The Post blew it, as readers were quick to notice, last Wednesday. The first call of complaint about "this horrible headline on the front page" came at 6:46 a.m. Other calls and e-mail messages poured in throughout the day, condemning The Post for a rather boneheaded decision to summarize the outcome of the Baltimore Democratic primary for mayor thusly: "White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore."
"It made me cringe. It was just ghastly. It feels like it's 1968," the first caller said. "I was extremely disappointed," said another. "I'm new to the area and I'm having a hard time with this racial division thing here." The headline was, she said, "extremely offensive and added to the racial divide."
And so it went all day as readers wondered what century The Post was dwelling in. It was as if editors had never heard of -- or never absorbed -- the oft-quoted desire of the late Martin Luther King Jr. to see America transformed into a place where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Or had never read The Washington Post Deskbook on Style, which clearly states: "In general, race and ethnic background should not be mentioned unless they are clearly relevant. They are obviously relevant in stories about civil rights issues, the problems or achievements of minority groups, cultural history and racial conflict. They are also relevant and should be used in crime stories when we have enough specific identifying information to publish a police description of a suspect who is being sought."
Candidate Martin O'Malley's platform centered around an anti-drug, anti-crime agenda. A city councilman for eight years, he is also 36, a lawyer and a guitarist in a Celtic rock band. By most accounts, his race was no more the deciding factor in his victory than was Serena Williams's in hers in the U.S. Open this month. Thankfully, The Post did not declare then that "Black Girl Wins." A retired journalist who knows O'Malley said that his win "had to do with dope and traffic and a whole lot of other problems up there that they think this kid can do something about. He's going to do some good, but it's not because he's a white man. It's because he loves Baltimore."
Consider how devoid of news the "white man" headline was. The office of mayor has usually been held by white men. So what's new about another one -- either O'Malley, a Democrat in a city where 90 percent of voters are Democrats, or David Tufaro, his Republican challenger in November -- becoming the next one? (Since 1987, two black men have held the office.) It was not news that blacks voted for a white candidate: They have done that for most of the time they have been allowed to vote and are more likely to vote for whites than whites are to vote for blacks. The prospect of a white man succeeding a black man as mayor is nothing new. Among big cities, it's been done in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Oakland and Gary, Ind.
The paper apologized on Thursday, in the form of a "clarification" on Page A2, acknowledging that the headline "distorted the role of race in the election and violated Washington Post policy about reporting racial identifications only in proper context."
One reader said that the headline revealed, more than anything else, "The Post's warped focus on race." I disagree. It reveals a heightened sensitivity to race and ethnicity but an ineptness in dealing with race and ethnicity. At certain levels there may be an acceptance that we are all members of the human race; but at the level of conceptualizing, assigning and signing off on stories and headlines, there's a problem at The Post. Attention, as they say, must be paid.
You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 334-7582.