Last week, when Sue Schafer learned that the Washington Post planned to publish a story about one of the dumbest things she had ever done, she had the same question that many readers would have about the resulting 3,000-word article, “Blackface Incident at Post Cartoonist’s 2018 Halloween Party Resurfaces Amid Protests”: Why is this newsworthy?
Readers within the Post newsroom were asking the question, too. “No one I’ve spoken with at the Post can figure out why we published this story,” said one prominent reporter at the paper. “We blew up this woman’s life for no reason.”
In 2018, Schafer attended a Halloween party at the home of Tom Toles, the Post’s Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist. The basis for Schafer’s costume was topical. NBC had recently fired Megyn Kelly after she said, on the air, that she didn’t understand why it was necessarily considered racist for people to wear blackface as part of a Halloween costume. Schafer, who is white, decided to lampoon the anchor by dressing as Megyn Kelly–in–blackface.
It wasn’t a good idea, and, predictably, it didn’t go over well. That night, Schafer was repeatedly confronted about the racially offensive costume — by the cabdriver who took her to Toles’s house; by the party’s co-host, Steve Rochlin, who told the Post he instructed her to “wash that off or go”; and by several guests at the party, one of whom would tip the newspaper to her actions nearly two years later, causing the incident to “resurface,” as the Post’s headline put it. The day after the party, Schafer called Toles and apologized for what she had worn.
This is a mortifying tale about one woman’s cluelessness, but why did it end up in a major national newspaper? The Post’s editorial standards declare that “fairness includes relevance.” The non-recent, non-criminal bad acts of non-public figures are not ordinarily considered news, and before June 17, Schafer was a graphic designer with no public profile and no apparent power or ambitions to obtain it. What was the point of publishing this story — at considerable length, accompanied by original photography from an acclaimed staff photographer, on the front page of the paper’s “Style” section — besides causing Schafer to lose her job?
The Post said Schafer’s transgression was news because it happened in front of Toles and somewhere possibly in the vicinity of columnist Dana Milbank.
“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,” said Kris Coratti, a spokesperson for the paper. “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.”
It’s not unusual for publications to report on themselves, though ordinarily they do so because they are already in the news. Proactive reporting creates significant concerns about conflicts of interest: If the Post shapes the narrative of a new story about itself, it may do so in a way that is designed to protect the paper’s interests. When politicians do this, reporters cynically refer to it as “getting out ahead of the story” — the idea being that new information has more impact on public perception than a clarification or correction or addition to already public information.
And if the supposed journalistic purpose of the article was to interrogate the actions of employees of the Post, it failed in a few ways.
The only Post employee the article demonstrates to have even had knowledge of the blackface costume is Toles. Milbank’s attendance and costume — Brett Kavanaugh with beer helmet — are noted in the article, but he’s not quoted, nor does the article say he was asked any questions, including whether he saw Schafer’s costume or objected to it. (Milbank tells New York he never saw anyone in blackface.) No other Post employees — in fact, no other “media figures” at all — are named in the article, though Coratti confirms there were additional Post employees in attendance. Who were they? Were they any more “involved in this incident” than Milbank was? Did they tell Schafer blackface is wrong? Who can say — Coratti said that by “involved,” she meant only that the employees attended the party, and no further details were reported in the Post.
Another problem with the theory that the Post saw the story as a necessary accounting of the behavior of its employees and other media figures is how the paper handled the story after publication. By our count, a total of four Post employees shared the article on Twitter shortly after its publication online on June 17. One of those employees characterized the story to New York as “obviously a mess” and admitted to not having read it in full before tweeting it. Neither of the article’s authors, Marc Fisher and Sydney Trent, has shared it on Twitter or Facebook, even though Fisher is active on both platforms, where he has posted every other article he wrote this month. (Fisher declined to speak on the record for this story. In response to a request for comment, Trent said, “I would refer you to our corporate response. I look forward to reading your story.”)
