Former ‘Wash Post’ Columnist Expressed Concerns About Editorial Page In Farewell Memo

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By: Joe Strupp

Former Washington Post columnist Colbert King, a Pulitzer Prize winner who also served on the paper’s editorial board, apparently left his job at the end of 2006 with some critical words for his old colleagues.

In a farewell memo, posted on the Web site of Washington City Paper, King warns the editorial page to re-examine its approach to issues such as Iraq and race and “avoid resorting to sophomoric language when addressing serious matters.” He also stated that “editorials simply must not be used to advance one individual’s causes or views.”

King, in addition to winning a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, drew additional praise last year for columns that led the push for answers in the death of former New York Times Reporter David Rosenbaum, who died after being attacked just blocks from his D.C. home. Follow-up investigations by several public agencies found that police, EMT and hospital personnel mishandled several elements of Rosenbaum’s care.

But it appears that it was King’s role as an editorial board member that prompted the critical comments in the memo.

“A Post editorial stands for something, even when the desired action does not occur. A Post editorial is an expression of the considered opinion and collective wisdom and values of the best minds in the business. It is not the special province of any writer, no matter how prolific or dogmatic he/she may be in his/her views,” the memo states, in part. “Allow a Post editorial to become the vehicle for the expression of one person’s point of view-or a minority of the board’s point of view–and the editorial loses its value, even though it might be selected to lead the page.

“I offer this thought because [editorial page editor] Fred [Hiatt] has assembled a first rate staff-good minds that produce great work when they all contribute to an editorial, even though there may be one writer. Editorials simply must not be used to advance one individual’s causes or views. That’s what columns are for.”

He also adds that “members of the board must have the courage of their convictions–that the place to put views on the table is not in the corridor, rest room or across the dinner table at home– or in whispered conversations with friends and newsroom colleagues– but in the conference room where what is discussed there, stays there.”

The Post has been a hawkish defender of the Iraq war from the beginning. The King memo includes the following: “The board, in my final view, needs to think through its position on Iraq, encouraging a full expression of views. Likewise, there must be a serious examination of race–how we editorialize about Prince Georges leaders vs. Northern Virginians–the language, the selection of words we use when talking about black vs. white leaders in the region.

“The page must also take care to avoid resorting to sophomoric language when addressing serious matters. There is a tone that a Post editorial must maintain to preserve its unique standing in journalism.”

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