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American Journalism Review
Unsung Heroes  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 2002

Unsung Heroes   

They don’t get the celebrity treatment and the TV pundit gigs. But many lesser-known Washington journalists are doing sterling work in the shadows.

By Nina J. Easton
Nina J. Easton is deputy bureau chief of the Boston Globe's Washington bureau.     

It's springtime, so let's think of Washington journalism as Major League Baseball.

There are the high-profile teams--the equivalent of, say, the Yankees and the Braves--and a few stars on each of those teams who (deservedly or not) command national attention, big bucks and regular talking-head gigs on the tube.

Below that is where most of Washington's reporters work. They are the "great unwatched"--the Expos, the Devil Rays, the Marlins of national journalism.

In Washington's strict pecking order, you don't have to be a star to enjoy the cachet of your team name. Phone calls from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek get returned, promptly. If you're with Scripps Howard or the Hartford Courant, you queue up on the call-back sheet (or more likely, linger out in the hall) to get attention from the capital's leading decision makers. If the Bush White House wants to leak a major policy proposal, the lucky recipient is likely to be with the New York Times or Washington Post, not the Dallas Morning News or the Boston Globe.

But the lower ranks of this pecking order have plenty of stars, too. A few become Washington-style celebrities (even the Expos have Vladimir Guerrero)--names such as Globe Bureau Chief David Shribman or former Chicago Tribune Bureau Chief James Warren. But for the most part, these are the stars who don't get noticed. They don't make those "Top 50 Journalists" lists. Talk-show producers don't invite them on air. They operate in the shadows of Washington celebrity journalism.

Still, lots of these unheralded reporters are good--so good that the majors liberally "borrow" from their work.

Many of these unsung stars work for news services or regional papers that must translate Washington developments into news stories relevant far beyond the Beltway. Others work for the so-called trade press, speaking to specialized audiences. Second-tier teams can serve as farm systems to the big media. Occasionally, it works the other way around: Reporters who have had a taste of the majors decide to trade in the glamour and visibility for jobs that offer more freedom and less bureaucracy.

Operating outside Washington's clubby rating system, these journalistic talents become accustomed to a level of anonymity. When Dale McFeatters came to the nation's capital in 1969, his work appeared in the Washington Daily News, a tabloid popular with readers on their morning coffee breaks, and he felt as if he was at the center of the political action. But Washington's movers and shakers don't see--nor try to influence--the editorials he now sends across the Scripps Howard wire. "If you don't have a Washington outlet, you really do drop off the radar screen," he says. "But I can't complain about our reach." His bureau serves 380 clients, including 25 Scripps Howard papers.

Washington's news service reporters are so anonymous that even their readers don't notice their bylines. "You get almost no reaction; it's frustrating to be so unconnected from your readers," says Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News Service. Says another news service reporter: "It's like writing into the wind."

Strangely, despite these disappointments, the unsung all-stars share a common trait--they stubbornly love what they do. They're a tough bunch, scrappy and competitive and determined to be the best, despite the odds. After recounting stories she was forced to dig up while her big-name competitors were handed leaks, Fredreka Schouten, education reporter for Gannett News Service, adds matter-of-factly: "I like the fact that I have to hustle, that things are harder for me."

Given the elephantine presence of Washington's major media, the unsung stars succeed by approaching their beats creatively. On her "work and money" beat, Mary Kane of Newhouse News Service watches what the big-name press covers--the breaking news, the hearings and press conferences, the fashionable personalities--and then moves elsewhere.

Washington's unheralded stars of journalism know that, despite the presence of hundreds of reporters crawling all over the capital, there are plenty of uncovered stories. "Sometimes there are wonderfully delicious crumbs left," says freelancer Ken Silverstein. "Sometimes a whole pie." Adds Bruce Stokes, longtime National Journal columnist and a regular commentator on public radio's "Marketplace": "There are huge areas of the federal budget that no one pays attention to. People think you're not going to make a career there."

Covering Congress can be sexy. But Elizabeth A. Marchak of Cleveland's Plain Dealer insists that it's much more important to follow the action at seemingly dull federal agencies, housed within those bland buildings that fill entire city blocks. "That's where the bacon is," she says.

What follows is a look at some of the unsung stars of Washington journalism. The names were culled from interviews with leading reporters and editors, as well as with those who deal with the press as sources. Most of the journalists included were repeatedly cited. And beware: We don't pretend it's a complete list. For every reporter listed here, there are many more whose work deserves notice.

