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Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post’

A compelling story, but was it journalism?

In Blog on July 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Is there a sale on news print? The Washington Post has been running very long stories lately. Stories that go for pages and pages. I think sometimes think this is a sign that the paper is committed to in-depth journalism, but sometimes I wonder if the length reflects, at least in part, a dearth of good editors.
On Sunday June 28, the Post ran “The Man in the House.” It began on the front page and extended for two more nearly full pages of the print edition of the paper.
The story was well written. It had a strong narrative arc, and it deftly related the struggle of one local family to get mental health care for a loved one who refuses to take his medication and refuses hospitalization. It elicited more than 900 comments, many from people who had been diagnosed with mental illness, or were related to someone who had. It was compelling, and very, very sad. It reminded me of what was the existential question in my newsroom in the 1980s: Are you a reporter or a writer? The author is certainly is a talented writer. But was this story journalism?
I don’t think so. The story was not anchored with enough solid factual reporting to earn the reader’s trust that this account was true. And the story failed to provide enough context. It describes the problem as one of laws that make it too difficult for mentally ill people to be involuntarily committed, without acknowledging that there is a delicate balance between respecting the rights of the mentally ill and finding ways to effectively treat them. The piece gives very short shrift to the notion that laws were changed because terrible injustices had been done to individuals wrongfully committed for years to institutions, the victims of abuse and neglect. It may be good and effective storytelling to link this saga to the epidemic of mass killings by deranged and violent individuals, making its tone more ominous as the man’s mental state continues to deteriorate. But it oversimplifies both the cause of this epidemic of violence – many would blame the easy availability of guns for these recent mass murders — and implies that mental illness invariably explodes into violence.
The namelessness of the piece was really disturbing. Even though aspects of the story already were part of the public record – the man’s father had testified about his plight at a public hearing – the family was afforded complete anonymity. It seems the decision to keep the family’s name secret served the author’s narrative structure as much as it honored their privacy.
What makes me think that this was not just sensitivity on the part of the Post is that no one is on the record in the story. People are only identified by their occupation. So we get the comments of a psychiatrist or a lawyer or a neighbor, or hearing witnesses, but no names. We are given a domestic drama without anchor in facts. The reader is essentially told: “Trust us. This is true.”
Worse, the narrative is told as a series of days pass. It begins at Day 730 and ends with day 896. Unless the reporter followed the family for days on end, it is difficult to perceive what is reconstructed from the family’s recollections and what the reporter actually witnessed. If there were more details, one could better trust this reportorial decision.
And while the Post raises questions about the wisdom of public policy that makes it so difficult to involuntarily commit someone to a mental institution, it offers little context.
The print story does include a short “sidebar” with the history of mental health treatment in the U.S., but that is hardly sufficient. How many families are struggling with the same problem in Maryland and the U.S.? Are there are other states that have less restrictive laws? How does Europe handle this problem? Is anyone in Congress proposing legislation to address the Supreme Court decision that made involuntary commitment so difficult? And while the reporter mentions in passing the abuses at mental institutions that prompted the relaxation of the laws about involuntary commitment, the story does not address the larger problem, a lack of resources for treatment. Follow-up outpatient care in the community that was supposed to support the mentally ill and their families never materialized. Instead, the mentally ill were released from institutions that were more like prisons into communities totally unprepared to address their needs. It’s not simply a matter of laws that are too lax about involuntary commitment, it’s about a mental health system that has failed for decades. Interestingly, the comments to the story raised many of these issues.
Other reporters have found ways to write stories like this and done it brilliantly while remaining faithful to the reader by supplying facts. Madeleine Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her feature writing, accomplished this feat in 1987 when she wrote “The Disturbance” for The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine. Blais’ reporting, even after all these years, feels true and moving. She profiled a Miami family dealing with a schizophrenic sister who had been homeless for years. But because her dialogue, sometimes reconstructed, is grounded in details and facts, the reader can believe. And this family bravely went on the record with their story.
Note to Post editors: If you’re going to encourage more of this style of reporting, learn from the best. Blais’ book, The Heart Is An Instrument, includes terrific examples of long-form writing that also is excellent reporting. And it’s easily available. Heck, I bought my copy on Amazon.


