The Washington Post March: Step Lively, See No Evil

Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist stationed in New York, has been booted upstairs from the paper’s 12th-floor offices to a kind of Coventry 10 floors above in the same building. This was done after The Post ‘s management had determined that Mr. Cohen, a 57-year-old, tepidly conventional liberal, had committed “inappropriate behavior” on, to, about, around, over, under or near the person or personality of a 23-year-old female news aide. “Inappropriate” is one of those pejorative words used by bureaucracies the world over because it is so usefully imprecise. In a case of this sort, it may cover any and everything from rape to addressing the young woman in question as “Toots,” as has been alleged in some accounts.

Until this story popped into the public prints, I had not realized that Toots was a gender-specific appellation. Toots Shor, the owner of the famous Times Square restaurant of the same name, lived and died a man as far as is known. My mother and an employer of mine both called me Toots from time to time, and yet, after consulting with the most larcenously clever civil rights attorneys, I was told that I had no case against either of them.

Mr. Cohen is also accused of ordering the news aide to “stand up and turn around,” presumably so that he might better inspect the merchandise. Thirty-five years ago, in the days when Mr. Cohen began his career, one of the bennies accorded to moderately successful males was the power to at least attempt to cut out the more attractive young females from the herd for juicy carnal enjoyment. What is the point of inching one’s way upward if it is not, among other things, to have the power to command sex from the females and bully the less-potent males and yet-more-less-potent females?

Now the white-collar droit du seigneur that once obtained in offices everywhere is supposed to have been swept away, but I doubt it’s vanished entirely. Money and power get their way. In the ever-diminishing world of newspapering, Mr. Cohen has enough of both to overawe an intern or an aide, which, of course, doesn’t prove him guilty or not guilty of whatever he is in dutch for doing or not doing. Though in the communications business, on this one The Washington Post has chosen to be reticent to the point of being fogbound.

One can’t tell if the vagueness is on account of the management being too chicken to proclaim a guiltless employee blameless in the face of the prejudices of the hour, or if they are protecting a bum, or if they think Mr. Cohen got out of line but not so far out of line that he merits public castigation or dismissal. When it comes to minorities, women, sexual harassment, diversity and all that there kind o’ stuff, big corporations can be devious, deceptive, muddle-headed and craven, even a company like The Washington Post , which made such a heroic reputation for itself 25 years ago in the Watergate scandal.

The tangle and confusion born of liberal sentiments, unfocused anxiety and fear of the mob displayed in the Cohen case are not new to an institution that has lost its way in this terrain more than once before in the last three decades. While the newspaper was uncovering the scandal of the Nixon Administration, it was, at the same time, covering up the scandal which was the government of the City of Washington. When it came to the city whose name appears on The Post ‘s masthead, the newspaper failed to report what was going on at the School Board, at the Police Department, at the welfare department, in public housing, the Department of Motor Vehicles and every aspect of state and municipal government. (The two are the same in the District of Columbia.)

For 20 years or more, as billions were stolen, lost and misused, as the streets crumbled, as garbage collection vanished, as drunken bums infested parks and alleys, as cops leagued with crooks, as other city services fell to rot and ruin, The Washington Post simply didn’t write about it. While Post reporters were exposing evildoers in Federal and state governments, indeed in more than a few foreign governments, corruption and crime in the city where the newspaper was based got skipped over. Corrupt government in Haiti was outrageous; corrupt government in Washington was unprintable.

As the story was told in the Washington Post newsroom, the origins of the blackout go back to Lyndon Johnson, who, it was said, expressed his thanks for the newspaper’s support of the Vietnam War by more or less handing the running of the city over to the paper, which became the midwife to the birth of black political and administrative power in the District of Columbia.

The creation of Walter Washington, the city’s first black mayor, a Dave Dinkins type but nicer, was credited to The Post , but whoever did whatever, the net result was that the newspaper had put itself in the awkward position of having to report on governmental entities that a few of its own executives were not exactly running but influencing, unbeknownst to the generality of people.

