Washington Times Writer Quits Over "Update"
By Elliott Negin
Elliott Negin is a former AJR managing editor.
Editors at the Washington Times say it was merely a case of updating a late-breaking story. But reporters at the paper maintain it was another example of editors twisting stories for ideological purposes.
Whatever the explanation, the Washington Times is now shopping for a new Supreme Court reporter.
Dawn Ceol resigned October 14 after editors rewrote her front page story on the Clarence Thomas hearings between editions to highlight testimony that Anita Hill is a "fantasizer." Sources say Ceol asked her copyeditor to remove her byline after discovering that Managing Editor Wesley Pruden had replaced her lead with 10 paragraphs without notifying her. When her request was denied, she quit. According to sources at the paper, it was not the first time her copy had been changed in this way. Ceol would not comment on the incident.
The headline on the first-edition piece read: "Thomas accuser lauded, assailed." Ceol's lead reported that the third day of testimony "featured a parade of witnesses on both sides..."
Sources say Ceol filed an article for the paper's second edition that included new material inserted high in the piece, specifically two paragraphs on testimony from John Doggett III. But Pruden, sources say, wanted to give Doggett's testimony much more emphasis.
The second edition's headline was more enticing: "Miss Hill painted as 'fantasizer.' " The first eight paragraphs, six of which appeared on the front page before the jump, now featured Doggett. The new lead read: "An extraordinary Senate Judiciary hearing stretched into the early-morning hours today as senators wrestled with witnesses who painted Anita Hill as a woman who fantasized relationships with men with whom she worked."
The New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today only mentioned Doggett briefly in the middle or at the end of their stories.
Pruden, who had strongly supported Thomas in his column, told WJR he would not discuss how the story was edited. But in an October 16 Washington Post article, he denied that he added the material to Ceol's piece for political reasons. He told the Post he was trying to portray "the early morning drama" and that "certainly the accusers of Anita Hill painted her as a fantasizer." Times National Editor Francis Coombs blames the lack of balance in the second story on "poor coordination" during an extremely tight deadline period. "It was not a question of Wes putting a spin on the story," he told WJR.
But Pruden's new top included three factual errors that made Doggett's testimony seem more credible. The lead sentence erroneously reported that "witnesses" said Hill fantasized relationships. In fact, Doggett was the only witness who made such a statement. Pruden and the line editor also wrongly reported that Doggett had worked with Hill and Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and that Doggett had testified that he was at Yale Law School at the same time as Thomas and Hill. The next day the Times ran a correction for the latter two mistakes.
Pruden told WJR he thought Ceol knew about the changes. "I would presume she had a conversation with her editor," he said. He also said he has always honored reporters' requests to have their bylines removed.
According to a number of past and present Washington Times reporters, however, Pruden and his editors routinely alter articles without consulting them and refuse to remove bylines.
"Pruden is notorious for this," says Glen Garvin, a Times reporter and Central American bureau chief from 1982 to 1989. "It's known around the paper as having your story 'Prudenized.' Very few people have not had the experience."
Ceol's resignation has prompted some Times staffers to talk about starting a union. A few days after Ceol quit, Copyeditor Ginny Tyler posted a "Dear Colleague" letter in the newsroom calling for action. "The immediate goal," she wrote, "would be to reach an agreement between newsroom personnel and management as to when 'editing' stops and editorializing begins [and] to identify...when writers must be informed of changes to their copy and given the opportunity to have their bylines removed." ###