The Things Left Unsaid in Washington Post Op-Eds

The Things Left Unsaid in Washington Post Op-Eds

Published at Washington City Paper.

In its instructions for submitting op-eds, The Washington Post states that it “welcomes submissions of opinion articles on any topic.” Not every op-ed submitted to the Post gets published, of course, and there are plenty of good reasons for this. But when the paper rejects an op-ed critiquing its coverage or actions, it raises the question of whether it’s muting criticism of itself.

There was a time when this type of concern could be brought to the Post ombudsman. Patrick Pexton, the last person to hold the position, described it as “a full-time reader representative and critic.” Unfortunately, the position was eliminated in 2013, leaving readers nowhere to turn but the internet. Recent decisions to turn down pieces that looked critically at present and past Post actions makes the absence of such a representative feel especially significant.

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A well-publicized example of the Post rejecting a critical op-ed came to light in September when Metro reporter Fredrick Kunkle submitted one that expressed his concerns about stalemated negotiations over a new contract for Post employees. After first offering it to the Post, which declined to publish it, Kunkle sold it to HuffPost. (He subsequently cancelled payment for the piece.)

In his contentious piece, Kunkle took aim at the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon. Bezos, who has a net worth of more than $90 billion, is so rich he’s having trouble figuring out what to do with his excess billions. Meanwhile, the paper’s employees are fighting for a fair contract and to hold onto their pensions, wrote Kunkle. He was just getting warmed up.

“Amazon’s history of dodging taxes, its mistreatment of workers, and its ruthlessness toward even the smallest competitors have been well documented. It put ambulances outside distribution centers rather than install adequate air conditioning,’” Kunkle wrote.

Until his 2013 purchase of the Post, Bezos hadn’t dealt much with unions and the enhanced workplace protections they bring. Amazon, since its inception and all through its staggering growth, has successfully fought off unions. But when Bezos bought the Post, the place came with more than 1,200 unionized workers.

Kunkle’s sharp critique of Bezos may be jarring for the billionaire, who has lately been lauded as a champion of the free press. But Bezos’ high perch on the free press pedestal may not square with his intolerance for criticism, a trait he shares with the unpopular president his paper so aggressively reports on.

Bezos’ thin skin was more apparent back when Amazon’s future was less secure. And nowhere was this more evident than in Bezos’ and Amazon’s campaign against Ravi Suria.

Over the course of eight months in 2000 and 2001, Suria, then an analyst with Lehman Brothers, repeatedly reviewed Amazon unfavorably, sending the company’s stock price spiraling downward. “We believe that the company will run out of cash within the next four quarters, unless it manages to pull another financing rabbit out of its rather magical hat,” Suria’s first report stated.

Bezos didn’t take kindly to Suria’s report, calling it “pure, unadulterated hogwash” in the Post 13 years before he bought the paper. Bezos and Amazon retaliated  against Suria, and the attacks took a toll. “Every time I picked up the phone someone was screaming at me,” Suria told Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, years later. “Amazon was like a high-school bully picking on an elementary-school kid. I was 29 years old ... It ruined my life for two years.”

Kunkle and the Washington-Baltimore News Guild have filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the Post, which issued a formal warning to Kunkle and called his publishing his op-ed with a competitor “an egregious violation of the Post’s ethics policy.”

“Freddy is co-unit chair at the Post and we’re in the middle of bargaining,” says Washington-Baltimore News Guild executive director Cet Parks. “Whenever one of your leaders gets written up for basically expressing his views and his concerted activity, it’s problematic.”

Meanwhile, more than 50 Guild members picketed the paper’s K Street NW offices in late September. There would have been even more but there’s still “a lot of fear,” Kunkle said as the protest wrapped up. That’s why having “this first demonstration right here … is a big deal.”

Like Kunkle’s op-ed, news of the protest did not appear in the Post.

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The Post’s struggle with its unionized workforce is not new, nor are questions about how the Post covers this tension. 

