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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?