Moreover, the roster doesn't include journalists at major outlets. It's hard, for example, to beat the nuts-and-bolts congressional reporting of the Wall Street Journal's David Rogers or the intelligence that Janet Hook brings to her Capitol Hill coverage at the Los Angeles Times – and, arguably, reporters like these don't get the attention they merit. But since they already play on big-name teams, we figure they're doing OK on their own.

We'll focus this time on print reporters and look at Washington's unsung broadcast and online journalists in a future piece.

KENNETH JOST (writer, CQ Researcher)
The Washington news media works something like a food chain. Jost is at the bottom of that chain, and it's a good thing for many that he is. He produces exhaustive 24-page backgrounders on topical issues, a popular read with reporters. When the fate of a mentally retarded murderer was in the news, he produced a history of capital punishment. When the constitutionality of school vouchers was coming before the U.S. Supreme Court, reporters could page through the case's complex litigation history. Jost, 54, is so thorough that his school voucher report went back to colonial times. Better than that: "I did a report on the Endangered Species Act that covered the beginning of life to the present." On this job, versatility is key: Who else has to move from the bleary-eyed work of producing a history of the accounting industry to an overview of sex and the Catholic Church? "I now know when mandated celibacy began," he says. It was 1139, in case you're going to be on "Jeopardy" anytime soon.

ELIZABETH A. MARCHAK (reporter, Cleveland's Plain Dealer)
Her bosses often wonder what the hell Marchak is up to when she doesn't leave her desk for days. And why, exactly, are they paying for those three computers she claims she needs? And how is it that she continues to break luggage carriers zipping through airports loaded down with documents? The answers have something to do with her stories: A year before the airline's fatal Florida crash, she reported on ValuJet's safety problems; last year she revealed that Ritalin use was highest in small, remote communities; and she recently disclosed how the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot in trade disputes over steel. Marchak, 48, is a computer wonk: She obtains boxloads of documents from federal agencies, plugs them into programs, some of which she designs, and finds stories. "Very few reporters in town are computer literate," she says. On campaign finance, one of her current targets, "most reporters want outside organizations to do it for them. I do it myself." Marchak "just loves" the digging. But there are times, like the last travel-heavy story (the one that broke the last luggage carrier), when she's eager to be finished: "Boy, was I happy to get that story published. My back was killing me."

GLEN JOHNSON (reporter, Boston Globe)
Johnson, 39, was hired more than a year ago to cover the Massachusetts delegation in Congress. Then came September 11, and Johnson called upon his 18 months as an aviation reporter for the AP to reveal vulnerabilities in the nation's air traffic system. He produced a mammoth reconstruction of what apparently happened on each of the four hijacked airliners. And he wrote a story drawing lawmakers' attention to the dangers that private planes pose to the nation's security--concerns that were ultimately addressed in Congress' aviation safety legislation.

JASON VEST (freelance reporter)
"We have a big military and it's deceptive, because it creates the illusion that everything is working as it should, but that's not the case," says Vest, 29. Breaking through illusions has become something of a specialty for Vest, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect as well as a contributor to the Village Voice, The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation. Starting over 10 years ago with investigations of drug war absurdities and politics for Indiana alternative papers, he has gone on to cover domestic politics, business, national security, even an African war. While much of the mainstream military coverage has focused on progress in the fighting in Afghanistan, Vest has used his national security sources to raise questions about whether American soldiers are properly trained to conduct their missions there.

SUMANA CHATTERJEE (national correspondent, Knight Ridder)
Together with Nairobi Bureau Chief Sudarsan Raghavan, 30-year-old Chatterjee last year exposed an ugly secret about all those Easter bunnies and chocolate chips Americans love to consume: Some of the cocoa beans were picked by child slaves captured and abused by Ivory Coast farmers. While her partner tracked down slaveholding farms in the African country, Chatterjee investigated the links to candymakers here and in London. "I lived and breathed coffee and chocolate for two-and-a-half months; I could tell you where individual beans came from," she says. She opened every interview with industry executives with the same query: "Can you guarantee me that the chocolate I'm eating is not tainted by slavery?" With 43 percent of U.S. cocoa bean imports coming from the Ivory Coast, they couldn't. When candymakers Nestlé and Mars refused to talk to her, Chatterjee tracked down a warehouse in Philadelphia and watched cocoa beans marked "Ivory Coast" being tossed into their trucks. The Knight Ridder series led to congressional action and studies examining the prevalence of child slavery. Meanwhile, industry leaders switched their positions, no longer claiming they weren't responsible for the supply chain of their products. The series earned the pair a George Polk Award for international reporting and finalist standing for other top honors.

