Preaching Ethics, D.C. Pol Threatens To Squash Tiny Paper
As much as any elected official in Washington, Harry "Tommy" Thomas, the D.C. council member from Ward 5, carries himself like a good old-fashioned machine politician. Son of a council member, Thomas is a cheerful and omnipresent face in Northeast, a ward-heeler who prides himself on bringing home the bacon in the form of park facilities, schools and other city projects.
Abigail Padou is the editor and proprietor of Brookland Heartbeat, a bimonthly newsmagazine about the neighborhood near Catholic University. The paper, mailed free to 10,000 registered voters in the area, is a non-profit run entirely by volunteers and supported by a small group of local advertisers.
Last week, for reasons Padou cannot fathom, Thomas posted on his web site a letter to the editor and to all Ward 5 residents accusing the Heartbeat of salacious headlines, biased reporting and a conflict of interest. Thomas was so angry about a story that ran in the paper last July that he demanded a retraction and threatened to go after one of the Heartbeat's most important advertisers, the Long & Foster realty company. "Long & Foster will be held accountable for its role in underwriting the Brookland Heartbeat," Thomas wrote, "as well as the businesses that support the publication."
The article that got Thomas's goat is a nicely reported, fully sourced, and utterly unsensational story that examines what Ward 5 gets out of Thomas's position as chairman of the Council's committee overseeing libraries, parks and recreation. The story's conclusion: The ward gets very little.
"No major renovations will have been undertaken for... the three public libraries located in Ward 5," the story says, even though "during the same time period, major library renovation or reconstruction projects will have been started or completed in every other Ward in the District."
Padou reached similar conclusions about parks and recreation facilities and cites examples of Ward 5 facilities that could use some help from the city. The story uses no anonymous sources, includes comments from Thomas and his staff, and quotes top-level D.C. officials praising Thomas as well as noting how projects in other parts of the city fared better than those in Ward 5. All in all, an exemplary piece of community journalism.
But Thomas says it's unethical for an editor of a paper to write and edit a story for her own paper ("it eliminates the opportunity for checks and balances," he writes). He reminds me that he was a journalism major in college and insists that "I would never take away freedom of speech."
"I'm very open and responsive," Thomas says. He says he posted the letter with its threat to advertisers because ""so many constituents asked me for a response." The story "made it look like the Ward 5 council member wasn't doing all he could for his community and that is completely false."
But the story not only quoted Thomas, it also spelled out his version of events and his plans for renovating libraries and parks in the ward.
Thomas "feels this personal antipathy that just isn't there," says Padou, whose day job is in marketing at Catholic University's academic press. "He's an institution and so are we and we are just doing our job. I'm nobody--I'm the Brookland Heartbeat. This was a good article, well-sourced, and I'm pretty proud of it. If he had a complaint about a fact, I take any complaint seriously. But it's difficult to respond to this because he didn't take issue with any facts in the article."
This is not the first time Thomas has threatened the Heartbeat, Padou says. Last year, he wrote to the paper saying he would have it investigated by the D.C. Attorney General--something that apparently never happened. "It was just intended to intimidate me," Padou says.
Thomas says he hasn't "made a final decision" about whether to carry through on his threat and contact Long & Foster and other Heartbeat advertisers. I asked if his intent was to chill further critical reporting. "No," he said, "but advertisers should understand what they're dealing with, what kind of publication they're in. The only thing I have as a politician is my reputation."
He's doing a pretty good job of shredding that. Politicians who feel wronged by lousy reporting should fight back; pols who are on the receiving end of tough reporting that is solid and accurate usually try to change the subject or highlight whatever good work they've done. Attacking the messenger is a centuries-old strategy; good editors just roll their eyes and move on to the next story. But going after a tiny, non-profit paper's advertisers when you don't even accuse the paper of a single error is pure bullying. Thomas should pick on someone his own size; he owes Padou and her readers an apology.
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