Civics: Why Did the Washington Post Get This Woman Fired?

Josh Barro & Olivia Nuzzi:

This is a mortifying tale about one woman’s cluelessness, but why did it end up in a major national newspaper? The Post’s editorial standards declare that “fairness includes relevance.” The non-recent, non-criminal bad acts of non-public figures are not ordinarily considered news, and before June 17, Schafer was a graphic designer with no public profile and no apparent power or ambitions to obtain it. What was the point of publishing this story — at considerable length, accompanied by original photography from an acclaimed staff photographer, on the front page of the paper’s “Style” section — besides causing Schafer to lose her job?

The Post said Schafer’s transgression was news because it happened in front of Toles and somewhere possibly in the vicinity of columnist Dana Milbank.

“Employees of the Washington Post, including a prominent host, were involved in this incident, which impelled us to tell the story ourselves thoroughly and accurately while allowing all involved to have their say,” said Kris Coratti, a spokesperson for the paper. “The piece conveys with nuance and sensitivity the complex, emotionally fraught circumstances that unfolded at the party attended by media figures only two years ago where an individual in blackface was not told promptly to leave. America’s grappling with racism has entered a phase in which people who once felt they should keep quiet are now raising their voices in public. The story is a microcosm of what the country is going through right now.”

It’s not unusual for publications to report on themselves, though ordinarily they do so because they are already in the news. Proactive reporting creates significant concerns about conflicts of interest: If the Post shapes the narrative of a new story about itself, it may do so in a way that is designed to protect the paper’s interests. When politicians do this, reporters cynically refer to it as “getting out ahead of the story” — the idea being that new information has more impact on public perception than a clarification or correction or addition to already public information.