Part 1—A fascinating read: Two Sundays ago, on November 8, we thought the Washington Post's Outlook section had finally hit rock bottom.
On that Sunday morning, the weekly section presented a special "baby boomer" edition. We thought Outlook's dumbness that day was about as dumb as journalistic dumbness can get.
How dumb do journalists have to be in order to write—and then decide to publish!—the pair of silly screeds Outlook featured that morning? They have to be surpassingly dumb, or we thought that day.
(What kind of journalism are we talking about? This pitiful piece by Heather Havrilesky was one of Outlook's front-page features that day. Do we have to explain how dumb that piece was? If so, the problem may extend beyond the dumbness which now seems to rule at the Post.)
Maybe it's our imagination. But it seems to us that Outlook has been getting dumber and dumber since Adam Kushner, age 33, was put in charge of the high-profile weekly section last December.
Previously, Kushner had been in charge of the newspaper's aptly named "PostEverything" site. It could be our imagination, but it has seemed to us that he may have brought the point of view which lurks in that unintentionally comical name to the journalism of Outlook.
Yesterday morning, we thought Outlook's work got even worse from a journalistic standpoint. That said, we were appalled by work we found all through yesterday's Post, and in parts of yesterday's New York Times.
Is it our imagination, or are basic journalistic norms dying before our eyes? We're thinking of yesterday's weekly Fact Checker piece, which awarded two Pinocchios to Candidate Clinton even as the streets run red with Donald Trump's astounding serial misstatements.
We're also thinking of the journalistic values on display in the piece which headlined yesterday's Outlook section. For today, let's focus on the journalism of that remarkable piece.
Please note--we're talking about the journalism of the piece in question. In the end, we aren't attempting to assess the practice of the Santa Monica police department, which played a central role in the piece in question.
We aren't attempting to assess the values, views or beliefs of Fay Wells, the Santa Monica business executive who wrote the piece in question.
We aren't attempting to assess the values and motives of one of Wells' neighbors, about whom she makes some striking assertions. In the end, we're attempting to assess the journalism of Adam Kushner, the journalist who decided to publish Wells' piece in the form in which it appeared.
In our view, yesterday's Outlook piece is an astonishing read. That's especially true if you peruse the background material the Post ignored in presenting Wells' piece, which headlined yesterday's Outlook.
In our view, yesterday's piece helps us consider the basic conception of journalism which increasingly seems to obtain at newspapers like the Post. Such papers are taking us to a post-journalistic age—an age in which the work you read is narrative all the way down.
Question: did the Santa Monica police behave badly on the evening of September 6 in an incident involving Wells? In large part because of the Washington Post, we don't have the slightest idea how to answer that question.
Around 11 o'clock that evening, Wells called a locksmith to help her get into her apartment. (She had locked her keys inside.) A neighbor apparently thought a break-in was occurring, and he called police.
By all accounts, a total of 19 officers reported to the scene. It seems that at least two of the officers had their guns drawn when Wells came to her door to respond to their presence.
Was that an over-reaction? Was it bad policing? Outlook made no attempt to subject such questions to normal journalistic review. They simply published a long, agonized account by Wells—an impassioned account which, time and again, seem to misstate basic facts about what occurred that night.
Wells seems to remain extremely upset about what happened that night. There's no obvious reason why she shouldn't be. That said, it also isn't entirely clear that her various judgments are sensible or sound.
Wells remains extremely upset. That doesn't speak to our concern, the journalism practiced by the Washington Post.
In this case, what's wrong with the Post's journalism? Let's start with the paper's most heinous misconduct. In a lengthy, anguished piece to which it gave a very high platform, the Post let Wells make an endless array of statements and claims which seem extremely hard to reconcile with the facts.
As usual, these apparently fact-challenged statements help make the story more exciting. They make the story fit a familiar story line about a very important topic. Is there any other kind of "journalism" these days?
What sorts of claims in Wells' report seem hard to reconcile with the facts? Consider the claim that the police who responded to the neighbor's call refused to answer her questions or respond to her concerns that night.
This claim is made and implied, again and again, in the exciting and tribally pleasing report the Post chose to publish. We offer these examples:
WELLS (11/23/15): After the officers and dog exited my “cleared” apartment, I was allowed back inside to speak with some of them...We'll return to the "strange justification" which still seems to puzzle Wells. For now, let's consider the claim that Wells "got no clear answers from the police that night," even though she "spoke with two of the officers a little while longer."
