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Preaching Ethics, D.C. Pol Threatens To Squash Tiny Paper

D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas. (Bill O'Leary/Post)

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.

By Marc Fisher |  March 9, 2009; 8:12 AM ET
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First of all, there is nothing wrong with an editor writing a story. Literally thousands of editors write stories in newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and for radio stations, television stations, documentaries, films, whatever, wherever, whenever. For Thomas to say an editor shouldn't write a story and then to say he "studied" journalism, well, that's just dumb. If you really "studied" journalism, then you would know that any editor, anywhere, at any time, can write a story. Gawd, that's a dumb statement for a city politician to make. Second, a city council politician does NOT threaten community newspapers, does NOT threaten advertisers, does NOT write stupid letters like the one he wrote in response to the story. You just simply do not make such actions. If anyone's actions should be investigated--including investigations of unethical intimidation and unethical and immoral making of dumb threats--it should be the actions of Thomas. In fact, the city's ethics watchdogs should be paying attention, and should be investigating Thomas' actions. Meanwhile, congratulations to the Heartbeat, and every sane person in this city hopes it will continue its great journalistic work. As for Thomas--you need to seriously review and reconsider your recent actions. As for the city's watchdogs--you need to pay attention this behavior from a city politician.

Posted by: thefrontpage1 | March 9, 2009 12:23 PM

Typical D.C. Council behavior. Preposterous as usual. Council Chair Gray should weigh in here. Statehood? Hmmmmmm.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 9, 2009 12:31 PM

Unfortunately it's pretty typical of DC politicians to think that they have some sort of entitlement to office and to not be critcized. Fenty, Grey, Thomas, Brown, Bowser, Evans, Barry... all feel like they have some sort of divine right to rule and be unchallenged. When they get criticized, most are quick to pull out the "race card". They are a major reason I dropped out of the Democratic party in DC and became and independent, but then Mikey "I can only get a job trading on my father's name" Brown decided to become one so he could circumvent the rules. They're all a bunch of sleazebags.

Posted by: blankspace | March 9, 2009 12:57 PM

Thomas appears foolish in this matter.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | March 9, 2009 1:05 PM

Please post a link to this article on the initial screen shot of Thomas needs to be fully-exposed for his absurd actions.

Posted by: just34ice | March 9, 2009 1:26 PM

Let him pick on the Post's entire advertising base and see how he fares.

Posted by: carlaclaws | March 9, 2009 1:41 PM

Typical DC government official...Shortsighted, arrogant and basically fake

Posted by: scrappyc20001 | March 9, 2009 1:47 PM

It seems as though Harry "Tommy" Thomas may have some ethical issue of his own to contend with, with abuse of power being first and foremost.

The facts being uncontested speak volumes.

We should have some more investigative reporting as to other aspects of what Tommy does or doesn't do while "serving the people," on DC Council.

Sounds as though Ward 5 should elect a new council member in the near future.

Posted by: a_DC_denizen | March 9, 2009 1:49 PM

Also reinforces the fact that DC will never gain Statehood.

Posted by: a_DC_denizen | March 9, 2009 1:52 PM

If I had a dime for every politician, legislative aide, spokesperson and PIO that used the "I studied journalism in college" line while criticising my work, I'd be a rich man. This councilman speaks of Long & Foster as if he's in a position to control with whom they do business with in the District. It's almost laughable.

Posted by: abiddlecomb | March 9, 2009 1:54 PM

For those bringing up statehood, do you really think that no politicians in the 50 States have ever gone overboard in criticizing the press? Really?

Posted by: Lindemann777 | March 9, 2009 2:32 PM

I truly wish Padou could walk up and smack that bama supreme, Thomas, in the mouth...

...but he's got a far more effective way of doing it: by writing stories like the one that set this guy off. Guess the main qualification for being a member of the DC Council is a wafer-thin skin, huh?

Keep writing well-sourced stories, and long live papers like the Brookland Heartbeat. Somebody around here needs to tell it like it is!

Posted by: jcbcmb68 | March 9, 2009 4:13 PM

It reads like a joke. I hope it makes national news and someone goes to do a televised interview with the editor who's wearing a cardigan with kittens on it. This just shows that Thomas is somewhat of an immature amateur. I feel sorry for the people of Ward 5.

As for the haters from NoVa proclaiming this is why DC doesn't get statehood - get real. Get over yourselves. Get a life. Quit feeding what you think is the misery of a city you hate, and get lost.

Posted by: sugarstreet | March 10, 2009 8:06 AM

It's a good thing that Ben Franklin wrote, edited, and printed his paper in Philadelphia instead of Ward 5 of the national nut house.

Posted by: rightlyso | March 15, 2009 12:25 PM

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