The book on Jose Antonio Vargas from inside the Washington Post comes in two versions: he was a talented, hardworking reporter who delved into underreported subjects, such as DC’s AIDS epidemic; or he was a relentless hustler, unafraid to use his identity as a gay minority to advance his career.
There’s a bit of truth to both views, but contrary to the sliming he has taken from some editors in the last week, including Marcus Brauchli, his journalism was always solid, and he never required special handholding or oversight, according to editors in Style, Outlook, and Metro who worked with him.
When Vargas first explored the idea of writing a personal exposé about spending his life hiding the fact that he’s an undocumented immigrant, he went first to Katharine Weymouth, publisher of the Washington Post.
Vargas and Weymouth had established a personal rapport while Vargas was reporting and writing for the Post from 2004 to 2009. Vargas had also become close to Weymouth’s uncle, Don Graham, chairman of the Post Company; Vargas was a regular at lunches Graham held with Post staff.Weymouth encouraged Vargas to write his story, and suggested he follow up with Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor.
That exchange, which took place in March, led to discussions with the Post’s editorial page, but editors there determined that Vargas’s saga would require more space than the op-ed page could handle. The project went to the Sunday Outlook section.
What followed was three months of writing and editing between Vargas and Outlook editors. Vargas describes in detail how he arrived in the United States from the Philippines when he was 12, how he received an education and rose through the ranks of journalism and won part of a Pulitzer Prize at the Post—all the while living and working without legal status.
But when the 4,000-word essay was ready for publication, Brauchli killed it. Vargas took the piece to the New York Times, which grabbed it and published it in Sunday’s magazine.
Brauchli has been less than transparent about the demise of the article at the Post.
“We made a judgment not to publish it,” Brauchli told Washingtonian, “but are glad for Jose that he found a good venue for his very interesting account.”
Brauchli did insinuate that Vargas’s reporting at the Post required special handling while at the Post. Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s essay on the matter on Sunday echoed that sentiment: “Editors said that he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.”
To the contrary, editors who dealt with Vargas during his time at the Post say he worked hard and rarely made errors in reporting. He did, though, earn a reputation in the eyes of the same editors and many reporters as a relentless self-promoter as his success expanded beyond the newsroom. His series on AIDS in DC was made into a well-regarded documentary.
Nevertheless, his immigration essay got special attention.
Outlook editor Carlos Lozada worked with early drafts of the story extensively, and later brought deputy Ann Gerhart on to work on it as well. Gerhart had worked with Vargas as an editor for the Virginia Tech massacre coverage that won the Pulitzer, but she knew his essay would have to withstand tremendous scrutiny. She decided to re-report Vargas’s account.
Julie Tate, the Post’s premier fact checker and researcher, also worked on the piece.
By the time it was teed up for publication, on Monday night before it was to go to press, Vargas’s essay had been relentlessly edited, and Post lawyers had reviewed it, too. In the piece, Vargas reveals that Post editor Peter Perl had known of his status and kept it secret. If, in fact, the Post was legally liable for hiring Vargas, knowing he was an illegal immigrant, the place where the revelation was published wouldn’t really matter.
So why did Brauchli spike such a groundbreaking piece?
The one thread that’s emerged so far, that editors became suspicious when they discovered Vargas had omitted a detail about obtaining a second driver’s license with false documentation, doesn’t appear to be the whole story. Newsroom sources say Brauchli and his deputy, Liz Spayd, were uncomfortable with the fact that Vargas was using his essay to advocate for immigration reform and to launch a new nonprofit organization to promote his point of view.
Outlook editors argued that their section was the perfect place for such advocacy. Wasn’t Outlook designed to publish compelling articles that present surprising points of view?
Brauchli made a gut decision to kill a piece that had been months in gestation. He could have waited and considered the matter; there was no time pressure. He acted quickly and willfully. And never explained his rationale.
He didn’t consult with Weymouth, who brought the Vargas story to him months before, but he did make his case for spiking the piece after the fact.
Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter