Friday, May 29, 2009

Marc Fisher Leaves the Post (Updated)

Marc Fisher wrote a farewell column today. Like many of you, I am surprised and saddened that one of the D.C. area's greatest independent voices is leaving.

Fisher's entire essay is a must-read (just like many of his columns), but here's the money quote for me:

On the first day I was given this space to play with, the great columnist Mary McGrory summoned me to her office with a note: "Come see me. I have three words for you."

I scurried over and presented myself. Mary looked up from her desk and said, "Three words: Cruelty is important." To do this job right, you must name and blame the bad guys. You must call it as it is. The minute you hold back, your credibility is shot. The second you stop reporting, you're just one more pontificating, pusillanimous pundit." (When my friend and colleague Marjorie Williams launched her column, she too received the gift of three words from Mary: "Subtlety is overrated.")

The beauty of a column is that you can dig up the story, then say it straight: You can expose the cynicism that leaves D.C. school kids worse off at the end of their education than they were at the start, then you can call that system a criminal enterprise. You can reveal the narrow-mindedness that threatens to put mentally retarded people out on the street, and then push until embarrassed officials do the right thing. You can keep hitting the same note until a school principal with a phony doctorate is removed.
Fisher truly excelled at this. He was always honest, occasionally tough but never petty. He told the truth as he saw it, regardless of the pushback he got. And he received attention at the highest levels because politicians knew he had credibility with the public.

From the perspective of Montgomery County politics, Fisher's greatest contribution was his reporting on the dispute over Hillmead Park in Bethesda. The county had purchased a neighboring parcel with a large home on it for addition to the adjacent Hillmead Park. Some wanted to use the home as transitional housing for the homeless. Others wanted to tear it down and use all of the land to expand the park. After a huge uproar pitting neighbors against housing advocates, the issue was resolved by a 5-4 County Council vote to demolish the house. Fisher's work inspired me to write a five-part series demonstrating that subsidized housing in Montgomery County is disproportionately concentrated in black and Latino neighborhoods and is mostly far from Metro stations. Hillmead's residual impact is influencing both incumbent County Council Members and challengers and will affect the competing messages in our 2010 election.

We do not have enough people in public life willing to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. With Fisher's departure, those spare ranks shrink by one.

Update: We hear that Fisher is staying with the Post in a different capacity but he will no longer write a column.