The Toll of an Intemperate E-Mail

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Post journalists -- whether reporter, columnist, copy editor or critic -- are private citizens. But they must not do anything that makes the paper look less than professional. In short, don't embarrass The Post.

Tim Page, The Post's renowned classical music critic, embarrassed The Post and himself last week with an angry e-mail to Andre Johnson, an aide to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

After receiving an unsolicited press release, Page snapped back: "Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new -- and typically half-witted -- political grandstanding? I'd be grateful if you would take me off your mailing list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose." Page said he earlier asked to be removed from the e-mail list; Johnson said the office has no record of that.

The e-mail, sent from The Post's system, outraged Johnson and Barry, a former District mayor, who compared it to "character assassination" when "around the nation, it's almost open season on black people."

Executive Editor Len Downie called the e-mail a "terrible mistake" and apologized to Barry. Page apologized to Barry and wrote this to Johnson: "I am deeply ashamed for what I did and I know how hurtful my words could be. Immediately after I pressed 'send,' I knew it was the dumbest thing I've ever written in 30 years of journalism. I want to affirm that my own momentary irritation at receiving unsolicited e-mail had nothing to do with The Washington Post or anybody who edits The Washington Post or anybody who might ever write about Mr. Barry for The Washington Post."

Barry said he had been "swamped with calls" about the e-mail. "I appreciate Downie's sincere apology, but it's not enough. He [Page] ought to be fired." While a music critic doesn't cover city hall, Downie said that Page still represents The Post "in everything he does." Downie took "appropriate" disciplinary action; he refused to elaborate, and neither would Page, except to say he agreed with the action. "It was serious, and I took it seriously. The Post has treated me with more patience than I might have treated me," Page said.

Some readers wanted Page fired; others praised him and said he deserved a raise. The online comments on Post media writer Howard Kurtz's story on the flap were overwhelmingly anti-Barry. Page said his mail and phone calls have run about 125 to 3 in support.

Brigid Quinn, a District resident who once worked for the D.C. government, wrote: "As far as I am concerned, there's no sanction, short of he needs to be fired. I cannot believe that a reporter would do something like that and get away with that. It's like the most outrageous thing that I've heard coming out of journalism for a long time."

But Andrew Wiseman of the District didn't feel an apology was necessary. "While perhaps he should have left out the 'overdose' part, I think it was a personal matter and has no bearing on the paper. The man writes about classical music, not Ward 8 politics! It's ridiculous that you all are kowtowing to Mr. Barry and giving him another reason to complain about being treated unfairly. . . . Are newspapermen not allowed to have opinions about matters they don't report?"

Lisa Simeone of Baltimore, who called herself "a normally proud leftist," wrote, "And thus does a person become not a free citizen, but merely a corporate lackey, beholden to his employer in every aspect of his life."

Does being a Post newsroom employee mean giving up the right to free speech? In many ways, yes. To name one: Journalists must give up supporting a political candidate or a cause that might be controversial and newsworthy.

Last summer, Page wrote a memoir for the New Yorker about his lifelong experience with Asperger's syndrome, a form of mild autism marked by difficulties with communication, overstimulation and social interaction.

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