JIM PUZZANGHERA (reporter, San Jose Mercury News)
Considered a rising star of the Washington press corps, Puzzanghera, 38, won a National Press Club award for regional reporting last year. His main focus is the nexus between politics and high technology, which has led him to stories on how Silicon Valley promotes its interests in the nation's capital. He knows, and shows, where and why high-tech money is flowing in the political process. When Al Gore's claimed role in inventing the Internet became the stuff of late-night talk-show jokes, Puzzanghera went beyond the barbs to show why "Gore has a legitimate claim to laying a cornerstone for today's wired world"--and why the presidential candidate still failed to gain substantial political support in Silicon Valley.

DAMON CHAPPIE (reporter, Roll Call)
"Damon Chappie blind sees more than most reporters with sight," proclaims one of his many admiring colleagues. Chappie, 37, was hospitalized with a mysterious infection shortly after a trip to Mexico five years ago. As his health improved, his sight declined--until he became totally blind in nine months. He was only 32, a young reporter on the rise who still continues his ascent. Chappie routinely breaks news on ethics and soft money with his dispatches in the Capitol Hill twice-weekly. So it's not too much of an exaggeration when one journalist insists that reporters who cover Congress "would be up a creek without Chappie's stuff. Everyone rips him off." Chappie uses cutting-edge technology in his reporting, including screen software that reads to him and scanning software that translates documents out loud. "My computer use is as good as before I lost my sight," he says. Now Chappie does most of his interviews by phone--and that's the hardest part to get used to. "Before, I was up on the Hill all the time, walking the halls," he says wistfully.

FREDREKA SCHOUTEN (education reporter, Gannett News Service)
When President Bush pledged that "no child" would be left behind in the nation's schools, Schouten took him at his word: She's been critically exploring his education proposals ever since. The White House asserted that "this is going to be a great educational reform, but I was interested in the question of whether it would really mean something to children," she says. Schouten, 35, who took on the education beat just as the new administration was coming into office, has a reputation for bringing to light the human consequences of education policies. In Washington, the school choice debate is trapped in the usual liberal-conservative ideological divide. Schouten dug deeper, interviewing African American parents who--at odds with the stance of the liberal civil rights community--had used government-funded vouchers to put their children in safer, better performing private schools.

MARGIE KRIZ (reporter, National Journal)
If you need to know what section 8e of the Toxic Substances Control Act says, you can ask Kriz. But that's not the primary reason why this 15-year veteran of National Journal has earned the respect of both sides of the environmental debate. Kriz, 47, applies her detailed knowledge of the subject – developed at a trade paper covering the chemical industry--to craft balanced pieces that run ahead of the competition. Environmental coverage at daily papers tends toward eye-catching spot news, such as the pollution levels at Ground Zero. Kriz uses her more generous deadlines at the Washington-based weekly, which focuses on the federal government, to ply less obvious ground. She wrote recently about how the Bush administration was quietly using its agency powers to open up public lands to logging and oil and gas development. "We don't have to fight for the sexiest stories," says Kriz, "so I have a great luxury."

JENNIFER DUFFY & AMY WALTER (political analysts, The Cook Political Report)
They're known as "Charlie's Angels." That's Charlie as in Charlie Cook, the high-profile political analyst whose report is the bible for the national media and political community. Duffy, 38, follows Senate races; Walter covers the House. Together, they know more about every congressional race than anyone in town. "I can remember stats on every district," says Walter, 32, who is (of course) a rabid baseball fan. "But God help me if I can ever remember the name of that wine I enjoyed the other night." Access is not a problem for this duo--all congressional challengers and nearly all incumbents make a pilgrimage to the Cook conference room to seek their blessing. The pair's assessment can help or hurt candidates--especially challengers--vying for funds and media attention. "If you're vulnerable, you need to make your case," says Duffy.

