Post blunders race headline

By: Joe Strupp

Paper Execs say copy violated its own racial ID policy

When The Washington Post ran a Page One headline that many considered racially insensitive, some of the first and harshest criticism came from the newspaper itself.
The Sept. 15 header, “White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore,” ran above a story about that city’s mayoral primary contest. In a field of 15, white City Councilman Martin O’Malley won the Democratic nomination, despite serious challenges by two black opponents.
Although the story by reporter Angela Paik accurately noted that the election of a white candidate in a predominantly black city was news, some critics charged that such a racially based headline was insensitive and assumed that black voters would not be expected to elect a white candidate.
Among the critics was Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, who penned a clarification in the Sept. 16 issue that stated the headline “distorted the role of race in the election and violated Washington Post policy about reporting racial identifications only in proper context.”
Three days later, in the Post’s Sept. 19 issue, Ombudsman E.R. Shipp took the newspaper to task again with a stinging column that recounted the angry phone calls the paper had received about the headline and pointed out the importance of viewing elections through a nonracial lens.
“The Post blew it,” Shipp’s piece began. It also described the headline as “a boneheaded decision” and “devoid of news. ? It was as if editors had never heard of ? or never absorbed ? the oft-quoted desire of the late Martin Luther King Jr. to see America transformed into a place where people ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,'” Shipp wrote.
The ombudsman went on to state that the key problem with the headline was that it assumed voters were more likely to vote for their own ethnic group or race. “It was not news that blacks voted for a white candidate,” she said. “They have done that for most of the time they have been allowed to vote.”
But Shipp stopped short of completely slamming the headline, saying it offered a proper perspective on the role that race played in the election. “It reveals a heightened sensitivity to race,” she said. “But an ineptness in dealing with race and ethnicity.”
Journalistic observers outside the Post also weighed in publicly on the headline and the newspaper’s handling of the issue. Some, such as media critic Jeremy Torobin of, agreed with Shipp and bashed the Post’s action.
“It’s questionable whether the fact that [O’Malley] is white and won the nomination warranted such a black-and-white headline,” Torobin wrote.
But others, including San Francisco Examiner columnist Emil Guillermo, said such a story might have deserved a direct headline that got to the heart of the issue. “The headline wasn’t exactly tabloid,” Guillermo wrote. “And, factually, it was sound. Last I checked, O’Malley was still white. He wasn’t off-white, cream, or any kind of bone color. He was, as they say, a white male.”
Downie said he discussed the headline with the person who wrote it and that person’s supervisor, but declined to say if any punitive action was taken against either employee. He said the headline was unquestionably wrong and agreed it should not have been printed.
“It was a distortion in the way race played in the campaign: race was not a big issue,” Downie said. “When I saw the headline, I was very surprised by it.”
But Downie said such mistakes are part of the newspaper business. “Human beings make mistakes on headlines,” he said. “It was educational.”
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 25, 1999) [Caption]

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