In addition to being compromised by the part it had played in running the city, The Post ‘s ability to cover the place where it is based was further weakened by the perfusion of white liberal guilt in the paper’s offices and the confusion that causes. The motives here are different from those of the two New York newspapers that go into the tank in pursuit of their real estate and redevelopment schemes. But whatever the motives, the blank spots in the news are the same. After blacks took over at the District Building, as city hall is called in Washington, news stories about thieving D.C. politicians or the absence of textbooks or cops with rap sheets or no-show loafers in the local government offices were not published, either because they were deemed racist or because it was feared that blacks would call the paper racist.

Local government all but disappeared, but you would never have read about it in the local newspaper, so great was the fear that African-Americans might picket the place. The liberal guilty gestalt made management, and a lot of staff, too, bullyable pushovers. It turns out that, in some circumstances, sensitive white editors and reporters can be more of a menace than insensitive ones, who would not have abdicated a newspaper’s first, although often most difficult, responsibility, which isn’t to save the world but to report on its own hometown.

For whatever reasons, The Post failed through the long years before the television-viewing public saw Marion Barry, the Mayor of Washington, in that hotel room with his white powder. The small world of local business, politics and journalism in the District of Columbia had understood what was up and kept mum about it. Others were not hip to the particulars of how the looting of the city was taking place, but they knew the metropolis was literally dying, as 20 percent of the population, black, white, rich or poor, left town between 1970 and 1990.

A large slice of the blame for the near-destruction of the nation’s capital city is The Post ‘s. The paper came as close as a newspaper can to wrecking the town where it lives, although one must concede the possibility that, if The Post had done its job, things would have gone to hell, anyway. We know that just because a newspaper exposes crime and rascality committed by government officials, it doesn’t follow that an aroused public will set matters aright. Nevertheless, if people have no reliable way of knowing what’s going on at city hall, there’s no hope.

If it is ever brought to trial for its enormous sins of omission, The Post can plead that it did what other newspapers did and still do. The record compiled by the Los Angeles Times over a generation is at least as indefensible. From the Watts riots of the 1960’s to the Rodney King riots of the 1990’s, that newspaper’s failure to report on the whos and hows and whys of the Los Angeles Police Department all but made the street fighting, which killed scores of people, inevitable. Even as the paper failed to publish the story of race and the L.A.P.D., it was also failing to print the corruption in the administration of Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American. Here is another communications corporation without a moral gyroscope or the intestinal fortitude to operate effectively at the local level.

Nor has the Times yet got it right. Just the other day, the Times Mirror Company, which, incidentally, owns Newsday , The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant , let it be known that it was adopting a racial and gender quota for its news stories. As soon as they get the mechanics worked out–and that will be interesting–reporters and editors will be rewarded or punished based on their ability to meet a quota of minority mentions in their articles. In addition, to attract women readers, the order has gone out that stories appearing in the Times and the papers in the chain must be “more emotional, more personal, less analytical.”

The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post have long been associated in various joint endeavors. Does the same sappy, fatheaded, white male mentality infect both papers? What a mélange of guilt, greed and goofiness! One might expect that newspaper executives are somewhat more in touch with their times than the managers of other kinds of corporations, so what sort of unfocused, crackpottery reigns elsewhere in business?

While waiting for an answer to that question, we may catch glimpses of the inappropriate Mr. Cohen here and there about Manhattan, at this book party and that movie opening, white-haired and grave, a damaged man. Damned by the corporation he works for, accused of the crime or sin or misdemeanor or faux pas of inappropriation or inappropriateness or inappropriality, inappropriatity (what would be the noun form of this awful word?), he will struggle on to an honorable retirement with the whisper of this incident never quite resolved and never quite going away.

The Washington Post March: Step Lively, See No Evil