JERRY HAGSTROM (reporter, CongressDaily)
Let's face it. No one wants to cover agriculture. It's an old industry, it's boring, it's about rural people when most Washington reporters are dedicated urbanites. It also happens to be a $70 billion chunk of the federal budget and includes farm subsidies, food stamps, the environment--and it's a huge international issue. When editors at National Journal, which publishes the fax newspaper CongressDaily, were looking around for someone to cover the farm bill in 1995, Hagstrom recalls, "the editor said nobody wanted to do it. It used to be that every paper had an agriculture reporter. Most have eliminated the position and coverage has fallen through the cracks." Hagstrom, 54, had covered state and local politics as a researcher for and partner with columnist Neal Pearce. At the time, he was enjoying the relative glamour of covering national political consulting. But he had grown up on a farm in North Dakota, adjacent to where his grandparents had homesteaded; by default he got the ag beat. He now writes for a Beltway audience – and directly to 180,000 farms with satellite dishes through a news transmission service. "My colleagues say, 'Thank God Jerry is covering this so we don't have to learn about all these complicated programs.' "

KEN SILVERSTEIN (freelance writer)
Silverstein's career is a testament to the rich stories waiting to be unearthed by intrepid--and incredibly patient and persistent--reporters. He began as an AP reporter for four years in Brazil, returning to America to start a newsletter called CounterPunch that investigated, among other things, ties between American officials and corrupt leaders overseas. He later freelanced and wrote a book called "Private Warriors" on former national security officials from the Cold War era who went on to make money selling their advice to authoritarian regimes. But his biggest blockbuster was a 12,000-word profile, published in Harper's magazine in 2000, of a man Silverstein called "one of the most important and enigmatic arms dealers of all time," living quietly in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later, his investigation of money-laundering in the Bahamas, in which he posed as a newly rich investor, led to a cover story in Mother Jones, helping that magazine win a National Magazine Award. Silverstein, 43, is a contributing editor for Harper's and Mother Jones.

SARA FRITZ (bureau chief, St. Petersburg Times)
For 15 years, Fritz was the doyenne of investigative reporting at the Los Angeles Times, helping the paper establish a Detective Columbo presence in Washington. On Iran-contra, on Whitewater, on campaign finance, she often ran ahead of the pack. Since joining the St. Pete Times in May 1999, Fritz, 57, has pursued a more personally fulfilling mission--applying her investigative skills to disclose how prescription drug companies game the government approval process--keeping prices high and making life hard for cash-strapped senior citizens. For the large number of elderly readers in her Florida audience, there aren't many more important topics. And Fritz is convinced they are getting ripped off. "The cost of drugs is particularly an issue for senior citizens, so I wanted to get out ahead of it," she says.

DAVID WOOD (correspondent, Newhouse News Service)
Perhaps the best unheralded military reporter in town, Wood, 56, was the first reporter to reveal the full details of the Pentagon's Operation Anaconda assault against al Qaeda. He also parlayed his widespread professional respect and military contacts into a permission slip to report from inside the operations center in Bagram, Afghanistan, producing a vivid piece as Special Forces units continued their hunt for Osama bin Laden. But with the Washington Post and the New York Times dominating war coverage, Wood's groundbreaking work often goes unnoticed inside the Beltway. A case in point: Military reporters (and their sources) who rely on the Pentagon-produced Early Bird--a publication collecting important daily clips--would have missed his bin Laden piece. That lack of visibility can be infuriating. But, says Wood, "I started my career at Time magazine, so I got my taste of glamour early and concluded that given the choice between glamour and high visibility on the one hand and on the other creative freedom to explore and grow and write free of a stifling journalism bureaucracy, I'd take the latter."

THOMAS DeFRANK (bureau chief, New York's Daily News)
DeFrank, 56, is one of those political reporters whose institutional knowledge runs unusually deep. He has covered seven presidents, primarily during his 25 years at Newsweek. DeFrank probably knows the Bush family better than any reporter in town. He has covered the president's father since 1974 and has known the president since the 1980s, when no one dreamed he'd ever run for national office. He has covered Vice President Dick Cheney since he served as deputy White House chief of staff in the Ford administration in the 1970s, and he broke the news of Cheney's nomination as VP in 2000. DeFrank's longtime contacts enable him to piece together the kind of detailed insider tick-tocks Tim Russert likes to display on "Meet the Press." With a tight-lipped White House and a position at a paper that doesn't grab Beltway attention, that's no small achievement. "There are days the only thing that saves me is that I have pre-existing relationships," he says.

JILL ZUCKMAN (chief congressional correspondent, Chicago Tribune)
Access to leading members of Congress isn't a problem for Zuckman. That's because she prefers wandering the halls of the Capitol to sitting behind a desk making phone calls or requesting access through press secretaries. "It's a question of how much shoe leather you want to put into it," says the 36-year-old Zuckman. "I try to fill my stories with information directly from members. By talking to them, you can find out not only what they're doing, but also what they're thinking." Zuckman is the Tribune's only reporter on the beat, and she has to compete against major papers with three or more congressional reporters. Nevertheless, her congressional reporting last year earned her the National Press Foundation's prestigious Everett McKinley Dirksen Award. During the last presidential campaign, Zuckman--then with the Boston Globe--took a similar shoe-leather approach, spending most of 1999 on the scene in New Hampshire, where she built contacts with candidates that gave her an edge even in later primaries.