An NSA Buffet That Leaves Us Hungry

In Blog on December 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

This month, the American public saw what happens when reporters do in-depth profiles of an institution or individual with whom they have a shared history.  The results often don’t serve journalism very well.

As it happens, both pieces concerned the embattled National Security Agency.  In both cases, the reporters in question got unprecedented access because their subjects trusted them and knew they would be treated well.

CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled NSA, amping up the agency’s positive profile a few megawatts. Viewers got an inside look into the secretive agency, virtually strolled through its hallways,  even heard from telegenic young staffers who work there.  The cameras also took us inside the office of the NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander. But all this access came at a price —  critical journalism that asks the difficult questions and won’t settle for the less-than-forthright answers.

To his credit reporter John Miller told his audience that he used to work at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  He also stated that Alexander agreed to the interview because he believed “NSA has not told its story very well.”

It is entirely appropriate to give a subject of a major story the opportunity to make his case, and to make it fully.  But what was missing was the opportunity for NSA critics to challenge those assertions.  Also missing were tough questions from Miller himself asking why NSA felt obliged to lie to Congress, and whether its contracting procedures needed a little retooling.  How in the world did an IT contractor get the access that Snowden had? Did Alexander understand why Americans were so concerned about the capture of so much data?  After all, phone numbers alone can be the keys to much more information.  Had this virtually unsupervised effort  truly saved lives?

I agree with journalist critics, and there are many, that CBS failed to fully inform and instead served as a public relations vehicle for a government agency.  If  NSA wants to make its case, let it buy full-page ads, place op-eds in The New York Times, make its officials available for interviews on the Sunday talk shows.  NSA officials can do cross-country tours and field questions from local reporters.  But CBS should never have agreed to such uncritical coverage.

It will be interesting to see if journalists are as quick to critique Barton Gellman’s extremely sympathetic profile of NSA leaker Edward Snowden for The Washington Post. After all, journalists tend to take the side of people who leak information to them.

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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.)

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Post Op-ed Gained Attention but Not Respect

In Blog on September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am

I guess if The Washington Post was attempting to provoke strong reader reaction to an op-ed questioning whether sexual relations between teachers and minor students should be criminalized, the paper got when it sought. My daughter brought my attention to the opinion piece, published August 30th, and by the time I looked at it on September 1st, it had more than 3,000 reader comments.

But surely attention shouldn’t be the only goal for the opinion pages of what is still considered one of the nation’s most prestigious papers.  I often read Post op-eds and disagree with them, but this op-ed was written by someone who seemed to have no actual data or expertise around which to marshal her pretty outrageous arguments.

The news peg of the op-ed was the very light sentence a Montana teacher, who pleaded guilty to non-consensual sex with a 14-year-old student- or what many would call a rape- received in August.  Two years after the assault that student committed suicide, an event her mother felt was brought on by the trauma of the rape.  The teacher, who had failed to follow through on a plea deal that included mandatory treatment for sex abusers, was hauled back into court and the Montana judge gave him a 30-day sentence.  The judge averred that since the sex didn’t involve extreme violence or a stranger, it really didn’t count as a “forcible beat-up rape,” and implied that the 14-year-old in question may have been  more Lolita  than an innocent victim. (The judge did apologize for some of his remarks, but stood by his sentence.)

The judge received much criticism, including a very good editorial from the Washington Post, calling for the judge’s resignation.  For reasons I can’t fathom, The Post then decided to give very valuable column inches to a non-expert, described as a “writer and former lawyer” to rebut its editorial position. She opined that she had lots of friends in the sixties and seventies who had sex with teachers in high school, college and law school, and they’re in her estimation, just fine. To be a law student and have sex with a professor is unwise, but surely it can’t be compared to being a 14-year-old having sex with a teacher.

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Five Things Jeff Bezos Can Do to Upgrade The Post and Win Over Its Readers

In Blog on August 7, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Since you’ve paid cash ($250 million) to buy The Washington Post, I’m assuming that you can afford to spend a bit more to enhance your property. Think of these suggestions as adding a new wing to your DC pied-à-terre. I believe they will actually make The Post more attractive to its readers, and since you say you are all about pleasing the customer, they might appeal to you.

