By Mike DeBonis
Posted: March 5, 2008
Last June, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty made big headlines. On the first day of his takeover of the D.C. Public Schools, he announced he was firing superintendent Clifford Janey and replacing him with the young, virtually unknown Michelle Rhee.
But before he held a press conference, interested observers had a chance to read all about it in a thorough 1,200-word article on page A1 of the Washington Post, as well as in a Post editorial praising Fenty for his bold choice.
That, of course, pissed off activists, legislators, and, yes, reporters—all of whom suspected that the Fenty press machine had handed the story straight to Post city-hall reporter David Nakamura, who has repeatedly come under attack for essentially being the Fenty administration’s pet reporter (Dept. of Media, “Hand-Scooped,” 6/20/2007).
At the time, Fenty’s communications director, Carrie Brooks, wouldn’t play the feud in the pages of this august publication. She declined to lay out whether the scoop came gift-wrapped from on high or whether Nakamura had just out-hustled the competition. “That would be a question for Dave Nakamura,” she says.
Nakamura declined to comment at the time. The Post’s top Metro editor, Robert McCartney, said, “We are nobody’s PR arm.”
OK, fine. Eight months later, LL has the e-mails!
Just after the New Year, LL submitted a records request for all e-mails sent to Washington Post employees from high-level mayoral aides and communications staffers during 2007. Call it the Year of Scooping Effortlessly.
Why dump this stuff now? LL doesn’t have a great answer to that question. A philosophical predisposal toward disseminating public information? There’s that, sure. Maybe it’s a “beat-sweetener” that stands to endear LL with the activists and legislators snubbed by the Fenty operation. Got that, Councilmember Barry? Perhaps it’s to soothe the bruised reporter egos of LL and his reporter colleagues. OK, you can take that last one to the bank.
Anyhow, here’s the goods:
In the weeks before Fenty made his announcement, intense speculation centered around one big name that had been floated during the last search for a school chief, back in 2004: Miami superintendent Rudolph F. Crew. For weeks, Crew was the odds-on favorite to take over DCPS, assuming Fenty intended to quickly dismiss Janey.
Crew, however, was a safe but not unassailable choice—his background had a lot in common with failed DCPS leaders past: Janey, Paul Vance, Arlene Ackerman, Franklin Smith.
As much as a week before the Rhee announcement, Nakamura was inside the mayor’s deliberations on the schools leadership. Like a true beat reporter, he was even protecting his sources from other sharks in the roiling and vast waters of the Washington Post. On June 7, Nakamura sent this note to Brooks: “fyi, bewteen us, …jo-ann armao was about to crush you guys for picking crew. i called off the attack…”
Brooks’ reply: “Thanks!!”
Says Nakamura, “If I was trying to correct a factual thing, then I would have expressed information to [Armao] to avoid any inaccuracies.” Armao says there never were plans to editorialize about Crew, and she says she can’t recall any circumstances that would account for that e-mail. As for the firewall, she says, “It was not breached here.…An exchange of information is not problematic.”
McCartney seconds Armao’s analysis and says Nakamura’s message falls within the bounds of proper interdepartmental discourse at the Post: “We can communicate with the editorial page over matters of fact,” he says, stressing that “calling off the attack” didn’t mean that Nakamura was trying to persuade an ed-board member. “He did not do that, and we would never do that.”
The e-mail machinations continued. About an hour after sending word of his politicking at the editorial board, Nakamura e-mailed Brooks again, this time asking for “an acceptable way for us to write a story that rules crew out”—indicating that he already had knowledge from the mayor’s office that Crew was out of the picture.
No story mentioning Crew appeared after that. But it was clear that the mayor’s people had hammered out a sole-source contract with the Post to broadcast news about the schools chancellor. On the afternoon of Sunday, June 10, Brooks wrote Nakamura, “Can you meet at af house instead? Now he’s really running late. 6 PM. Work?”
“sure. i’ll come to his house… 6 p.m.,” he replied.
A Crestwood rendezvous was not meant to be. Brooks wrote back about a half-hour later: “Sorry to do this, but just moved us back to [the John A. Wilson Building]. One of us will meet you at back door as planned.”
What happened after that planned city hall back-door sneak-in is up for debate. But the next day, around noontime, Armao had some pertinent questions for Brooks: “1. her age. 2. where is she from originally 3. do you know how many employees there are in dc schools and 4. is klein still the only person to talk to? And, anything else I should know...... I might call [Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso] in a bit.” Brooks’ responses to those queries clearly refer to Rhee.
