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Washington, D.C., has a fitting reputation as one of the most fertile municipal newsbeds in the country. Even now that Marion Barry’s gloriously newsworthy reign has ended, a desultory till of the ground ‘neath local officialdumb will yield a bumper crop of perdition and profligacy, along with those hardy District perennials, mis- and malfeasance.
For decades, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the Washington City Paper have gorged themselves on the low-hanging, constantly rotting fruit of local governance: See the District developer just happening to show up at the mayor’s house with free building supplies and the labor to go with it; watch the department head who has a well-paid employee guarding her car; notice the police department frittering away hard-earned funds on nothing in particular while the roof caves in on the station house. And while readers complain bitterly about the chronic negativity of local print outlets, they seem to dig the dirt. Good-news ghettos like the Post’s District Weekly flutter to the ground as the readers rip open Metro in search of another harvest of D.C. idiocy.
But what, really, does all of this rigorous Fourth Estate oversight add up to? Lots of ballsy headlines, some chatter on the street, and the delightful specter of politicians scrambling to cover their asses and find higher ground in a familiar next-day dance.
All of that is generally followed by a whole lot of not much.
After riding out a few bad days in the press, nobody loses his job, nobody goes to jail, and nothing fundamentally changes. The District is a perfectly tuned, hermetic ecosystem where dysfunction migrates but never goes away. It says a lot about the way that government does, or doesn’t, run the city, but it may also say some things about the peanut gallery of the Fourth Estate as well.
Doubt it? A splendid tutorial on the District’s amazing lack of consequence appeared last Monday when the Post’s Michael Powell reported that at least 30 D.C. Water and Sewer Authority workers had enjoyed bribes in exchange for performing plumbing repairs on private homes. It was exactly the same story he had reported way back on Dec. 19, 1997. That original story was full of eyewitness accounts and eye-popping details, but 15 months later, 15 suspects caught on tapeincluding four supervisorshad not been arrested or charged. And a mountain of evidence showing that many people in other departments had backdated permits and inspection stickers is still lying in a heap. Of the nine others who were actually indicted, five pleaded guilty, and three are still awaiting trial. Pretty small potatoes for a police and media investigation that all but gift-wrapped a package for the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“I never thought that I would be circling back a year later and saying that there are 15 other guys who probably should and could be behind bars who aren’t and instead are living nicely in retirement with city pensions,” Powell says. “I think it’s one of the continuing puzzlements about covering the city. There is a minuet to the press and government which doesn’t seem to work here.”
In his coverage and conversation, Powell mentioned that then-U.S. Attorney Eric Holder may have been part of the reason that even the greasiest municipal malefactors managed to slide around punishment. But Powell’s misgivings, printed or otherwise, were nothing compared with all the holy water the Post spilled in canonizing the overrated and underachieving U.S. Attorney. Had the Post applied the same reporting rigor to Holder that it did to some of his nontargets, it would have found that he was so eager to gild his future by busting Barry that he had little interest in rending the fabric of rampant malfeasance during his tenure. But grinding, tough-minded coverage of important news sources is an entirely differentmuch less glamorousmatter than taking down all the little creeps on the take.
Sometimes, even when the approach is broad and systemic, the best intentions and best reporters end up displacing dysfunction instead of rubbing it out. Katherine Boo’s recent two-day series on the privatized hellholes that house D.C.’s mentally retarded adultsand the profiteers who run themwas a monumental writing and reporting achievement full of barely modulated journalistic rage. (Boo is a City Paper alumna and friend, but all reporters froth over her work, not just those who know her.) The Post had let Boo work a story about the miserable failure of deinstitutionalization long enough to gather the kind of horrifying details that can’t be dismissed.
But buried within her first-day story, there was a paragraph about oversight failures that noted, “Department of Health officials say that in 1997, they detailed most of the inspectors of homes for the healthy mentally retarded to child-care centers, following a Post report about life-threatening conditions in those facilities.”
Boo wrote that story, as well.
“It was incredibly depressing. I received a [Freedom of Information Act request] that made it clear that part of the reason that no one was monitoring the retarded adults was that they moved people after I wrote the [first story] about child-care centers. It felt like zero-sum journalism. Something else was broken so that something else could be fixed,” she says.
Newspaper oversight is a very blunt instrument. While the whiff of a big investigation can send politicians and bureaucrats scurrying, they don’t always charge in productive directions. In fact, D.C. officials seemed more intent on spinning Boo’s story than addressing its findings. Once they got word that Boo was on the case, they sent hordes of monitors and inspectors to homes where she had already found problems. Lord knows where those people were drawn from.
D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose says that the cycle of bad headlines and concomitant political response is as old as both professions. “You can go back to [crusading turn-of-the-century journalist] Ida Tarbell, and see how a bright young reporter like Katherine Boo with the kind of resources provided by the Post can do great things….I would hope that the council is moving into a new era in which much of the oversight will come from the people who work here,” Ambrose says.
Councilmember Kathy Patterson says she was sickened when she read Boo’s stories.
“I don’t know how long I can be associated with a government that kills and maims,” she says. “It’s even more troubling because when things like this happen, there is no clear accountability. We have such a convoluted mess of jurisdictions that it is tough to know who to blame.”