Restore The Post’s ombudsman. Last  April, The Post discontinued its ombudsman position. That was a short-sighted move.  You can reverse this decision.  The Post needs an independent and wise journalist to look over its shoulder and assess its performance. An ombudsman is the paper’s conscience and its customer service rep, the person who can respond to reader concerns and complaints in a thoughtful, meaningful way. And if you do take this suggestion, hire someone feisty and brave, like The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan.

Hire more copy editors. As a reporter, I always resented editors for getting in my way. They do, and they should.  The good ones ask the right questions, guard the grammar, spot errors, and help shape stories. After waves of buyouts, you can see The Post has suffered from an editor shortage. Stories often are pointlessly long, lack focus, and leave readers frustrated for lack of basic information. Don’t take my word for it.  Read the corrections page each day, and the “reader’s comments page” on Saturday.

Beef up the Health-Science section. The Post Health section used to be plump with solid health journalism. Now it is thinner and a mishmash of health and science news, often snatched from wire services. Surely, an aging population of wealthy readers is pretty obsessed with health news.  Give them better, more comprehensive coverage from health journalists.  If you don’t want to staff up, give more in-depth assignments to free-lancers. Medical Mysteries is one feature that is a winner for the section, but it needs more heft.

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How The Post Failed The Public on Wal-Mart

In Blog on July 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Washington, D.C. probably is home to more think tanks and economists than any other city in America. So you would think The Washington Post, still the city’s leading newspaper, might have turned to some of them to shed a little light on a major local controversy.

The D.C. City Council recently passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, or the “living wage bill.”  It would require large retailers to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.  In reaction to the passage of the bill, Wal-Mart has said it will withdraw plans to develop three stores in the District, and reconsider its plans for three other stores already under construction. As I write this, no one knows whether Washington Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill.  It doesn’t appear that the council has the votes to override a veto.

I am not complaining about The Post’s two editorials opposed to the living wage bill.  The paper has a right to take a position on this issue, albeit one that was heavily biased in Wal-Mart’s favor.

What does bother me is the quality of the paper’s overall coverage. As this controversy has played out, The Post has failed to provide comprehensive ongoing reporting on the issue, or to give its readers consistently solid explanatory journalism that provides facts and context, and challenges assumptions.

Instead, The Post’s coverage has been scatter-shot.  Some of its best analysis seemed to be left to the paper’s blogs, which tend to be more commentary than straight news, and while very informative, lack the authoritative voice of news stories. Blogs, too, are not always published in the print editions of the paper.  That means that the people most affected by the Wal-Mart decision, those in underdeveloped neighborhoods waiting for a Wal-Mart bounce, might not have access to all the information about the controversy.

At the very least, The Post should have explained what the living wage bill does in some detail, not just once, when the bill was introduced, but for each significant story on the controversy.  A Post story in March included facts about the living wage bill that were significant and deserved repetition.  The living wage bill applies only to large retailers who have not negotiated wages through collective bargaining agreements. And the $12.50, as I understand it, is actually $11.75 if benefits already provided by the employer are factored in. That distinction appears to have been lost in most of the subsequent news coverage of the law.

But The Post should have done much, much more.  It could have reached out to the city’s urban policy experts and economists, and given the community coverage that:

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Plagiarism of the Spirit: Reporters are Stuck in the DC Bubble

In Blog on June 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

Recently, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a lengthy story on DC couples who work in media and politics.  The story revealed one of this city’s not-so-well-kept secrets: In this town, the media literally are in bed with the government.  Farhi’s piece outed some of those government-media duos – NPR’s Ari Shapiro is the spouse of Michael Gottlieb, on the staff of the White House Counsel.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is married to ABC News’s Claire Shipman.  Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz is the wife of Health and Human Services General Counsel William B. Schultz. Vice President Biden’s communications director Shailagh Murray is married to Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King.

Farhi himself also coyly confesses, without naming names or specifying the nature of the relationship, that he sometimes writes about CBS news and is related to an employee at the network.

Farhi’s critique focuses on how well these couples manage conflicts of interest.  But that’s not really the problem.  Reporters by and large do pretty well avoiding favoritism covering the news. They adjust assignments, and are pretty scrupulous about not covering any issue on which their loved ones have direct responsibility.

