former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Washington Post Ombudsman Lowers the Bar for “Great” Journalism

In Blog on February 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm

I often agree with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton. But not this week.

He begins his column with a question: “You know what makes The Post great, on its best days?”

The answer? “Reporters reporting.”

Uh, right. Presumably, however, reporters also report for The Post on its worst days and on all the mediocre days in between. So perhaps Pexton had in mind some extraordinary examples of great reporting.

No such luck. “It is reporters” he points out, who sit “through hours of a city or county council session or a congressional hearing,” to get the quote or fact that prompts a surprising news story. “It is reporters” who wait until (egads!) “after midnight” to witness a controversial zoning decision vote. “It is reporters” with “ringing ears” no less, who make phone calls to talk to sources to get the information they need to write a story they were assigned to that morning. “It is reporters” who have to go to “bloody crime scenes” and encounter “people who are upset, stressed and crying.”

This is what supposedly “separates” the work of Post reporters from the “…thin reporting that passes for journalism in media land.”

I agree there’s a lot of “thin reporting” out there. But the work Pexton describes is so basic to plain vanilla journalism that it should not be cast as heroic. It should be the floor for the profession, not the ceiling.

Pexton could as easily have written, “It is dentists” who “bravely attack tooth decay, put their hands into dirty mouths, and who have to extract dead, bloody teeth from people who are upset and stressed.”

Pexton makes his point all the more banal by praising unexceptional Post stories. A Post blogger covers a Right to Life demonstration by recounting stories of women who had abortions and then came to regret them. There is nothing secret about this group of women, Silent No More, so it didn’t take a lot of sleuthing to discover it. Indeed in her story, the reporter, Sarah Kliff, who has covered abortion for years, notes that the group has a sophisticated strategy for drawing attention at the annual Right to Life March. Not really an example of enterprise reporting.

A second example, The Post coverage of a huge screw-up on the D.C. subway system last week seems hardly worthy of a special shout-out. The local newspaper reported a local event that affected thousands of subway riders, and did a good job. This is Journalism 101.

Pexton did cite one example of truly exceptional journalism: Reporters for The Post and other news organizations working abroad, often in dangerous situations, who find ways to humanize wars that otherwise would be remote. That’s an area where The Post still shines.

But please, don’t tell me that there’s anything heroic about the good solid work that journalists have done for generations. There may be less of that work, but even now, it’s certainly not done exclusively at The Post. And if this level of journalism is all The Post aspires to, it has no right to claim that what it does is exceptional.

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