I had so many questions. Why hadn’t they announced themselves? Why had they pointed guns at me? Why had they refused to answer when I asked repeatedly what was going on? Was it protocol to send more than a dozen cops to a suspected burglary? Why hadn’t anyone asked for my ID or accepted it, especially after I’d offered it? If I hadn’t heard the dog, would I have opened the door to a gun in my face? “Maybe,” they answered.
I spoke with two of the officers a little while longer, trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude and nature of their response. They wondered: Wouldn’t I want the same response if I’d been the one who called the cops? “Absolutely not,” I told them. I recounted my terror and told them how I imagined it all ending, particularly in light of the recent interactions between police and people of color. One officer admitted that it was complicated but added that people sometimes kill cops for no reason. I was momentarily speechless at this strange justification.
I got no clear answers from the police that night and am still struggling to get them...
In fact, Wells spoke with those officers for a full 47 minutes after the search of her apartment had been completed. They answered her questions again and again, and then again and again and again, over and over and over and over, for that length of time.
They answered endless questions, over and over, about the reasons for their procedures. And how helpful! On November 20, the Los Angeles Times posted a transcript of this endless discussion, along with the audiotape.
It's very hard to square that transcript and tape with a good many things the Post let Wells claim and state in her first-person account. Unless he's in thrall to the "PostEverything" ethos, it's hard to know why a young journalist like Kushner would publish such a misleading account about such a significant topic.
You can only see that by reading the transcript of that endless discussion. Meanwhile, let's return to that other statement by Wells:
"I spoke with two of the officers a little while longer, trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude and nature of their response...One officer admitted that it was complicated but added that people sometimes kill cops for no reason. I was momentarily speechless at this strange justification."
Three months later, Wells is still puzzled by that "strange justification," which the Post let her describe quite opaquely. She seems to be referring to the officers' statement that they approach such incidents in substantial numbers, and perhaps with some weapons drawn, because officers sometimes get shot and killed in such situations.
"Well, understand, my brother-in-law got killed in the line of duty entering a house," one of the sergeants told Wells at one point. We don't know if that's true. But three months later, Wells still seems to think that's a "strange justification" for the police procedures she found upsetting. Meanwhile, for unknown reasons, the Post let her present an absurdly murky account of what she was told about that.
It seems that Wells is still very upset by her experience that night. There's no obvious reasons why she shouldn't be.
But we aren't judging the conduct, views or reactions of Wells. We're judging the journalism of the Washington Post, an increasingly horrible "newspaper."
Did the Santa Monica police engage in bad procedures that night? We have no idea. But the Washington Post engaged in horrific journalism when it published that remarkable front-page Outlook piece in the way it did.
An amazing array of statement ands claims in that piece are hard to square with the documentary record. Beyond that, from its own headlines on down, the Post chose to present this event as a racial incident. It let Wells make racial claims about her neighbor and the police, accusing them of racist conduct in the absence of any obvious proof or indication.
Was Wells mistreated by the police that night? If so, was she mistreated because she's black?
The Post let her make that claim throughout her report. The claim made her report much more thrilling. It also fits a preferred narrative many Post readers may love.
That said, the paper never cited the statement by Jacqueline Seabrooks, the black woman who heads the Santa Monica police department. And all through the exciting report, Wells was allowed to make statements and claims which are very hard to reconcile with the facts.
In fairness, Seabrooks grew up in South Central; Wells went to Dartmouth and Duke, a point she shares in her piece. This may help us understand the way young Kushner, who went to Yale, interacts with the world from which he's extracting his lode.
Two weeks ago, we thought those pieces about the baby boomers were about as dumb as journalism could get. This latest work is utterly horrible in a different way.
Truly, it's a fascinating read—but only if you read the lengthy transcript which lets you evaluate the accuracy of the many exciting claims which are being advanced. Only then do you start to see the way the Wells piece is remarkable.
Remember—we aren't attempting to judge Wells' views about what happened that night. Despite her lofty background and high social standing, Fay Wells isn't a journalist.
We're trying to judge the journalism of the Washington Post, an increasingly horrible newspaper. Yesterday, from its front page forward, we thought the Post presented a variety of routes to a post-journalistic world.
Two weeks ago, we thought those ludicrous boomer pieces really took the cake. Yesterday, in line with the season, an even bigger journalistic turkey was given free range in the Post.
Tomorrow: Two Pinocchios, Kessler said
Wednesday: Even after all these years, he's still our biggest gobbler