Race taunt rattles the `Washington Post'

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Washington's self-obsessed media world is in uproar, not over a sensational leak from the White House or the ethical merits of publishing the Unabomber's treatise. The fuss is over a treatise of a different kind: a 13,000-word broadside against the in-house affirmative action policies of the city's media flagship, the Washington Post.

The offending article occupies 13 full pages of the latest issue of that up-market gadfly, the New Republic magazine. The result has been anguish and fury at the Post, fresh salvoes from the New Republic - all adding up to a cameo of the bitter affirmative-action debate resounding through the country.

Its author, a young writer called Ruth Shalit, complained that the Post's aggressive minority-hiring policies have lowered the quality of journalism, prompted the paper to pull its punches when covering the local black community, and left black as well as white newsroom employees aggrieved. Neither camp could be more upset than the Post's high command. In letters to the magazine, Donald Graham, the publisher, and Len Downie, the managing editor, accuse Ms Shalit of inaccurate reporting. She indulged in "big lie propaganda", said Mr Downie in an address to 400 staffers. Never in its 80-year history had the New Republic employed a minority writer, Mr Graham noted in his letter.

He suggested it adopt as its motto, "Looking for a Qualified Black since 1914."

But the greatest fall-out from Ms Shalit's journalistic coup may be on race relations inside the Post. Black journalists have been outraged by assessments of their abilities - including "She can't write a lick" and "He's as dumb as a post" - from some white colleagues, naturally unidentified.

Other quotes capture the backlash against affirmative action rippling through the newspaper and society at large. "It's definitely a huge advantage ... to be in a minority," complained one anonymous angry white male. "White people have to knock their heads against the door and be really exceptional. Whereas if you're black, they recruit you, they plead with you, they offer you extra money."

In fact the Post insists it does not operate a quota hiring system, which probably would be illegal. But, as its columnist Richard Cohen (white) acknowledged yesterday, it does have a "goal" that 25 per cent of new recruits should be from minorities and 50 per cent women. "For white males, a barrier appears to have been raised," writes Mr Cohen.

Black journalists are outraged at any suggestion that the increase in their number (to about 18 per cent of the Post's staff) has lowered the paper's quality, and that they owe their jobs to the colour of their skin.

Exacerbating the problem is the political and racial chemistry of Washington itself. Other big city papers have had problems over race - the Los Angeles Times recently attracted much mirth with the leak of an in-house dictionary of proscribed politically incorrect terms - but arguably nowhere is the issue as sensitive as here.

America's capital, seat of a basically white federal government yet with a two-thirds black population, is among America's most racially segregated cities.

The Post, so long a pillar of its white establishment and probably the most powerful non-federal institution in Washington, bestrides a captive local market, almost without competition. Not surprisingly, it treads delicately on matters of race. Hence the newsroom obsession with "diversity", and much of the lack of edge in its local coverage.

The paper that uncovered the Watergate scandals cannot be accused of a cover-up. Thursday saw a comprehensive report on the turmoil by its media correspondent, while Mr Cohen blasted its affirmative-action policies from the comment page: "Numerical goals, while understandable, ought to be replaced by only one: absolute non-discrimination."

But, then again, American journalists love writing about nothing so much as themselves.

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