SABRINA EATON (reporter, Cleveland's Plain Dealer)
Eaton, 37, was exhausted from her coverage of September 11, which included walking across the Potomac River to report on the attack on the Pentagon and later having to take Cipro in case she had been exposed to anthrax outside the Senate majority leader's office. One day last fall she was with pals complaining about work when one of her friends offered a competing tale of woe: Her dad, she said, has been stuck in a bunker since the attacks. "I thought that was interesting," Eaton recalls. "So Dick Cheney had a lot of company." She asked another friend, a spy buff from her day-care group, about it; he pointed her in the right direction and she developed the first story on Washington's shadow government, hidden away in the event of a major attack. Four months later, the Washington Post published its own bunker story, earning widespread credit for breaking the news. For Washington's unsung stars, this was a classic case of getting shoved aside by the big guys. "Why is the Washington Post continuing to press the fiction that it 'first reported' that federal workers have been hunkered down in bunkers since September 11?" Eaton complained in a letter she posted on the Web.

SEAN D. NAYLOR (senior writer, Army Times)
When the U.S. military launched Operation Anaconda, designed to put a stranglehold on a ferocious remnant of al Qaeda forces holed up in the Afghan mountains, only two print reporters were on hand to witness the assault. One was from the Associated Press. The other was Sean Naylor, 35, who arguably has more sources in the U.S. Army than any of his competitors in the big-league press. He not only knows when to duck, he also knows the difference between a Viper and an AT4 (both anti-tank missiles). For 12 years, Naylor has covered the military for Army Times, a Gannett-owned weekly that, with 100,000 readers, is the largest of the papers aimed at the military branches. His institutional knowledge is deep enough to command respect all the way up the ranks. And he's no pushover: Commanders weren't exactly thrilled when he revealed that as many as half of the American soldiers at the Kandahar base in Afghanistan were wearing faulty bullet-proof vests because the Pentagon hadn't shipped over enough life-protecting ceramic plates.

MARY LEONARD (reporter, Boston Globe)
Leonard has made her mark taking Washington policy out for a spin in real-life settings. Take President Bush's plan to help faith-based charities, an idea that captured Leonard's attention (and that of her Northeastern audience) because it affected black churches, social welfare workers, white evangelicals and civil rights advocates, among others. At her stops outside Washington, including a homeless shelter in Massachusetts and a conservative Christian charity in Florida, Leonard found resistance to the government strings that would come attached to grants. "From the White House you heard that [many charities] want it, but it was a different story when you got out," she says. Now she is taking the same approach to welfare reform. Leonard, 54, was an editor in various Washington bureaus before rediscovering her love for writing at the Globe four years ago. But rather than getting sucked into the Beltway vortex, she's astute enough to know the importance of getting out of town so as not to become one of the "creatures of Washington."

JONATHAN TILOVE (reporter, Newhouse News Service)
Tilove, 47, has made imaginative use of Newhouse's imaginative beat system. A reporting veteran of 25 years, he uses his race and immigration beat to explore questions such as why so many African Americans, and so few whites, carry the last name Washington. More recently, he took his readers on a tour of black America by visiting 30 streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (there are more than 500 nationwide). Accompanied by the evocative photos of New York photographer Michael Falco, Tilove's series featured everyday people telling their stories: playing in the Negro baseball leagues, taking part in the civil rights movement, working as a Pullman porter, all revealing their place in the nation's history. "It was everything you can't do in the usual story about race," says Tilove. "There was no agenda, no point to be made, no one had to have a title." Just a powerful portrait of black America.

DALE McFEATTERS (editorial writer and columnist, Scripps Howard News Service)
"You don't have to be a genius to figure out that with shrinking newsholes, shorter is better," says McFeatters, 60. That means an editorial needs to pack plenty of punch into less than 400 words; otherwise the number of papers picking it up drops dramatically. McFeatters, who has worked in Washington for Scripps Howard since 1969, does just that. Reporters elsewhere in D.C. can thank him for his tirades in favor of open government, particularly under an administration that seems determined to restrict and control the flow of information. McFeatters railed against limitations on the Freedom of Information Act--imposed in the name of "national security"--and an order providing the president with veto power over the release of presidential documents from the archives of his predecessors, including his father. "The opportunity for political mischief," McFeatters wrote, "is obvious."



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