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Priscilla Harsh, a farmer in Smithsburg, Md., braces herself each year for the natural hazards capable of ruining the crops. “You could have the frost, when, you know, the buds freeze. You could have rain when the bees are to be out pollinating and, like this spring, too much [rain] at one time. Then, of course, drought, and then in the fall you always run the chance of getting cold so quickly that the apples freeze on the trees. Then there’s the hail,” says Harsh.
That litany doesn’t even touch on other common farmer-buffeting forces, such as pests, rough market conditions, overzealous environmental regulations, encroachment from urban sprawl, equipment breakdowns, and so forth.
And whenever these conditions strike the Farmer Browns in this region, the Washington Post, like some Tom Joad journal, clears out a generous allotment of column inches to tell about it. Tales of agricultural woe are hot-season classics at the daily, along with features on interns partying and people enjoying a sunny day.
The Post’s “Summertime”: Livin’ is brutish, fish are dead, and the cotton is low.
This year, the paper has rounded up the region’s suffering farmers with characteristic dispatch. Last Thursday, staff writer Ian Shapira clocked in with a piece headlined “The Plight of the Dairy Farmer: Rains, Low Sale Prices Milking Fauquier Producers Dry.” Weeks earlier, the Post published a couple of additional accounts: “Waterlogged and Weary: Rain Hampers Local Hay, Corn Production” and “Farmers Trying to Weather Moisture: Heavy Rains Delay or Damage Crops and Bring Pests.” And also: “Farmers Struggle to Weather the Rain: Most Are Weeks Behind Schedule.”
There’s surely more to come: Summer, after all, is only halfway done.
The preoccupation with farmers’ troubles is a top-down thing at the Post. “I’m interested in the weather, period,” says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie. “I’m old-fashioned that way. It’s one of the biggest factors in people’s lives.” In recent years, notes Downie, the weather has been extreme, ranging from drought to excessive rain. “Farmers are among the people we seek out to see whose lives are impacted.”
Somehow, the portraits of crop failure always end up sounding the same. Post writers are fond of positioning the beleaguered farmer on the cusp of his plot, staringwell, actually, let the Post speak for itself:
“Jimmy Messick’s fields look dismal to a dairy farmer in midsummer,” reads Shapira’s July 24 piece.
“Cornstalks are barely ankle-high when they should be towering six feet. Barley stalks have been decapitated by whipping hail storms. Huge gashes are torn into the soil where a planting machine got stuck on the putty-like land.”
And here’s staff writer Sabrina Jones in a July 3 piece: “Ninth-generation farmer Philip Jones surveyed his corn, barley and wheat crops last week while rambling over rocky roads in western Howard County in a mud-splattered truck. Under clear blue skies and a blazing noontime sun, he calculated the damage from weeks of incessant rain.
“Hay that should have been harvested weeks ago was still in the fields at his 425-acre Sykesville farm. Some stalks of barley, which can grow to three feet tall, lay on the ground, pummeled by downpours. Slugs, which thrive in wet weather, had infested portions of his corn.”
There’s just no hope.
This year’s too-much-rain stories read a lot like last year’s too-little-rain stories. That 2002 collection included an extensive September piece documenting the “oppressive heat and parched fields” that “could be the final blow” for some regional farmers. Before that, the paper focused on the troubles of corn farmers. Another piece exposed those of turf farmers. Another spoke of farmers seeking second jobs. Another spoke of farmers longing for rain. (The paper did manage to sneak in a piece about the good fortunes of area wineries, which prosper in dry conditions.)
Combined with all the drought stories of the late ’90s, the parched-earth campaign of recent years signals that ag stories need some heavy crop rotation. Like murders in the District and really cool Web sites, the farmer under siege from wind, rain, and sun is no longer news. It’s nature.
Fat, juicy ears of corn; plump raspberries; big, colorful peaches; farmers carrying cash to the bank in wheelbarrowsnow that’s news. And according to folks out in the fields, it’s happening in the Washington exurbs, even as the Post has folks convinced that farmers are inspecting their crops in kayaks. For instance, Harsh’s Clopper Orchards is reporting “a nice crop of Redhaven peaches,” Harsh says. And Don Schwartz, an agricultural-extension agent in Washington County, Md., says, “We do have a crop and…farmers are not looking at least at a disaster.”
Get a bureau guy out there right away!
Post Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, however, isn’t about to embrace the agricultural paradigm shift that years of incessant hardship demand. “There’s never been a discussion of whether we need to have a higher standard for farm stories,” says Armao. “If it’s going on, if it’s impacting people’s lives, to my mind it deserves mention in the Washington Post.”
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OK, but the Post has already flirted with such a shift in previous coverage. In 2000, following years of drought, the paper wrote about farmers celebrating good weather and a plentiful harvest. The July 2000 article pointed to a bountiful barley harvest as well as good news on the fruit-and-vegetable front.
