Was the Washington Post Right to Get This Woman Fired?

Did a piece about a private citizen in blackface violate the paper's editorial standards?

A man walks past The Washington Post. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
A man walks past The Washington Post. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
By Bonnie Stiernberg / June 25, 2020 10:11 am

Last week, the Washington Post ran a 3,000-word article called “Blackface Incident at Post Cartoonist’s 2018 Halloween Party Resurfaces Amid Protests” that caused some controversy over the paper’s decision to report on a private citizen’s decision to wear a “Megyn Kelly-in-blackface” costume. Sue Schafer, the woman who wore the costume, has since lost her job as a graphic designer, and as a new New York magazine article reports, several reporters at the paper have questioned the decision to run the story.

Because Schafer is not a public figure, her decision to wear blackface — while it’s, to be clear, an abhorrent one — is not exactly newsworthy, and the story about her seems to violate the Post’s editorial standard that “fairness includes relevance.” “My reaction, like everybody, was, What the hell? Why is this a story?” a feature writer at the Post told New York. “My second reaction was, Why is this a 3,000-word feature?

“No one I’ve spoken with at the Post can figure out why we published this story,” another Post reporter told New York. “We blew up this woman’s life for no reason.”

“Employees of the Washington Post, including a prominent host, were involved in this incident, which impelled us to tell the story ourselves thoroughly and accurately while allowing all involved to have their say,” Kris Coratti, a spokesperson for the paper, told New York. “The piece conveys with nuance and sensitivity the complex, emotionally fraught circumstances that unfolded at the party attended by media figures only two years ago where an individual in blackface was not told promptly to leave. America’s grappling with racism has entered a phase in which people who once felt they should keep quiet are now raising their voices in public. The story is a microcosm of what the country is going through right now.”

The fact that the party was hosted by Post cartoonist Tom Toles seems to be what compelled the paper to move forward with the story, but even Lexie Gruber, one of the women who tipped off the paper about the incident, was surprised at the piece’s lack of focus on him. “I can understand people being curious: Why did they write a piece so focused on a private citizen?” she said. “But Tom [Toles] is a public citizen. To me, it’s about a larger problem, where people go to marches and then drink and dance with people in blackface.”

“From the outside, it seems clear someone complained to the Post about this stupid incident and rather than handling it as an HR matter, they decided the best thing for public relations would be to project transparency by reporting on it themselves,” Wesley Lowery told New York. “But what no one appears to have thought of is the way giving a massive amount of attention to a dumb incident involving private citizens would invariably do negligible good and cause massive amounts of harm — including to the Post itself.”

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