Wednesday night New York magazine published a story investigating why the Washington Post published that very strange story about blackface at a Halloween party two years ago. Authors Josh Barro and Olivia Nuzzi ask a simple question that everyone was asking: Why is this newsworthy? The answer they get from the Post doesn’t make a lot of sense, but a picture of the paper’s real motivation does emerge, and it isn’t pretty.
Briefly, in case you missed this before, the story involves a Halloween Party that took place in 2018 at the home of Post cartoonist Tom Toles. A woman named Sue Schafer came to the party in black face, intending to make a satirical point about Megyn Kelly (who had defended blackface in some circumstances and been fired). Schafer was confronted at the party by two women who, two years later, wrote to Toles asking if he could identify the woman. Eventually, their story became a 3,000 word feature which led to Schafer being fired. According to the Post’s spokesperson, here’s why this old story about a non-public person was worthy of a 3,000 word feature:
“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.”
That explanation is a microcosm of the bulls**t many organizations are spewing in an effort to appease BLM right now. No one asked for this story (besides the two women who should have been told no) and no one needed it. What it actually says about what the country is going through right now is that organizations are so eager to show they are on the side of the mob they will abandon their own standards to do it. In particular, the Post has a standard about news relevance that was clearly ignored here.
So what’s the real reason the Post published this? No one at the Post seems to know but there’s a suggestion that the authors were assigned this disaster and had no choice about it.
“My reaction, like everybody, was, What the hell? Why is this a story?” a feature writer at the Post told New York. “My second reaction was, Why is this a 3,000-word feature?” The feature writer added, “This was not drawn up by the ‘Style’ section.”…
But a second person interviewed by Fisher said, “He expressed his misgivings about the story to me.” This person said that the impression Fisher left was that he had been told to do the story and that it was not his decision.
We never do get a clear answer to the question who assigned this trainwreck but we do get some hints about why they might have done so. It appears the Post was trying to cover its own ass in case the story involving two of their staffers (Dana Milbank was also at the party) wound up at some other outlet.
If it had leaked that the Post had neglected to pursue a story about blackface, or if the women who brought the tip to the Post had taken it to another outlet or simply tweeted about it, who knows what direction the story might have taken…
Schafer [the woman in blackface] told New York that when she asked Fisher — a reporter who, like Trent, has worked at the Post for more than 20 years — why the story was news, he replied, “We have to do it or they will go to another outlet.” Gruber, too, said that Trent asked if she was speaking to other media outlets.
But it wasn’t just a generalized desire to cover its own backside that pushed the Post in this direction. The Post’s had specific problems that it was worried might put it on the wrong side of the demands being made by its own staff and their union:
As the story about the two-year-old Halloween party was being reported, senior managers at the Post had recently received 32 pages of employees’ stories about racism and discrimination within the company, gathered by the employee union, according to an email reviewed by New York. A Post employee petition demanding changes in hiring and editorial practices drew nearly 500 signatures in 48 hours. Basically, it was the worst possible time for the Post to have a “blackface scandal,” especially one whose frame it did not control.
So the Post was afraid this would get out at some other news site or, even worse, that the two women pushing this would start some kind of complaint online to which they would be left backpedaling and trying to explain why they hadn’t dealt with it themselves. The Post could envision the mob forming and decided to inoculate themselves by running this absurd feature which framed Schafer as the villain.
Not surprisingly this has been a PR disaster for almost everyone involved. Schafer was fired when she told her boss this story was about to run. Lexie Gruber and Lyric Prince, who pushed the Post to report on this in the first place, have faced a backlash. Gruber is said to have recently read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book about being dragged online. The Post even removed the celebratory photo of the pair in Malcolm X park (see above) that ran with the story, allegedly because they were receiving threats (New York magazine says removing the photo appears to be another violation of the Post’s editorial practice).
The authors of the story appear ashamed of it. Neither one of them has tweeted it out or posted it on Facebook. And the Post took a major beating in its own comments section as I pointed out here. It’s one of the very few times you’ll see people on the left and right agreeing almost unanimously about something in a newspaper: This story wasn’t newsworthy and the fact that the Post pretended otherwise is embarrassing.
Ironically, the only person involved who hasn’t suffered any repercussions is Tom Toles, the cartoonist whose involvement as the host of the Halloween party supposedly made this newsworthy in the first place. For the record, I don’t think Toles should face any punishment. In fact, he appears to be the only person at the Post who had the good sense to try to discourage the two social justice warriors who were determined to make this a story in the first place. When Gruber and Prince wrote and asked him for the name of the woman in blackface at his party, Toles lied and said he didn’t know her. If only whoever assigned this story had done the same everyone involved would be better off.
That’s the real story of this entire fiasco. There are no adults left willing to tell the young revolutionaries what they most need to hear: No.