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A free press was not among the items on the table when the District government was nuked by Congress, but it’s disappearing all the same.
The control board meets, deliberates, and decides, all behind four layers of security at its headquarters on Thomas Circle. The Joint Chiefs who run the city’s schools issue fiats without so much as a nod toward the public component of public education. And we have a police chief sitting on vital reports detailing departmental corruption and malfeasance. On the current municipal landscape, open meetings and the public’s right to them are treated with the same care and concern shown by your average banana republic despot, and for much the same reason. Since the folks who now run the city don’t stand for election, they feel no compulsion to brief reporters when they make decisions. Open-meeting laws don’t even appear on the secret agendasthe smoky back room of yore is now the a priori method of doing business, and nasty public debates over big issues die behind shuttered doors. When is the last time you saw a control board debate on your evening news?
Washington Post Metro reporter Vernon Loeb says that while the Barry administration was never a model of openness, the new regime takes obfuscation to another level: “I think [American University professor] Jamin Raskin is right when he says that we gave up democracy for efficiency. There is a tremendous amount of secrecy in government right now. It’s hard to get the simplest information out of them.”
Stripped of the people’s right to know, reporters are left to work the hallways and alleys in pursuit of what’s going on in government. The Post took matters into its own hands last Wednesday, when Michael Powell and Sari Horwitz obtained a copy of Booz-Allen & Hamilton’s report on the homicide unit and wrote a detailed story about mismanagement in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Before they went around him, Soulsby told the Post the report was “still a work in progress.” (Sort of like your administration, chief.)
If the Post hadn’t crawled over the stonewall, the control board would have been able to assign a bunch of highly paid consultants to get to the bottom of MPD overtime, slacking, and missing files for their purposes and their purposes only. Citizens wouldn’t have seen anything but the ($3 million) bill.
Sgt. Joe Gentile is the spokesperson for the department. Gentile is consistently helpful in taking reporters’ calls, but he says the Booz-Allen report wasn’t his problem: “That report was commissioned by the control board, so they are the custodians of that record.” Not anymore. Information, and good news organizations, will always find a way. (The control board did not return calls regarding what constitutes public information. That’s probably private, too.)
Still tucked under the chief’s very ample butt is a U.S. Justice Department document that reportedly, and we’re just guessing here, shows that the homicide department ignored a set of very specific leads in over 100 cases. Imagine that your kin was among those unsolved murders. Now imagine that even though somebody knows something about who killed your loved one, they’re not telling because “these reports contain actual investigatory information about ongoing criminal cases,” as Gentile puts it, quoting Soulsby.
Soulsby kicked off the new disinformation age a few weeks ago by forcing all homicide detectives to sign a “security agreement” barring them from issuing any information concerning any murder without first getting clearance. Gentile again: “All they are being asked to do is to make sure information is not released which could jeopardize an investigation or compromise a [subsequent] trial.”
The new routine is merely a better execution of Barry’s time-honored tradition of rope-a-doping the media. Anybody who covered Barry’s city hall can tell you that every one of his administrations, including the current one, pursued a fundamentally dishonest relationship with the press. But at least when Barry or one of his minions tried to obfuscate, the press could invoke the people’s right to know.
That kind of argument will land you at the bottom of the voice-mail pit at the control board or the schools. Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. says he has noticed the trend but says the paper is moving vigorously on legal and journalistic fronts to maintain access to the public’s business.
“We are finding the District government to be even more closed than it used to be, and it already was one of the least accessible [city] governments in the country,” Downie said Tuesday.
“It’s not naiveté or inexperience. They have made a decision that it is not in their interest to reveal some of these things. We don’t agree, and we will eventually find out the things that we think our readers need to know,” Downie added, hinting about the Wednesday Post story about the consultants’ report.
“When there is less accountability to the voters, as there is now, I think it is more important than ever that the media hold the government accountable,” Downie said.
