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Rhee's Silent Treatment

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Last Sunday's Post carried an absorbing front-page look at the evolution of reformist Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as she ends her second year of trying to fix the District's underperforming school system.

It was written by reporter Bill Turque, who covers D.C. schools. But midway through, it noted that Rhee had been interviewed by Post education columnist Jay Mathews, not Turque.

That's the tip-off to a story behind the story.

Unhappy with his coverage, Turque said, Rhee has refused to talk with him since last summer. His queries are handed off to press aides, and he is largely relegated to quoting from her public appearances.

It's not uncommon for public officials to temporarily slam the door on reporters who upset them. But this is unusual. Rhee's effort to transform the public schools is arguably the biggest story in the District and has gained national attention. Her pique has lasted months. Turque is the only reporter who covers her full time. And he works for a powerful hometown newspaper whose coverage is essential to taxpaying readers with a stake in the issue.

"Basically, she just stopped talking to me," Turque said. "She never gave me a direct explanation. I've had to sort of piece it together indirectly."

Months ago, Rhee laid out a handful of complaints over breakfast with executive editor Marcus Brauchli and Robert McCartney, then the editor in charge of the Metro section for which Turque works. Brauchli recalled that Rhee was "polite and respectful" in expressing displeasure over a mix of stories and blog items.

Turque, who acknowledged that The Post has corrected a few "minor" errors, said the snub "seems personal."

In preparing last Sunday's lengthy piece, he made two requests for an interview with Rhee. Both were denied.

When The Post's Web site raised the idea of getting Rhee to sit for a videotaped interview to accompany the story online, Turque knew she would not allow him to conduct it. So he suggested Mathews, a nationally known education opinion leader. Rhee agreed, resulting in an odd video segment in which Mathews told her: "My colleague Bill Turque gave me a couple of questions I promised to run by you."

Inserting Turque's questions -- and mentioning that they were his -- was intentional. It yielded answers, which appeared in his story. But it also signaled that Turque wasn't going away.

But Turque believes her refusal to speak with him hurts readers. Not only is he unable to put hard questions to her, but "it's also cast a chill over people around her, her deputies," who have been reluctant to speak with him. Said McCartney: "Our readers suffered because his reporting was hampered by lack of cooperation from Chancellor Rhee."

I e-mailed Rhee and asked her to specify her complaints about Turque. I also asked whether she wants Turque replaced on the education beat and why she would talk with Mathews and not him. She referred me to her spokeswoman, Jennifer Calloway, who said Rhee doesn't want to "rehash" the past.

Rather, she noted that Rhee had recently received a call from Craig Timberg, who will soon take over as the Post editor in charge of D.C. schools coverage, in which he suggested they get together. Timberg confirmed that they plan to meet soon "to see if we can get things on a better footing." Calloway said Rhee "feels we are set up to move in a really positive way."

Rhee's reaction to The Post's coverage strikes me as petty and thin-skinned -- and perhaps calculated. She has been uncommonly cooperative with national media reporters who parachute in for big-picture profiles. But she has been overly sensitive when Turque, and Post education reporters before him, have pursued more granular coverage that is so essential to local readers.

Brauchli said there are no plans to replace Turque, calling him a "terrific education reporter."

"I think she should talk to him," he said of Rhee. "But I also think she's within her rights to choose not to."

If she doesn't, he said, "we'll find ways to get the information" from her staff and other sources.

I think The Post has the right approach. It should recommit to the same aggressive, accurate and balanced coverage it would afford any public official. And it should listen to Rhee's concerns about coverage.

With the future of D.C. public schools hanging in the balance, taxpayers have a large stake in the outcome. Students have a bigger one.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog .

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