Like Kunkle’s submission, an op-ed dealing with an earlier labor struggle was also recently rejected by the paper. It responded to a June story on the centennial of legendary former publisher and owner Katharine Graham, who oversaw the Post as it published the Pentagon Papers and broke open the Watergate scandal.

But a third and lesser-known event for which Graham is heralded also took place in the 1970s, the Post informed readers. In 1975, with Graham at the helm of the paper, two hundred pressmen—the men who did the manual labor of printing papers—went on strike. A heated fight ensued, with newspaper owners across the country rallying to support Graham in her efforts to break the pressmen’s union, which she eventually did.

The Post’s over-the-top account portrays Graham as the victim of violent unionists who “Pearl Harbored” the presses. This language, quoted from Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, isn’t far removed from the Post’s 1975 take, which compared the striking pressmen to terrorists.

“[T]he immediate recourse to violence is the temper of our times,” the Post wrote in the immediate aftermath of the pressmen’s strike. “It is the same spirit as that of the hijacker in the airliner, or the sniper on a Belfast roof, or the assassin in the crowd that turns out to welcome the politician.”

But the pressmen’s terrorism, much like Graham’s heroism, is overblown. In response to the Post’s lopsided rehashing, Fred Solowey, who served as co-chair of the pressmen’s legal defense committee, penned an op-ed, which was rejected. (When not writing about the pressmen’s strike, Solowey has had better luck getting published by the Post.)

Solowey has written extensively about the strike in the subsequent four decades, including for Washington City Paper. In his recently rejected op-ed, Solowey described Katharine Graham as more of an instigator than victim of the pressmen’s strike.

“Graham had decided on the priority of profit-maximization and that meant that its most militant union—Pressmen’s Local 6—had to be neutralized and its good contract gutted. The oft-asserted idea that the Post did not want a strike is belied by its contracting with a scab school in Oklahoma… [which] had been set up to facilitate the wave of union busting in the newspaper industry that the Post was joining.”

But Post readers would never read Solowey’s account of the paper’s union busting. “The truth here makes them look so bad,” says Solowey, “you can’t really expect that they’re going to [print] it.”

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Like Solowey and Kunkle, I also submitted a critical op-ed to the Post. Unlike theirs, mine was published, but not without a hitch.

My 2010 piece, which ran in the Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” section, dealt with Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ two jobs. In addition to earning $125,000 as a legislator, he earned $240,000 by outside sources, including $190,000 from lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs. According to the Council of the District of Columbia’s Code of Official Conduct, D.C. councilmembers may collect outside income so long as it does not represent a conflict of interest.

After submitting my op-ed, Post editors informed me that, in order for it to be published, the title would have to be changed and the conclusion dialed back. Both the title and conclusion pointed a finger squarely at the Post.

My initial title was “The Post’s D.C.-Virginia Ethics Double Standard.” I drew a contrast between its treatment of elected officials in the District and the neighboring state. The Post had lauded Evans as “a moderate, pro-business Democrat” but condemned a nominee for Virginia’s state commerce secretary for proposing a similar arrangement in which he would keep receiving more than $200,000 in private income while holding public office. The Post shifted my headline away from its own double standard and onto Evans, calling the op-ed “Wearing two hats on the D.C. Council.”

The Post also toned down my conclusion. Initially I finished by noting that Evans was unlikely to be elected council chairman, a position he was eyeing at the time, or even remain finance chair “if the Post breaks its silence regarding Mr. Evans’ conflicts of interest.” But my calling out the Post for abetting Evans was turned into a more diplomatic question: “Why does the Post find this practice problematic in Virginia but not the District?”

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When the Post eliminated the ombudsman position in 2013, then-publisher Katharine Weymouth (named for her grandmother Katharine Graham) justified it in part by claiming readers’ critiques would hold the paper’s feet to the fire. “We know that media writers inside and outside the Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles,” she wrote.

But it’s harder for readers to hold the Post accountable when critical op-eds go unpublished. Disgruntled tweets only go so far. Maybe, as Post columnist David Ignatius wrote this past September, it’s time for the paper to “bring back the ombudsman!”

Photo Credit: Flicker user Esther Vargas via Creative Commons

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