Oddly enough, the people who will ultimately suffer the most from the spotty coverage are the ones who are doing their utmost to keep it that way. Brimmer has built absolutely no public constituency, so when Rep. Charles Taylor (of the House Appropriations D.C. subcommittee) decides he wants to micromanage contract decisions, there is no push from the citizenry to get Taylor back on the plantation. Similarly, if schools czar Gen. Julius Becton had enrolled parents early on in the size of the infrastructure dilemma he confronts, people wouldn’t be so surprised that every week brings a new closing. The appointed bosses may end up finding that life gets pretty lonely behind the stonewall.
Dashing On? Leon Dash, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 portrait of Washington drug addict Rosa Lee Cunningham, may be leaving the Post. Dash is considering offers from the Universities of Southern California, Illinois, Kansas, and Duke for a position that will involve research and teaching. Although Dash’s glacial pacehis work on the Rosa Lee story was measured in years, not monthshas been the subject of some sniping over the years, his agenda-free pursuit of life below the radar resulted in a landmark of poverty reporting. Dash, who expects to be teaching by the fall semester of 1998, has found himself in the midst of an academic feeding frenzy. “It has all been pretty overwhelming. I frankly had no idea I was at all marketable,” he says. Dash says he will publish a five-part series on young men in the corrections system before he goes, but he is looking forward to his new posting. “I wasn’t really looking for work, but this gives me an ability to do additional research on the poverty issue that I can’t do at a daily,” he says. “And I’m really excited about the opportunity to pass on the methodology.” Dash has worked at the Post for 32 years.
In the Middle of an Oxymoron Capital Style is out, and the only buzz is coming from the halo of flies circling this stillborn start-up. In order to elbow its way into a very crowded magazine market, a new title has to land with a lot of impact. Capital Style landed with a sickening thud. Visually, it is breathtakingly retro. “Is that one of those magazines you get in your hotel room?” commented a design-literate colleague who happened to catch a glimpse of it. And even though progenitor and editor Bill Thomas has a long and respectable history uncovering Washington at titles like Dossier and Washington Weekly, his new mag’s gee-whiz editorial voice is just about as far outside the Beltway as you can get. (Thomas did not return a call, although word is that there have been changes in the art department and talk of a great leap forward for the second issue.)
A cover story on actor Jimmy Smits and others working the halls of Congress hits for the cycle, with an old hook, tired writing, banal quotes, and a ream of “Hollywood on the Potomac” clichés. It’s more eye-roller than page-turner, as is a by-the-numbers profile of BET’s Robert Johnson. (Was it really his turn again?) Barbara Raskin’s peek under the blankets of the Graham family via the prodigal journey of Lally Weymouth might get tongues wagging, but the rest of the book is a paean to ’80s magazine convention. Al Franken and Christopher Hitchens phone in little features from a very great distance, and the departments are just so much underwritten shtick.
A standing feature called “A Day in the Life of Me” brings back the dreaded “Real Time” canard from the Post Magazine. Rep. Harold Ford’s (D-Tenn.) daybook gets the full patdown, including his dietary habits: “He’s always on the go and usually needs to grab whatever is available. ‘I still haven’t eaten hot dogs, though.’ Ford says they’re popular with other members.” Yeow. I’m not picking nits herethere’s a lot more where this came from. Makes “Ten Fall Weekends” sound positively riveting, doesn’t it? Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian expected more from his would-be competition: “I was looking for some really kick-ass, juicy, salacious stories, or at least good narratives. I got neither.”
A Million Promises Lest you think there’s never been anything like the Post’s slathering of Promise Keepers missives, let’s not forget the Million Man March back in 1995, which turned into a Bataan Death March of takeouts, backgrounders, and sidebars. The PKs clocked in at 40 stories in the two weeks preceding and following the march; the MMM weighed in at over 100. Neither event was exactly the March on Washington, but the paper still can’t resist endless dispatches on these overgrown revivals. Politics has clearly lost salience when the two biggest mass demonstrations of our time involve thousands of men prostrating themselves and promising to do better. They may come to the seat of government, but they ask nothing of Washington save help picking up the garbage when all the hosannas finally die down. David Carr
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