The problem goes much deeper.  It is the inbred Washington culture where big media and big government mingle in a seamless minuet that creates a plagiarism of the spirit. No, I don’t mean the plagiarism that happens when one reporter literally copies the words and opinions of others.  This appropriation is much larger and more fundamental.  The journalists who live and work together in the tight little cocoon of DC politics are seeing the world in the same way, chasing down the same fragments of news, and no one is challenging anybody’s assumptions.

Think of it.  The elite who comprise the Washington press corps — those reporters for major media outlets who cover the White House, the federal government and Congress and who are regular contributors to the weekly news shows — by and large are well paid and comfortable.  High-profile reporters send their kids to the same private schools that also are attended by the children of senior government officials. They run into each other at the same parties.  They live in the same neighborhoods.  They dine at the same restaurants.

None of this is wrong.  But it is severely limiting.  Journalists used to be working class stiffs, outsiders whose press passes would only get them pressed against the window of power, not inside the halls.  They had empathy for the “little guy” because they emerged from the same class.  Journalism was one of the few jobs around that required no formal college degree. To those who lacked the right pedigree or social skills, journalism rewarded hard work and cleverness with decent-paying jobs that were enjoyable and stimulating.

As much as journalism might be in financial distress nationwide, the DC press corps still contains many reporters who’ve never taken a Greyhound bus or entered a Walmart.  They don’t understand what it means to earn only the minimum wage.

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Readers Lose As Washington Post Cuts Ombudsman

In Blog on April 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

On March 2, The Washington Post confirmed what had been rumored for weeks. After a 43-year run, the paper was eliminating its ombudsman, trading in the independent critic of the Post’s journalism practices for an in-house “reader representative.”

Patrick Pexton, The Post’s outgoing ombudsman, had implied money problems were driving the change. The Post’s management denied that money was a factor, explaining rather that different times required different measures. They contended that the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of online media critics, and the ability of readers to comment directly about stories or to email reporters ensured enough accountability. So The Post no longer needed an independent, presumably thoughtful, journalist, to publicly assess its performance. Instead, what was really important was responding to individual complaints from readers.

While I have liked Pexton’s work in the past, I criticized him recently for heaping unnecessary praise on reporters for simply doing their jobs, and I must say this explanation for the elimination of the ombud is also just plain silly. The fact that readers can post comments on Post stories or contact Post reporters electronically in no way means that the paper no longer needs an independent assessor of how it measures up to journalism’s highest standards. Outside media commentators lack the ability to get the attention of the paper’s editors, or have the power to defend the paper from accusations of bias or unfairness the way an independent ombudsman can.

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Journalists Should Stop and Do the Math on Minimum Wage

In Blog on February 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress authored a very thoughtful oped proposing that we raise the minimum wage, which currently is so low that it forces people who work full time to live in poverty.  Miller argues that increasing the minimum wage is a much simpler solution to the problems of the poor than the raft of federal programs out there to help alleviate poverty.  Plus, if the minimum wage were increased, thousands of workers would have the discretionary income to increase their consumer spending, improving the economy.

So what does Miller’s proposal have to do with journalism? In my mind, quite a bit.  Here’s the problem. Most journalists haven’t been paid by the hour since they were teens babysitting or mowing lawns.  When they report about the working poor, they fail to do the math, and since they thought $9 an hour was pretty good when they were 15, the reality of how little the minimum wage is and how inadequate it is to support a family is lost on them, and their readers and viewers.

So let’s do the math. A full-time worker earning the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 earns a princely $15,080 a year.  Let’s boost that figure up a bit, to the hourly wage of $10.  Annually, that amounts to $20,800.  Could you live on that?  Would that be enough to pay for food, clothing, and shelter?  (Let’s assume that your employer gives you health benefits, which isn’t too likely.)  When you live this close to the bone, losing a dollar bill or a metro card that drops out of your pocket is a disaster.  You can’t afford any sick time.  A vacation is a faraway dream. No restaurants with tablecloths.  No books.  No movies.  There is no margin for error.  God help you if you thought you could raise a child or two, or live in a decent neighborhood.

So here’s my plea, all you journalists out there.  Whenever you are doing a story about a minimum wage worker, do the math, and translate that hourly wage into what most of us are lucky to earn, an annual salary.  It will not change national policy, but maybe it will give the rest of us just a little more empathy for the burdens of the working poor.

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.”

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