Is The Post as quick to report progress on racial fairness as it is to report incidents of discrimination? If one is to judge by the experience of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the answer is no.
The DAR has had its image problems, trying to overcome the stereotype of elite women bound up in wide ribbons set off by generous corsages, wearing wide-brimmed, flowered hats and long white gloves. They have been described as nibbling on dainty tea cookies while promoting patriotism, conservatism and exclusivity.
Last spring, a front-page article in The Post headed, "Black Unable to Join Local DAR" told about the denial of membership in a local chapter to Lena S. Ferguson, a school administrative secretary who is black. The story ran on for 53 column inches. The next day, D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke introduced legislation to remove the $869,373 annual DAR real-estate tax exemption (later reported as $534,497). The bill died without a murmur in committee at the end of the year.
Two days after Clarke introduced the bill, Post columnist Courtland Milloy whacked the DAR again, and three days later a Post editorial took up the attack with a piece headed, sneeringly, "Daughters of What?" and concluded with the sentence, "Someday the Mary Washington chapter might even grow up."
It was quite an attack.
DAR President-General Sarah M. King, pointing out that Mrs. Ferguson had been accepted as a member of the national DAR and denying that race was the cause of her exclusion from the local chapter, nonetheless was embarrassed. She said she would propose a DAR rule prohibiting local chapters from discriminating and would enforce the prohibition by appointing an ethics committee.
Her administration, she emphasized, was "unanimously pledged to encourage all eligible persons -- regardless of race or religion -- to membership." She said the DAR would launch its own affirmative-action plan, including a genealogist to assist blacks and other applicants and setting up a system monitoring minorities' membership progress.
All this was duly reported, as well as recognition that the DAR helps immigrants obtain and celebrate citizenship, supports needy schools, gives scholarships and maintains a museum and archives. But in April 1984 Post coverage came to a halt.
In December, The Washington Times reported that Mrs. Ferguson had become an active, happy member of a local DAR chapter and was recruiting other minority women. In January, The Times reported that the DAR had made "revolutionary changes seeking to boost black membership."
One of these was the publication of a book, "Black Courage, 1775-1783" by Robert Ewell Greene, which told about the "faith and fortitude" of "patriotic blacks who served in the Continental Army." The Post was invited to send a reporter to a reception for the author and the DAR president- general, and a copy was sent for a review. Nothing appeared.
Jet Magazine praised the president- general for "a courageous move" in publishing the book; the Washington Afro-American devoted a column to the book alongside a picture of the black author and the DAR head. The New York Times reported the local publication.
Why did The Post, after devoting 2 1/2 columns to charges of DAR bigotry, fail to cover the fact that Mrs. Ferguson was happily in a local chapter (and indeed had been named vice- chairman of a scholarship committee) and the fruition of steps to recognize blacks' role in the Revolutionary War?
Post City Editor Eugene Robinson acknowledged, "It is a story. There was no intentional unfairness. I should have gotten it into the paper. I have no pro-or anti-DAR feelings; I have never had contact with the organation."
Robinson came to The Post after five years on the San Francisco Chronicle. He covered the District Building for two years, then spent a year as assistant city editor, another as day city editor and has been city editor a year. "One simply makes decisions on a day-to-day basis, and this one was put aside over a six-week period," he said.
No wonder the DAR sometimes feels discriminated against, too.