Washington Post chairman Donald E. Graham, a former police officer, said on Thursday at the company’s annual meeting that he had no comment on the White House hosting a rapper who had performed a song praising a convicted cop-killer, Joanne Chesimard, who escaped prison and fled to Cuba.
“Thank you for informing me of something that I didn’t know,” he replied. “The question is an interesting one.” But he had no comment.
For someone in the news business, it was an embarrassing moment. A story about the rapper’s White House performance was on the front page of the “Style” section in papers handed out to shareholders and others attending the meeting.
AIM, a Post shareholder, questioned Graham about various news-related matters.
Further embarrassment ensued when Graham essentially took the Fifth and refused to name the members of the House and Senate he has personally lobbied in order to stave off proposed federal regulations that will cut into the profits of a Washington Post Company subsidiary, Kaplan. “No,” Graham curtly responded, when asked if he would name members that he has met with.
Graham acknowledged that the Post has been hurt financially by recent congressional hearings and negative publicity over the controversial business practices of Kaplan and other for-profit colleges and universities, which are accused of ripping off students, many of them disadvantaged and poor. Kaplan “has provided the handsome profits that have helped to cover this newspaper’s operating losses,” admitted Post reporter Steven Pearlstein in an extraordinary August 11, 2010, column. “Although we in the Post newsroom have nothing to do with Kaplan, we’ve all benefited from its financial success.”
Hence, the need for Graham to personally lobby for the survival of his company.
The rapper controversy had been the subject of news reports on the preceding day, although the Post itself, in that front-page “Style” section story on the day of the annual meeting, played down the controversy, attributing the “noise” over the appearance to Fox News and conservatives such as Sarah Palin.
“My duties as chairman of this company at The Washington Post annual meeting of shareholders are grave and serious and many but they do not include commenting on the appropriateness of the invitation of entertainers at the White House,” said Graham. However, he said he would ask the editors of the paper to look into it.
Graham was a patrolman with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department from January 1969 to June 1970, his bio notes. Outrage over White House support for the rapper known as Common has come from law enforcement in general but especially from New Jersey police officers who still remember what happened to Trooper Werner Foerster back in 1973. He was 34-years-old and had two children.
The FBI’s “Wanted” poster for Chesimard says, “On May 2, 1973, Chesimard, who was part of a revolutionary activist organization known as the Black Liberation Army, and two accomplices were stopped for a motor vehicle violation on the New Jersey Turnpike by two troopers with the New Jersey State Police. At the time, Chesimard was wanted for her involvement in several felonies, including bank robbery. Chesimard and her accomplices opened fire on the troopers, seemingly without provocation. One trooper was wounded and the other [Foerster] was shot and killed execution-style at point-blank range. Chesimard fled the scene, but was subsequently apprehended.”
The Black Liberation Army was an outgrowth of the Black Panthers, a black militant group that described police officers as “Pigs” and called for their deaths, supposedly in “self-defense.” A tribute to Foerster notes, “The BLA was responsible for the murders of more than 10 police officers around the country. They were also responsible for violent attacks around the country that left many police officers wounded.”
“In 1977, Chesimard was found guilty of first degree murder, assault and battery of a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery,” notes the FBI. “She was sentenced to life in prison. On November 2, 1979, Chesimard escaped from prison and lived underground before being located in Cuba in 1984. She is thought to currently still be living in Cuba.”
The FBI is offering $1 million for information leading to the apprehension of Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur. Members of the Weather Underground, a group that included Obama associates Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, assisted in the escape.
The New Jersey State Troopers Non Commissioned Officers Association has asked that Chesimard and other fugitives be returned to the U.S. before President Obama normalizes relations with Cuba. White House sponsorship of Common would seem to suggest that justice for Chesimard is not high on the Obama Administration’s priority list.
The Post story about the rapper said, “Critics were swift to pinpoint lyrics that support such controversial figures as Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army leader who was convicted in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper. On the other side, Common’s defenders asserted that such songs are civic-minded protests of corrupt law enforcement and unjust legal proceedings.”
Asked to explain this printed defense of a tribute to a cop-killer, Graham again declined to get involved. “We are obviously not going to comment on any given news story in today’s paper…”
The lyrics of Common’s “A Song For Assata” include:
In the Spirit of God.
In the Spirit of the Ancestors.
In the Spirit of the Black Panthers.