In the hours after publication, the story started to receive widespread criticism from journalists on social media on the grounds that it got its subject fired while lacking news value. (Readers had to get 85 percent of the way through the story to even learn that Schafer had lost her job when she told her employer the story would be running.) The article now has drawn over 2,000 web comments, which are overwhelmingly negative in nature. Yet aside from PR statements to outlets covering the Post’s coverage, the Post’s response to the criticism of this story has been silence. If this is a story with “nuance and sensitivity” that the Post felt “impelled” to run, why is a spirited defense of the Post’s journalism coming only from a non-journalist spokesperson for the paper? The answer we reached, after interviewing ten current Post journalists for this story, is that the paper’s staff generally does not consider the story to be defensible.
“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?” The feature writer added, “This was not drawn up by the ‘Style’ section.”
Employees at “Style” — the paper’s premiere location for long-form storytelling — were confused and displeased to see the piece running on their turf, two Post employees with knowledge of the situation said. Neither Fisher nor Trent works for the “Style” desk, though as newspapers have gotten increasingly focused on digital distribution, the walls between newspaper sections have become more porous.
While the piece failed as a journalistic investigation of the culture of Washington, D.C.’s “media figures,” it succeeded by a different metric: It ensured that Schafer bore the brunt of the criticism in the piece — for example, describing her insensitive interaction in the taxi en route to the party, an incident that occurred outside the presence of any media figures — with minimum organizational exposure to the Post. If it had leaked that the Post had neglected to pursue a story about blackface, or if the women who brought the tip to the Post had taken it to another outlet or simply tweeted about it, who knows what direction the story might have taken.
The story first arrived at the Post via management consultant Lexie Gruber, who, along with her friend Lyric Prince, an artist, had confronted Schafer that night in 2018. Immediately after the event, Prince posted about the exchange on Facebook. Another guest at the party, who also confronted Schafer, soon wrote about it on Medium. Meanwhile, Gruber tried and failed to identify Schafer, who, at the party, had worn a name tag that read “Hello, My Name Is Megyn Kelly.” Nineteen months later, on June 9, Gruber contacted Toles, whom she didn’t know, to ask for help identifying the woman. (Gruber had attended the party as a guest of a guest.) She attached a photo of Schafer from the party. Toles claimed, falsely, not to recognize her.
Without confirmation of the identity of the woman in blackface, Gruber reached out to Margaret Sullivan, the Post’s media columnist. (The story itself notes that Gruber sent an “email seeking Post coverage of the incident.”)
On June 14, Gruber sent Sullivan a message that “suggested the person wearing blackface might be a producer at the Post,” Sullivan told New York. Sullivan forwarded the message (which didn’t name a specific Post employee as the blackface suspect) to a couple of features-department editors, she said, “and pretty much lost track of it after that until it published.” But it didn’t take long for Post reporters to establish that it was not one of their colleagues who had worn blackface — Fisher was on the phone with Schafer by June 15.
Schafer told New York that when she asked Fisher — a reporter who, like Trent, has worked at the Post for more than 20 years — why the story was news, he replied, “We have to do it or they will go to another outlet.” Gruber, too, said that Trent asked if she was speaking to other media outlets.
It isn’t unusual for a reporter working on an as-yet-unreported story to ask sources or subjects if they are talking to other outlets; reporters are competitive and tend to value being first. And the Post denied that Fisher linked the paper’s interest in running the story to the likelihood that the news would otherwise get out elsewhere. Coratti, the Post spokesperson, said Fisher only told Schafer that the two party guests who brought the story to the Post might take it elsewhere in response to a question from Schafer about whether they might do so.
But a second person interviewed by Fisher said, “He expressed his misgivings about the story to me.” This person said that the impression Fisher left was that he had been told to do the story and that it was not his decision.
A third person interviewed by Fisher recounted a similar exchange. “He told me that from a personal perspective, he didn’t think this story necessarily warranted being out there, and that was his personal opinion,” this person said. “He chalked it up to other senior editors at the Post saying it has to go, and he claimed it was out of his hands even though he wrote it.” (“Our editors don’t ‘force’ people to write stories,” Coratti said.)
