Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt has been in the news lately for soft reporting on the Jack Abramoff scandal. So I thought it was worth mentioning my own run-in with Schmidt, who first became notorious for her slavish devotion to publishing spin from Ken Starr's office during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which leads the website Media Whores Online to nickname her "Steno Sue."
Back in 2002, I wrote an American Prospect Online article on Schmidt's attempts to get two of her critics fired for sending her angry emails:
Andrew Rentschler, an employee of a college in Pennsylvania, assailed Schmidt as having a "fanatical obsession with Clinton," said her work is that "of someone who has sold their soul to the devil," and asked if she was being blackmailed. An associate at a prominent New York City law firm wrote to Schmidt: "You sicken me. One last article filled with lies, distortions and blatant right-wing propaganda."
You get the idea -- the e-mails were, as the associate put it, "highly uncomplimentary," even abusive. But they did not threaten Schmidt in any way. These are the kind of garden-variety angry e-mails people in the political media receive all the time.
But after suffering through increasingly harsh criticism of her coverage of Clinton, Schmidt apparently snapped after receiving the emails, as MWO first reported (the story was then picked up by Jason Cherkis in the Washington City Paper).
According to both Rentschler and the associate, Schmidt researched the domain names the e-mails were sent from and forwarded their e-mails to their employers. While both have avoided repercussions, they are furious about what they regard as unprofessional actions from a journalist.
...What's Schmidt's side of the story? What's the Post's policy on this? I can't tell you. When contacted by phone, an upset-sounding Schmidt said "I don't have anything to say" and then "I'm sorry, I gotta go" before hanging up on me. Calls to Managing Editor Stephen Coll and National Editor Liz Spayd went unreturned, and the assistant to ombudsmen Michael Getler said he had been out of the country and couldn't comment. Spayd, however, told Cherkis that Schmidt has been attacked by a "coordinated campaign" and that "[a]t some point, it can get annoying."
A followup article explored the issue in more detail:
There can no longer be any doubt that Schmidt did send the e-mails in question. After a phone conversation with Getler in which he refused to confirm or deny the allegations, I received an e-mail stating the following:
As I said, The Post views this as an internal matter and is dealing with it that way. I deal with news issues involving material the Post has published. My understanding is that Ms. Schmidt did respond to two e-mails there [sic] were written on the electronic equivalent of letterhead stationery. I'm told that the Post has no formal or written policy on this, and my guess is that it had not come up before. I'm told that Ms. Schmidt has been told that she should not have contacted the e-mailer's employers, and should not do it again, even though there was understanding of her feelings and her desire to let their employers know they were using the names of those organizations to attack her.
In addition, the supervisor of Andrew Rentschler, one of the readers, also confirms that she received an e-mail from Schmidt.
As I argued previously, while it may have been inappropriate for Rentschler and the other MWO reader (an associate at a prominent New York law firm) to send political email from their work accounts, Schmidt's response is unsettling. Vitriolic email from readers is part of the job in the modern media age. Her first responsibility as a reporter is to basic principles of journalism such as serving readers and promoting open debate on issues before the public -- not intimidating her critics into silence.
Moreover, the justification that Getler presents is misleading. What the ombudsman calls the "electronic equivalent of letterhead stationery" used by the two readers -- Rentschler and the associate -- was merely their work e-mail signatures, which were appended to the end of their e-mails. There is nothing about either reader's signature to suggest that their views represent those of an institution.
Post Managing Editor Stephen Coll and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. have failed to return phone calls and e-mails seeking to discuss the way the paper has handled the story. And even Getler, the reader's representative, refuses to recognize this incident as being under his purview.