Let’s pause for a second on No. 4. By asking whether Klein is “still the only person to talk to,” Armao hints at the contours of the exclusivity deal driven by the Fenty people vis-à-vis the Post. “Klein,” in this context, is Joel I. Klein, the New York City schools chancellor and a consigliere for the Fenty leadership search. Judging from the news story, it appears that the Fenty press people told the Post they could use only Klein as an outside source on the Rhee selection; Armao confirms that the terms of the Fenty administration’s embargo limited which outside sources the Posties could contact.
And here’s what Klein coughed up to the Post about Rhee: “That’s the choice D.C. needs, given that, year in and year out, they have not gotten results.”
Back to the frenzied e-mail traffic. Just before 7:30 on Monday night, Nakamura sent Brooks a note: “four hours to go…”
Replied Brooks: “Eek.”
Around 11:30, Nakamura sent Brooks another one: “Anything yet???”
“I think they are meeting with gray now,” she wrote. That would mean that the Washington Post was informed of Rhee’s selection approximately 30 hours before D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, the man whose panel actually had to confirm her.
The afternoon after the story hit, Nakamura was already working on his “Day 2” story: “so, predictably the backlash has begun about fenty not talking to enough people ahead of time. in fact, many say he didn’t follow the law from the takeover legislation.... what sayeth you?”
Wrote Brooks: “Let me know if you need people to say good things! Ill check out the other.”
“i got plenty of good comments about Rhee—it’s more the fenty process that ticked people off…” came back Nakamura.
Ah yes, “the fenty process”—now there’s a subject Nakamura didn’t need Fenty himself to tell him about.
Some other choice cuts from the Post-Fenty correspondence file:
• For those who worry about the White House Correspondents Dinner and the uncomfortably close relations it engenders between reporters and those they cover, put this in your dossier: On Feb. 2, 2007, Nakamura queried Brooks: “any decision yet on who AF will go with to WH Corres. Dinner? my editor is pressing us… Adrian would go with [McCartney] if he accepts our invite.” Despite the flirtations of other news outlets, including USA Today, Fenty took the Post up on its offer.
• In perhaps Brooks’ most taxing stretch as Fenty’s media czar—the days following the shooting of 14-year-old DeOnté Rawlings by an off-duty cop—the mayoral media strategy aroused the ire of none other than the executive editor himself, Leonard Downie. In a Sept. 19 e-mail, Nakamura wrote to Brooks, “can you please call asap? our top editor is not happy and i want to give you the full story so you can prepare Fenty…” A later message explains Downie’s beef to be related to the early decision to keep the cops’ names under wraps.
• On Jan. 31 of last year, Nakamura e-mailed Brooks with this jokey breaking news: “Fenty is really putting [DCWatch maven Dorothy Brizill] in her place....priceless!” “I had nothing to do with it,” she fired back. “Good grief,” Nakamura quipped, “these regular citizens asking questions has got to stop!” Replied Brooks, “I agree. But he’s a man of the people.”
• Also on the rabble-rouser beat: On May 16, Nakamura wrote a story (“New Fenty Schools Plan Cuts Copied Langauge”) about how the Fenty folks had revised the famously plagiarized education plan, in which he quoted oft-quoted Ward 4 education activist Cherita Whiting. The day the story ran, Nakamura checked in with Brooks to see how the story played in the mayor’s office. Replied Brooks, “Sucky hed, but story was good. And it wouldn’t be an ed story without a quote from Cherita Whiting.”
• On March 7, 2007, the Post broke news that Fenty would name Dennis L. Rubin as his new fire chief. Reporter Allison Klein, who covers public safety, attributed the story to “government sources.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the one who procured the scoop. Wrote Nakamura in an e-mail to Brooks the day the story appeared, “I kept my name totally off the story today so no one can yell at you!” To that, Brooks wrote, “Ha!”
Brooks explains her strategy on the Rhee announcement etc. thusly: “I think in the first year, especially when you’re laying the groundwork for the rest of your term, you tend to be more careful and more deliberate on your media strategy…you want to be the first to tell your story.”
Asked if she had any regrets, Brooks says, “I’m very upset I made Jonetta Rose Barras so mad on the day of the Rhee announcement,” referring to the fiery WAMU-FM host and Examiner columnist. “I’d have to say that was the most taxing—hearing Jonetta scream at 6 a.m.”Got a tip for Loose Lips? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 460, 24 hours a day.