Three weeks later, the paper was back on the plight beat. Sure, the Maryland corn crop was good, said the story, but prices for the staple had slid amid the bounty: “Prices are the lowest they’ve been in years, and this year’s harvest, good though it may be, may let many farmers only break even. Some may even be forced to find a second job, somehow convert the farm into something more profitable, or sell their land to the developers whose houses continue to replace pastures, barns and silos across the state.”
Now that’s a Post ag story.
He Never Told a Lie
No matter which writing expert you consultStrunk & White, H.W. Fowler, William Safireone strong word always beats a string of verbiage. That principle of prose style, however, doesn’t drive the Post’s coverage of the Bush administration.
On Sunday, White House reporters Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote a great story about National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s involvement in selling the war against Iraq. This key administration official, the reporters wrote, made statements at odds with recently revealed factsespecially regarding Iraq’s weapons capabilities.
Those revelations, they wrote, raise one of two possibilities: “Either she missed or overlooked numerous warnings from intelligence agencies seeking to put caveats on claims about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, or she made public claims that she knew to be false,” the story reads (emphasis added).
Hard-hitting stuff. But it might have hit even harder if it hadn’t used nine words where one would do: If Rice didn’t overlook the warnings, then she lied.
“I feel like [‘lie’ is] a particularly aggressive and loaded and judgmental word,” says Post national editor Liz Spayd.
It’s also the accurate word. The language the Post did use tracks almost exactly with the definition of “lie” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “to make a statement that one knows is false…”
Most media outlets shy away at all costs from using “lie.” “Maybe you sort of get trained to think in more polite terms,” says Milbank.
If someone says something that directly conflicts with the facts, it’s possible that the person could be delusional or misinformed. The safe approach is to let some critic or a political opponent do the work of speaking up to dispute the assertion.
Some Posties do shun the third-party approach. Milbank, in particular, has done admirable work in challenging the White House when it makes a claim that’s contrary to established facts. Last October, he wrote a celebrated piece cataloguing three “dubious, if not wrong” statements that Bush made in advancing his case for war. “As Bush leads the nation toward a confrontation with Iraq and his party into battle in midterm elections, his rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy in recent weeks,” wrote Milbank.
And on July 15, Dana Priest and Milbank wrote that President Bush’s “assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring…”
In Postspeak, that would qualify as a “roundabout, indirect, or lengthy way of expressing something….”*
*Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, p. 267.
Ombudsman for the InTowner?
InTowner Publisher and Managing Editor P.L. Wolff says his publication is merely a community newspaper that isn’t bound by the same ethical standards that regulate the New York Times. So Wolff has no qualms about placing a real-estate agent on the masthead or assigning a local historic-preservation consultant to cover, um, historic preservation.
But Wolff concedes that the lead story in his July edition should have carried a self-disclosure or two. The piece, titled “‘Hoopin’ in the Hood’: A Neighborhood Reunion in Adams Morgan Welcomes All,” promoted an all-day basketball tournament that was to be held July 12 at Walter Pierce Park. At the end of the story, interested parties were asked to call a number for further information. That number connected you directly with the event’s organizer, Katie Daviswho also happened to double as the story’s author. So much for objective news at the InTowner.
“Are we looking for a scandal here?” says Wolff. “Maybe there are bigger fish to fry than the failure to mention somebody’s name in some context. It probably was an oversight.”
Motion to Suppress
You don’t have to be a careful reader of the Washington Times to determine how the paper feels about homosexuality. When it covers the issue of gay marriage, for instance, it demeans the whole notion through punctuation, calling it gay “marriage.”
Elsewhere, the Times edits homosexuality out of existence. Last Friday, the Times published an obit reporting that Bryant Snapp, 36, the Post’s editorial-page copy chief, had died in a tragic car accident near Toledo, Wash. It went on to mention that “two others also were killed” in the crash.
Since the Times apparently didn’t have room to elaborate on these “other” deaths, allow Dept. of Media to pick up the slack: One was David K. Ringstrom, 49, a Seattle landscape architect.
The other was Snapp’s 45-year-old companion, David Hancock. Like Snapp, Hancock was a resident of Takoma Park, and the two held a commitment ceremony in Honolulu last year. Snapp was a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association as well as the American Copy Editors Society. Details such as those found their way into the Post’s obit, but the Times chose to leave Hancock and other sexuality clues out of the Snapp obit.
“There’s no specific policy to include or omit that information,” says Times spokesperson Melissa Hopkins. “The story in the obit really just stands for itself.”
A couple of Dept. of Media readers wondered whether John Lector, featured in our last column, was a real prospective reader of the Post’s Express newspaper or a caricature of such a reader. He was the latter. Erik Wemple