In the Spirit of Assata Shakur.
We make this movement towards freedom for all those who have been oppressed, and all those in the struggle.
Graham also clammed up and refused to say which members of the U.S. Senate and House he had personally lobbied in order to forestall federal regulations affecting Kaplan, a Post subsidiary and for-profit education business that had been contributing operating funds to the money- and circulation-losing Post newspaper. Kaplan has been under fire, even from the Obama Administration and liberal Democrats, for allegedly conning students into taking out federal loans for a worthless education or non-existent jobs. These federal payments had made Kaplan into a very profitable business.
Graham told the shareholders, including representatives of financial firms with huge stakes in the company, that Kaplan had changed its ways, making sure that its student clients don’t get saddled with too much debt for jobs that do not exist.
Graham confirmed that he personally lobbied members of Congress on the matter and would do what he can to protect a company business in this “unusual situation” of federal scrutiny.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to defeat the proposed regulations.
Roll Call had reported on May 2 that, “…Kaplan University, which is owned by the Washington Post Co., paid $110,00 to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in the first quarter of this year to lobby on the issue and $90,000 to Ogilvy Government Relations. Vic Fazio, a former Democratic Congressman from California, is a leader on the Akin Gump team, while GOP operative Wayne Berman leads the Ogilvy effort. The Washington Post Co. has also retained the Democratically connected firm of Elmendorf Ryan to make its case.”
The publication said that the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which includes Kaplan and represents for-profit schools, “spent $247,000 in federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year, more than double what it spent for the same period of 2010. As part of its lobbying effort the group has retained the Podesta Group, led by Tony Podesta, an influential Democratic fundraiser.”
Graham did not dispute these figures when they were read to him and other shareholders at the annual meeting. Instead, he launched into a defense of his personal lobbying.
He said, “You have cited all our lobbying expenditures [which] by law are made public and have been and we will continue to do that. This is an unusual situation for this company but an important business of ours is under challenge and we wish to be heard. And the way the debates are conducted in Washington, you are entirely right. I have gone to Capitol Hill and I will go anywhere to talk to people… I think that the regulations proposed by the Department of Education are misguided and I think they will have negative consequences not merely on our company but on students in the United States for years and years to come. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make the case personally to anyone who will listen. I have done so as a representative of shareholders of our company and I will continue to do so whenever given the chance. We will of course file accurate reports documenting every dollar we spend on lobbying as required by law.”
In regard to another controversial topic in journalism these days—the prospect of federal bailouts and subsidies—Graham said that he “couldn’t disagree more” with Post board member Lee C. Bollinger and Post at large vice president Leonard Downie Jr., who have advocated taxpayer payments to the news business.
Bollinger, president of Columbia University, wrote a Wall Street Journal column, “Journalism Needs Government Help,” proposing a federally-supported “American World Service” that he compared to Al-Jazeera, funded by the regime in Qatar in the Middle East.
Bollinger was re-elected to the Post company board at the annual meeting.
Downie co-authored, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” proposing a federal fund for reporting the news.
While rejecting these forms of federal interference and support, Graham claimed ignorance about a Daily Caller report by Matthew Boyle that The Washington Post Company has received Obamacare Early Retiree Reinsurance Program funding of $573,217 in taxpayer subsidies. The money was said to be for health benefits for early retirees from the company. Hal S. Jones, senior vice president for finance and chief financial officer of The Washington Post Company, said he was aware of the report but couldn’t supply any details.
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn has said that the Post and CBS, another company getting the federal subsidies, should have to disclose that “they are subsidiaries of the Obama Administration.”
But it is the Post battle with the Obama Administration over federal regulations on Kaplan that provided most of the fireworks at the meeting, as representatives of stockholders repeatedly asked about the future of the company if profits get further squeezed. One financial expert wondered if the Post would try to sell Kaplan in order to avoid further losses.
In a bizarre twist involving a company that claims First Amendment protections for itself, AIM was originally informed that the press would be banned from the stockholders meeting, except for Post reporters with stock in the company. Typically, Post business reporters focus on good news from such a meeting, ignoring questions to the top brass that go unanswered or dismissed. However, Matthew Boyle of The Daily Caller was subsequently allowed in to cover the proceedings, on the condition that no recording devices be used to produce videos or audios of what Graham actually said at the event.
Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism, and can be contacted at email@example.com.