Serendipitously, when the blackface story ran in print on June 18, it was positioned next to Sullivan’s media column, which was headlined “Bad News Judgment and the Lessons I Learned.” In a photo accompanying the piece in print and online — shot by Michael S. Williamson, who has been a Post staff photographer since 1993 — Gruber and Prince pose in front of a statue of Joan of Arc in Malcolm X Park in Washington. But on June 22, five days after the story’s publication online, and four days after the image was circulated in print, it was removed from the Post’s website without a replacement image or an editor’s note explaining the decision.
“We took it down once we learned that physical threats had been made — we have taken similar measures for the same reason in other instances,” Coratti said.
The photo of Schafer in blackface remained in the body of the article until June 24, when it also disappeared. The Post did not respond to a question about why that picture was removed.
The Post’s editorial guidelines state that “as a matter of editorial policy, we do not grant take-down requests.” While the guidelines allow for the removal of “publicly available personal data” in cases of threats, they don’t suggest that the Post would unpublish a piece of Post editorial work product — a photograph — because it ran with a story that led to threats. Coratti did not answer a question about whether the Post had ever in a similar situation unpublished a news photograph by a staff photographer for which a subject willingly posed. Remarkably, the Post twice violated its own editorial policy in an apparent effort to appease Gruber and Prince: reporting on the incident even though the resulting story violated the Post’s editorial standard about relevance, then removing an editorial component of the story in violation of the Post’s editorial standard about take-down requests.
Gruber told New York she’s been “shocked by the reaction” to the story, which she said has included harassment and threats so severe that she’s acquired security. She said that she’d recently read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson, a book about what happens to those who are dragged on the internet. On June 7, before the Post story and the fallout prompted her to make her social-media accounts private, Gruber tweeted, “I understand the urge to cancel racists. But truth is — we’re ALL racist, that’s the problem. And we all deserve the grace to learn and change. Let’s use these moments to change hearts and minds, not publicly shame.”
Gruber expressed surprise that the reporters directed so much attention to Schafer — and to herself and Prince — instead of the more notable people at the party. “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.”
Toles’s cartoons have continued to run daily, and Coratti said that Toles had not been disciplined by the Post for any of his actions discussed in the story. Any employer would have a hard time justifying professional consequences for an employee’s past private failure to correct a non-employee’s objectionable behavior. But the lack of any managerial consequences for Toles would seem to undermine the newspaper’s case that the story was newsworthy: How can Toles’s failure to promptly order Schafer out of his house be simultaneously so important that it merits feature-length coverage in the paper and not important enough to merit workplace discipline? The story also makes clear that Toles misled both Gruber and a Post reporter — first by telling Gruber that “a lot of people show up who I don’t know, and I don’t recognize the woman you’re inquiring about,” then by telling a reporter that he wasn’t claiming not to recognize Schafer and just meant that he “didn’t recognize any bad intent.”
The Schafer story ran at a time of severe pressure on editorial management at the Post over issues related to diversity and news philosophy. Conflicts between the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, and two reporters — Wesley Lowery, who made high-profile arguments for newspapers to take clearer moral stances in their reporting and has since left the Post for CBS News, and Felicia Sonmez — over issues of objectivity on social media have spilled into public view. As the story about the two-year-old Halloween party was being reported, senior managers at the Post had recently received 32 pages of employees’ stories about racism and discrimination within the company, gathered by the employee union, according to an email reviewed by New York. A Post employee petition demanding changes in hiring and editorial practices drew nearly 500 signatures in 48 hours. Basically, it was the worst possible time for the Post to have a “blackface scandal,” especially one whose frame it did not control.
“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,” said Lowery. “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.”
At the same time as U.S. newspapers face staff pressure, they face pressure from news consumers who are skeptical about their commitment to fairness. A challenge is that “fairness” means different things to different people, and a move toward what Lowery calls “moral clarity” in the news pages will appeal to some readers while alienating others. But one key element of fairness that is shared across competing visions of journalism is the news pages should be used for news, not as a PR shield to protect the newspaper’s business.
As is so often the case, if the Post had simply followed its own published editorial guidance that “fairness includes relevance,” it would have made the right decision and passed on this story. Asked repeatedly to define that phrase, newsroom leadership didn’t respond to New York.