the Tuesday Daily News . Still, Mr. Murdoch said the Post ‘s product will distinguish itself in both scope and content.
Post publisher and Wunderkind Lachlan Murdoch said that the section didn’t represent a significant circulation opportunity as much as it delivered another platform for advertisers.
“I don’t think there’s anything like this in New York, and honestly I don’t think there’s anything like this in newspapers in the United States,” Mr. Murdoch said. “So, like usual, we’re going to try and break new ground.”
“It’s a newsroom in a lot of upheaval and unhappiness,” said Village Voice senior editor Brian Parks. It was the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 10, the same week The Voice planned a massive face-lift, beginning with its art section-which, among other things, would limit the paper’s premiere art critics to 900 words, down from 1,400 to 1,600 words.
Mr. Parks is not alone in his sentiments here. While redesigns (which seemed to move through magazines in a Tasmanian Devil–like whirlwind, leaving large pictures, more “entry points” and halved feature wells) are a common source of grumbling at any publication, people at The Voice said the rejiggering has only worsened an already troubled relationship between the staff and management, while alienating the paper’s most prominent critics.
While the redesign seeks to impose a kind of Time Out New York –style orderliness on the paper (like putting the film listings with the film reviews), it also, its detractors said, eliminates the kind of flexibility that critics like Michael Feingold, Robert Christgau and Gary Giddins have enjoyed over the years. Among the dictates: no jumps.
“I’m definitely upset about it,” Mr. Christgau said, while Mr. Feingold railed that the move only weakened The Voice ‘s place as a “writers’ paper.”
“We’re all pretty up in arms about it,” said Voice theater critic Michael Feingold. “Management has tried to use divide-and-conquer tactics when it comes to us, as if they’re pretending that all the writers have separate deals. But it affects everyone.
“There are things that the majority of readers pick up The Voice for,” Mr. Feingold said. “Nobody’s kidding himself, or herself, into believing that he or she is one of those things. But each of us has a readership that’s unique and brings something to the paper. They’ve taken New York down a peg culturally.”
The move has produced a fair amount of screaming, Mr. Parks said. And while he likes certain things about the new look, he and others feel “like it’s a dumbing-down of the product.”
“It doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence,” Mr. Parks said. “People turn to Robert Christgau because he’s Robert Christgau, not because his name is highlighted in a box.”
Some New Yorkers will find it easy to dismiss these cries with a ” Voice will be Voice ” eyeroll: Through the years, a series of editors and publishers and owners have had to face down a staff that has seemed just one step away from raiding the classified-ad department with hatchets. It is, after all, requiring the writers to write less.
However, said staff members, the implementation of the redesign was one that reflected an autocratic shift in the paper’s style of management-as did the laying off in July of six editorial employees. According to Mr. Parks, Mr. Christgau and others first learned of the redesign earlier this year, when they were shown a template for the new, flashier form. When critics howled, Mr. Christgau and Mr. Feingold said, they were reassured that the initial draft was just that-a draft-and such limitations would not be in place when the design reached practical, working form. However, in late July, when management again made the redesign public, it kept those limits intact.
Messrs. Christgau, Feingold and others made their objections known, and the week of Aug. 3, Mr. Parks, who is the union shop steward for senior editors at The Voice , approached editor in chief Don Forst to ask him to meet with the staff. They argued, Mr. Parks said, that the staff was already demoralized by the layoffs and was now working with a design that many felt would cheapen the editorial product, and that Mr. Forst should do something to calm their fears, or at least conduct a kind of pep rally for the staff. But Mr. Forst declined.
“I told him I don’t do pep rallies,” Mr. Forst told Off the Record. “I said I would be willing to meet with five or six representatives of their choosing, but I do not conduct pep rallies. I told him if he needed a pep rally, he should get a hold of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.”
Mr. Parks said that the staff-without Mr. Forst-would conduct its own meeting on Thursday, Aug. 14. Mr. Parks said there was a feeling among the staff that, under Mr. Forst, there was “management without leadership,” and also that staffers questioned the need for layoffs when, he said, the paper had a pretax profit margin of 27.2 percent, according to an internal management source. ( Voice publisher Judy Miszner did not return a call seeking comment.)
Another Voice source, who thought the redesign “actually looked good”, said: “People were upset by the process. This is a place where people feel ignored and are worried.”
