Digging Beneath the Surface  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Digging Beneath the Surface   

McClatchy’s new Washington bureau chief is a champion of aggressive reporting. Posted: Fri, March 18, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


When he took over as chief of McClatchy's Washington, D.C., operation last month, Jim Asher issued a challenge to his staff: Continue the bureau's tradition of digging up truth and providing meaningful stories that otherwise might go unreported.

"I couldn't be more serious when I say that aggressive, independent journalism is an absolute must, and the purveyors of independent, aggressive journalism are declining, and the ranks of people who do that are declining," Asher said in an interview a couple of weeks after he started the job. "That's my ambition, and my goal is to make and continue to make a difference in this country and enliven the debate that brings clarity to issues."

Asher, formerly the bureau's investigative editor, thinks it's critical for McClatchy to offer a different voice than the one employed by the big national news organizations. As the "About Us" page on McClatchy's Web site states, the company's D.C. reporters seek to provide "an outside-the-Beltway perspective," even though their office is located a few blocks from the White House.

"Our papers are all across the country, in places like Boise and in states like California and Florida that have been just devastated by the economy," Asher says. "Those folks and readers need someone paying attention to their interests and representing them in the world of journalism, and that's what we feel strongly about."

Asher arrived in Washington nine years ago as Knight Ridder's investigative editor; he continued in that position after the company was acquired by McClatchy in 2006.

"When I came here in 2002, it was the first time I'd done any inside-the-Beltway reporting, and you walk away from those experiences of seeing government up close and the sausage being made, and you realize that a lot of what happens in Washington is perceived by those doing it as being very important and in the public good," he says. "But when you get up close to it, Congress people and senators don't read the legislation they vote on; or the legislation is written by lobbyists; or that transparency people allude to on the campaign trail never materializes when you ask for documents."

That's why Asher says it's so important for journalists not to simply function as government megaphones and instead to critically examine the issues and explain how Beltway decisions affect the lives of people across the country.

"Not that we in journalism are clairvoyant or certain of all the paths of human endeavor," Asher says. "But in this bureau, we ask the next question, which is, 'Thanks, we understand what you're saying. Now, is this practical? Does it work? Are there people who have a different point of view about it?'"

He cites investigative stories such as the one he oversaw about Goldman Sachs' role in the nation's financial crisis, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and the fact that McClatchy was the first to report on former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' firing of nine U.S. attorneys, which led to Gonzales' resignation. While the company was still under Knight Ridder ownership, the bureau won praise for its skeptical coverage of claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction during the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Before coming to Washington, Asher worked as a reporter and editor at a variety of newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, South Jersey's Courier-Post, the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut> He started his career at the Daily Press in Utica, New York, in 1970.

Jim Naughton, a former Inquirer editor and retired president of the Poynter Institute, wrote in an e-mail interview that Asher was "one of the most fiercely determined reporters with whom I had the joy of working in Philadelphia. When he sank his teeth into a story, especially one involving wrongdoing by officials, he was like a pit bull, unwilling to let go. I'm not surprised that he has been as aggressive as an editor, and I'm tickled that McClatchy has elevated him to pooh-bah status."

Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy's Washington editor and vice president for news, says he picked Asher for the position because of his years of experience editing and reporting in the capital and elsewhere. Alluding to the bureau's tradition, Gyllenhaal adds, "He has quite a history to contend with, and I think he's the perfect person to take that assignment on."

Asher succeeds John Walcott, who left in October to become SmartBrief's chief content officer and editor-in-chief. That is when Gyllenhaal left his job as editor of McClatchy's Miami Herald to oversee the chain's national and regional coverage out of Washington. Gyllenhaal says McClatchy is reviewing how the bureau serves its 30-plus papers in the digital era and adapting to a time when news moves so quickly while at the same time focusing on in-depth, forward-looking coverage.

"I think in Jim we have somebody who's really focused on how journalism is changing, which has got its own challenges, and on how to be faithful to the tradition, which is depth and really knowing your topics," Gyllenhaal says.

John Fairhall, who began working with Asher at the Sun in the mid-1990s when Asher was city editor, says he was a hard-driving boss. "He always instructed his reporters to be aggressive in demanding information from city and state government and was aggressive with government himself," Fairhall says. "If you ever wanted to hear his voice rise, it was when he was having a conversation with someone who was telling him, 'I won't give you that information' or 'You're not entitled to that information.' Jim's face would turn a deeper shade of red."

He says Asher has been able to adapt to today's current environment, where big stories often have to be told in smaller packages than when Asher was in charge of the Sun's investigations.

Asher met his wife, Jennifer, when they were pursuing master's degrees in journalism at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. They were married after their 1973 graduation. "I would say that he's completely dedicated to the profession of journalism," Jennifer says of her husband, "and he's one of those people who found his calling at a young age and has pursued it steadfastly ever since."

Asher, who preferred not to reveal his own age, gave the ages of his three children: Alex, 29; Byron, 25; and Elisabeth, 19. Asher coached his two sons in Little League, Jennifer says. He also likes to fish and, as a result, they have taken many vacations in Maine.

Connie Langland, a former colleague of Asher's at the Inquirer, said in an e-mail interview that Asher has the "perfect temperament for being editor―unflappable, enthusiastic, tough-minded, fair." She says Asher "can get downright giddy when a good story is breaking and his good cheer is contagious. So is his mantra: Dig deep, do good journalism."

Plus, she adds, "He whistles show tunes and wears a straw hat from Memorial Day to Labor Day. How can you not love him?"

Asher, who is in charge of 40 staffers at McClatchy, says his first few weeks at the top job were anything but typical because of the tumultuous events shaking the Middle East. He told of one reporter's experience traveling into Libya during protests against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, escorted by Gadhafi supporters. "It was a scary time for her and those of us here in Washington who asked her to go," Asher says.

Robert Rankin, McClatchy's politics and economics editor, says the speech Asher gave his new troops on his first day was moving. "He obviously has such great passion for doing what we try do here, and a strong commitment to try to do groundbreaking journalism, and also equally a strong commitment to the people that he works with," Rankin says. "Everybody is very fond of Jim, and I think he has a good strong human bond with everyone here."

The bureau's news desk chief, Beryl Adcock, says her new boss is well-read and is something of "an idea machine." Asher invoked abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass during his first day on the job by telling his staff that Douglass showed that "one bearer of truth can forever change a nation." He challenged his reporters to do the same.

"We have, in my view, an obligation to be here and to be thoughtful and aggressive about our reporting, to uncover facts that governments don't like people to know, to inform debate," Asher says. "It's just extraordinarily important, more now than almost any time, because there are so many fewer of us."

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