washingtonpost.com
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.

Page doesn't rule out that Asperger's had a role in this. "I think it is a complicated, sensitive and probably unanswerable question," he said. "But I'd hate to have my personal temper tantrum reflect badly on the Asperger's community, for there are a lot of us out there living productive lives."

One Asperger's Web site says that many with the condition "exhibit exceptional skill or talent in a specific area." Page, who has been at The Post since 1995, has won a Pulitzer Prize in criticism and written 15 books. In 2006, he was chosen as one of the country's 25 most influential people in opera by the magazine Opera News. In a previously approved leave of absence, Page will be a visiting professor in journalism and music at the University of Southern California, beginning in January.

Page's e-mail worried some Metro staffers, who felt that it was harmful to The Post's ability to cover city hall and the 8th Ward.

David Nakamura, The Post's city hall reporter, said, "At a time when circulation is declining, we have been told as journalists that now, more than ever, we must connect with communities that The Post has historically been accused of neglecting. This is not an easy feat to begin with, but it is made all the more difficult when our colleagues make rude, hostile remarks to elected officials who live in those communities. Such statements can live on long after they are said and wear down the trust we are trying to build with already skeptical residents."

Post journalists can get angry. They can have thoughts as bad as any other human being. But they can't say them in public or put them in writing and send them out into the world. That damages The Post's credibility.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company