The Washington Post and Journalism 101

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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Critics of journalism often cite bias as the reason they don’t trust the media. But just as often it comes down to simple incompetence. Many journalists frankly suck at their jobs.

On June 19, The Washington Post ran a front-page, above-the-fold story about Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. Sullivan has just been canned by UVA, a move that has caused an uproar on campus.

After reading the entire Post piece, by reporters Daniel de Vise and Anita Kumar, there are certain things I don’t know.

Who is Teresa Sullivan and how did she get to UVA?

What was she asked to do?

Did she fail or succeed in doing that?

Why was she ousted?

Why are the students and faculty angry?

Are all the students angry, or just a small percentage?

I really wish the editors of The Washington Post could understand how frustrating it was to read this story. I have relatives and friends who went to the University of Virginia, and for the past few days I have been hearing about Sullivan’s ouster. But I was busy with other things, and didn’t pay close attention. I got up this morning, fetched the paper, and saw the huge layout of the UVA story. I thought, awesome! Now I can find out what this is all about. I started reading: “A week of chaos set off by the removal of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan led to a showdown Monday on the historic Grounds between the ousted leader and the governing board that took her job.” Man alive, this is gonna be some good drama here. Let me have it.

I read the next paragraph, which described the 2,000 demonstrators that support Sullivan. I kept going. De Vise and Kumar quote Sullivan, who says she “did not cause this reaction in the last 10 days.”

So what did cause the reaction?

“Leadership of Virginia’s public flagship seemed to hang in limbo as the board deliberated for several hours into the night, mulling potential candidates for interim president.”

Why was Teresa Sullivan fired? What was she asked to do?

How many students go to UVA?

I get to where the story trails off before continuing to page A6, and I still don’t know. I know that Teresa Sullivan has been driven out, that the students are angry about it, and that she has the support of some of UVA’s board members.

What did she do wrong? What did they want her to do that she failed to do?

Who is Teresa Sullivan?

Page A6: “In public remarks Monday, the leader of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, sought a resolute but contrite tone. She expressed regret — not for removing Sullivan, but for how the transition was executed.”

Please, God. I am interested in this story. I want to get swept up in it. Please. Just tell me who Teresa Sullivan is and why she was fired. Please.

The Board stands by its decision. But former president John T. Casteen supports Sullivan. He doesn’t say why she was fired.

Maybe I’ll just check the Internet.

I am 20 paragraphs into the story when I learn that the board pressed Sullivan to make “deep, top-down cuts” to the university, “potentially eroding the university’s portfolio of core programs.”

Why did the university want the cuts? Is UVA having budget problems? If it is, why?

And did the university in fact ask Sullivan to make the cuts? Post “reporters” De Vise and Kumar quote Sullivan on why she was fired, but no one else. Is what she says accurate?

“A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university,” Sullivan says. “Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.”

What programs does UVA want to cut?

Is UVA having a budget problem? It’s a famous school — how is that possible?

Maybe I’ll call my brother. He went to UVA.

The story concludes: “Sullivan’s ouster has taken an incalculable toll, according to [board leader Helen] Dragas and others, in terms of potential for loss of donors, faculty defections and censure from higher education leaders. The action has spawned more than a dozen letters of protest and no-confidence votes from various campus constituencies.”

Forty years after Watergate, The Washington Post has run, on its front page, a story that would get returned if one of my high school journalism students submitted it.

I threw the paper away and spotted my neighbor outside. Hey, I think she went to UVA. I opened the door.

“Hey — who is Teresa Sullivan and why was she fired?”

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.