former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Spare Us From Reporters With Agendas

In Blog on October 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

I wrote this blog before the shutdown.   During the crisis, David Farhenthold did solid reporting.  But now that it is over for the time being, I fear he’s repeating the same troubling pattern.  His October 20 front-page story focuses on the strategic errors House Republicans made in trying to achieve their budget goals.  But he neglects to mention one crucial fact.  There was an election in 2012, and the election was a referendum on spending priorities.  Many of the priorities that certain Republicans espouse were soundly rejected by the voters.

On September 27, as much  of Washington was consumed by doubts about a government shutdown, the front page of The Washington Post was consumed by something else – the story of one Mike Marsh, a federal worker urging Congress to defund his agency.  The headline “Fire Me,” was the size that newspapers usually reserve for declarations of war or presidential election results.

But this story, at best, should have been treated as a feature story, not a news story.  Lord knows, it contained very little news.

I’m not saying the Post should not have run  it.  It was a typical “man bites dog” news event.  But here’s the problem.  The reporter did little to enlighten readers, about whether there was any truth to Marsh’s claim that the agency in question, The Denali Commission, is useless.

What makes this front-page story all the more curious is that Marsh declined to be interviewed for it.  Yes, that’s right.  He sent his complaints about the commission to the Post and Congress, and responded to some emails, but that’s it.

What do we find out from this story?  How much The Denali Commission currently receives in federal funds,- $10.6 million annually –  and that the entire Alaska congressional delegation supports it.  Marsh claims that its purpose  – to help get federal assistance to communities in Alaska that need it – isn’t necessary.  He also contends that the commission builds projects in tiny Alaska settlements – power plants or health clinics – that the citizens can’t afford to maintain.

These are criticisms worth investigating.  But reporter David A. Fahrenthold never bothers to do any actual reporting. He never tries to  get to the truth.  Does Marsh – who is Inspector General for the Commission and commutes to his job from his home in Phoenix  when needed – have a point, or is he simply a loose cannon?

What has the Denali Commission accomplished or failed to accomplish?  Fahrenthold quotes the Commission’s top federal official, Joel Neimeyer, but it is difficult to know what he asked him.  All the story focuses on is Neimeyer’s views on Marsh.  At the very least, you would have wanted someone at the Commission to respond directly to Marsh’s charges.

Fahrenthold seeks out a labor representative on the commission, Vince Beltrami. But again, Fahrenthold  focuses on Beltrami’s reaction to Marsh’s attempt to defund the agency, not the work of the agency itself.

If this were a real news story, you might even get a list of what the commission cites as its accomplishments and try to contact people in the communities that the commission claims to have helped.

You might call mayors and community development specialists in the state to see if the Commission was doing a good job.  Even if they didn’t feel free to speak on the record, you’d get a better understanding of what this tiny federal agency was doing or failing to do.

I rarely say a reporter has an agenda.  But a spate of recent stories under Fahrenthold’s byline makes me think he’s angling for a position at the libertarian Cato Institute.  (One pleasant and recent exception: his September 29 story on agency waste that results from “use or lose it” policies for spending at the end of the fiscal year.)

After all, this is the reporter who found a magician stymied by a federal rule that applied to his rabbit.  The magician’s trade group said they had 10 magicians who had complained about this rule, not exactly a huge percentage. Media inquiries seem to have made this magician’s problem disappear.

I’m not defending the US Department of Agriculture on this one.  The rule was dumb.  But where’s Fahrenthold’s outrage when it comes to bigger regulatory issues?  Where was he when the USDA proposed to replace federal poultry inspectors with plant staff, and permit them to inspect poultry carcasses at a speed of three carcasses per second, making it nearly impossible to identify fecal matter and other nasty items on the chicken we consume?

This is the reporter who also wrote a  misleading story, again on the  front page, on government spending trends.  The assumption in the story was that “big government” by definition is bad.  The story also used statistics in ways that seemed to buttress these assumptions, but that could be read far differently by economists, a fact deftly made by  New York Magazine.

Fahrenthold seems most angered by what he terms “pork” – the money members funnel to their own districts and states.  And in this story, he offers examples of  “pork” projects whose expenditures total tens of millions of dollars.  But he doesn’t seem to have any interest in huge multi-billion-dollar federal subsidies to corporations.

Whatever I may think, Fahrenthold seems to be a star at the Post.  Perhaps the paper’s top editors are eager to make new owner Jeff Bezos, whose politics tilt libertarian,  feel welcome.

Author’s note: In my “day” job, I am a public interest advocate who presses for stronger environmental and health regulations.


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