And when a reporter doesn’t have the luxury of time, the results can be counterproductive. It was déjà-vu-all-over-again, again, when Cheryl Thompson recently broke a story that suggested that a third of the District’s halfway-house residents376 men and womenwere on the lam. The Post had reported the same story back in 1994, although it was just one in four residents who were in an absconding mood back then. Nothing like a little backward momentum to keep reporters hopping.
And because the Department of Corrections couldn’t get it together enough to provide decent, reliable data or come up with a response, Thompson’s stories ended up being the source of unseemly Chicken-Littling on the Post’s editorial page, condemning a system in which escaped felons are free to “rape, kidnap and murder some more.”
The underlying truth was a lot less frightening, although still newsworthy. People “escape” halfway houses every dayfor work. And 77 of those allegedly murderous escapees were back within 24 hours, according to a joint follow-up study done by the Justice Policy Institute and the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services in response to the story.
People who end up in District halfway houses fall into two groups: Pretrial detainees, who enjoy the presumption of innocence, and early releases from jail, who are headed to a street near you anyway. The study claims that 90 percent of halfway-house residents are there because of nonviolent acts. None of the escapees murdered anybody, although 20 perpetrated other crimesone armed robbery and a sexual assault, plus various petty transgressions. It’s not a pretty picture, but it isn’t the cesspool of at-large mayhem that the Post opined about, either. Nonetheless, hearings were convened and bureaucrats were called on the carpet.
Jason Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute says the Post could and should have done better.
“We told them that their data was bad, but they just keep writing what they found back in January. And I think we all know from experience that media hype can drive bad public policy,” he says.
But as a result of the headlines, two bills may end up before the D.C. Council. Councilmember Carol Schwartz’s bill would reportedly lower the bar for keeping pretrial defendants in jail. And Councilmember Vincent Orange is reportedly considering a bill that would make it impossible to send anyone convicted of a violent crime to a halfway house. Sounds sort of comforting, unless, of course, you live in a place that already incarcerates more people than any other place in the country. A place like D.C.
On March 10, Ziedenberg appeared before the council to report his findings and suggested that the headlines were pushing the council into finding more ways to put more people in jail. “[Councilmember Ambrose] yelled at us and said, ‘Do you really think that the city council is legislating based on articles in the Washington Post?’ She has to say that, but you’d better believe they are legislating based on what they read in the paper. And what they read in the paper is not the whole story, or even close to it,” Ziedenberg says.
Ambrose has had a few days to consider her response and is of a different mind now: “The picture is way more complicated than it appeared in the Post. They didn’t make distinctions that needed to be made, and there are complications that weren’t considered.”
Jackie Jones, assistant city editor at the Post, worked on the halfway-house stories. She stands behind the reporting and the reporter.
“In one case, a guy who is facing charges for murder walked away and was gone for a stretch of time before he was returned to the halfway house. I bet the victim’s family doesn’t think it’s alarmist for the Washington Post to have noted that such a situation exists….I would say that any time someone who is suspected or convicted of serious crimes is turned loose or allowed into the community, it’s a legitimate cause for concern,” she says.
But a paper can only play the sniper so much, parachuting in, taking out the hard target, and then getting the hell out of Dodge. At a certain point, for a story to stay written, it has to stay put.
“In some senses, the media and the council work hand in hand. One picks up where the other leaves off. I think the Post has done some good work,” says Patterson, a former reporter. “But they lack consistency. They don’t really have a lot of beat reporters on city government like you would find in Chicago or Kansas City. It ends up in spotty coverage….Nobody covers [the Department of Human Services] in an ongoing way, so that when Kate Boo does those superb stories, where is the beat reporter that’s going to come back behind and find out the status of the investigation?”
Managing Editor Steve Coll thinks his paper does a good job of coming behind itself: “We have learned on these stories and others that you have to come back and come back again.”
Mash Note Coll is wishing he had been a bit more chaste in expressing his ardor about the Post’s impeachment coverage. His perfervid memo to the newsroom compared the impeachment reporting to a war-zone foray Post reporter Howard Schneider had made into Baghdad when it seemed as if the bombs could fly at any second. The missive earned him a byline in the April issue of Harper’s. In the reprinted memo, he compared the Style section to the Count Basie Orchestra, lauding its “deep composition and inspired soloing.” Coll dubbed White House correspondent Peter Baker “the human ledeall,” suggesting, “[Y]ou would be astonished by his stamina and his ability to write sixty-element seamless inches in sixty minutes night after night if he were not, in fact, bionic.” And the Hill coverage was “one strange, spontaneous cauldron of old-fashioned fedora-invoking street reporting.” Whew. Someone get that editor an editor. Coll said being caught mid-cartwheel by Harper’s left him “chagrined”:
“As to the pom-poms charge, it’s true, I am an exuberant person prone to outbursts of enthusiasm, but the experience of having internal memos routinely circulated outside the building has certainly made me less so, at least in writing.”
Hed of the Month Club “Women Taking the Long Way Home: Family Errands Often Complicate Drive for Area’s Female Commuters”Front pagefront pagePost story by Alan Sipress on March 3. David Carr
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