Uproar Over New M.E. Makes News at ‘Washington Post’

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By: Joe Strupp

An internal dispute at The Washington Post over the recent naming of a new managing editor has spilled over onto its news pages.

In a break from the norm at most newspapers, which generally avoid writing about themselves unless it is a positive development, the Post published a story Friday detailing some staff anger with the choice earlier this month of Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news, to be the new managing editor.

Frank Ahrens, the Post business writer who wrote the story, told E&P today that it was a legitimate news event. “Let’s say another big Washington institution had appointed a new No. 2 that had caused some internal strife,” he said. “If it was significant, we might cover it.”

Almost immediately after Bennett was chosen to succeed outgoing managing editor Steve Coll, who is leaving the job to concentrate on writing, numerous staffers made their objections known. The main claim appeared to be that two other assistant managing editors, Eugene Robinson and Liz Spayd, did not get the nod.

Much of the dissension came from the fact that Robinson, a 24-year Post veteran, and Spayd, who has been at the paper since 1988, had more time there than Bennett, who came to the Post in 1997. Others were disappointed because the choice of either Robinson, who is black, or Spayd, a woman, would have allowed a minority to take the coveted No. 2 newsroom spot.

“Several minority staff members lamented that a white man recently was chosen over a woman and a black man as the paper’s new managing editor,” the Post story stated. It also detailed discussion of the issue during a meeting Thursday that included “hundreds of newsroom staffers” and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. that was initially called to discuss circulation declines but grew into a discussion over the managing editor choice.

Downie did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Coll, who has been out of town and did not attend Thursday’s meeting, told E&P he did not believe the disagreement over Bennett was enough to require a story. But he stressed that events at the meeting might have sparked a need for coverage. “My knowledge of the reaction before the meeting was that it was not significant enough to warrant this,” he said.

The story is not the first time this year the Post has gone public with internal strife or regret. An Aug. 12 story by media writer Howard Kurtz, which appeared on Page One, offered a critical look at the Post’s coverage of the Iraq War and events leading up to it.

A Kurtz story about the promotion of Bennett on Nov. 6 mentioned that the choice was not universally praised, saying, “Newsroom reaction was mixed. Some staffers say they don’t know much about Bennett, a low-key man with a studious air, and expressed a feeling of uncertainty; others praised his editing skills and journalistic acumen. Still others were disappointed that two other assistant managing editors — Eugene Robinson of Style and Liz Spayd of the national desk — were passed over. … Robinson is a longtime newsroom favorite, and some had hoped he would become The Post’s first black managing editor.”

“It’s healthy overall for the paper to be open to covering itself,” Coll said. “We have to hold ourselves, generally, to the same standard as every other organization we cover.”

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