For his part, Mr. Forst said that, while he was unhappy to make personnel cuts, he did so under orders. And he deemed the implementation of the redesign “perfect.”
“I’m sorry the critics are unhappy,” Mr. Forst said. “But I’ve never seen or heard of one instance where writers, when told they would write less, were happy about it.”
When asked to judge the morale of the paper, Mr. Forst described it as “fine.”
“We continue to put out a fine paper week after week,” Mr. Forst said. “And I think you can judge the morale of a shop by the quality of the paper that you put out.”
Mr. Christgau, while still angry, said he understood his own weight in the matter.
“Do I feel like I should have been consulted on the redesign?” Mr. Christgau said. “I don’t know. When are writers ever consulted on anything?”
On Wednesday, Aug. 6, the day the Terminator announced his bid for the governorship of California (“It’s not a tumor, it’s a budget deficit”), the Daily News applied a new weapon in its circulation war with the New York Post : a straight-out-of-Fox, When Animals Attack –themed cover.
As its main story, the News fronted “RATS TAKE OVER FIREHOUSE,” showing union official Stephen Humensky holding a dead rodent by its tail. In another teaser running from the top of the page, the News proclaimed “HAWK ATTACKS DOG,” featuring the mugs of-well, of a hawk and a Chihuahua. (The latter involved the tragic story of a hawk trained to kill pigeons and rodents who mistakenly went after a pint-sized pooch in Bryant Park.)
Outgoing News editor in chief Ed Kosner explained that the rats cover was a follow-up to an earlier piece looking into the firehouse problem. Asked when we could expect such a non-human focus on the cover of the News again, Mr. Kosner said, “The next time a hawk eats a Chihuahua.”
And now, a very important message to all of Off the Record’s five readers in Detroit: If you’re feeling faint from all the déjà vu after reading the “oral history” of the White Stripes cover story in Spin , grab hold of a guard rail. Have a juice box. There is an explanation.
Here’s what we know: that Jack and Meg White appear on the cover of the magazine, and that a story about the pair appears before the magazine’s “Cool List,” on which Mr. White is rated No. 1. We also know, because the magazine said so, that the piece had been excerpted from an original story in The Detroit Free Press by writer Brian McCollum.
And while we know that using excerpts for magazine cover stories is standard practice-see all the chapters of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball that ended up in every periodical in America-what’s strange is the use of a previously published piece in such a prominent spot in the magazine.
In an interview with Off the Record, Spin editor in chief Sia Michel defended her magazine’s reuse of the piece. Ms. Michel said the brother-and-sister, husband-and-wife duo was on the cover because of Mr. White’s presence at the top of the “Cool List.”
She said the band had been in Japan and hadn’t been doing interviews at the time the issue was being prepped.
“We started to think whether it was enough for the reader to have them on the cover and just have them at the top of the ‘Cool List,'” Ms. Michel said. “It was then that somebody told me about this oral history in The Detroit Free Press . It was in a small regional paper and not posted on a million Web sites, and it was something we wanted to consider.”
Ms. Michel-who pointed out that Rolling Stone had used previously published material from The Guardian before the Iraq war-said the magazine added quotes from a previous conversation with Spin senior writer Chuck Klosterman, as well as different pictures for the “very small percentage of people” who might have read the band’s hometown-paper account.
“Jack White is the most important rock ‘n’ roll star to come along in a really long time,” Ms. Michel said. “There aren’t a lot of albums that are released in August, and we felt this was a good story to do.”
Another trend unearthed in The Observer bullpen when we should have been working: According to our colleague, Rebecca (Punky) Traister, this summer dead people are “Hot! Hot! Hot!”
First came The New York Times ‘ obituary of Bob Hope by the late Vincent Canby. Now there’s the New Yorker cover (for its Aug. 18 and 25 “Family Issue”) drawn by famed New Yorker cover artist Saul Steinberg, who passed away in 1999.
In addition, the magazine included another Steinberg work done in 1977 to accompany an essay by Joan Acocella.
New Yorker editor David Remnick was on vacation and unavailable for comment. A New Yorker spokeswoman said the cover drawing, from 1954, had never been published except in a catalog put out by the Yale Art Museum.
“We chose it for the ‘Family Issue’ because it was well themed and fit in perfectly,” the spokeswoman said. “The same goes with the drawing that accompanied the Joan Acocella piece.”