From AJR, July/August 2001 issue
Where Are the Watchdogs?
Today's Washington bureaus concentrate much more heavily on issues and themes than in the past. That's produced some sophisticated, provocative journalism. But is enough attention being paid to how the federal government spends our money?
By Lucinda Fleeson ONCE UPON A time, the marbled monumental buildings of Washington, D.C., housed pressrooms. Editors across the land deemed the federal government's business so important that they assigned newsmen, and a few stalwart lady reporters, to report how federal bureaucrats dispensed the nation's largess and divined new policies. Sometimes the reporters revealed that millions of dollars ended up in the wrong people's pockets.
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.
Those days were really not so long ago-perhaps only a couple of decades. But the notion of news organizations assigning a full-time reporter to cover a Washington bureaucracy has become as antique as the typewriters on which stories used to be written. Reporters so rarely go to the federal agencies anymore that many pressrooms have grown dusty and little-used, or, in some cases, have been completely eliminated.
Now newspapers and wire services almost invariably prefer what they call issue-oriented coverage. Or themes. Or, in the case of Scripps Howard News Service, Centers of Excellence.
At Scripps Howard's Washington bureau, Managing Editor Mark Tomasik explained recently how readers at his company's 21 daily newspapers were polled, surveyed, interviewed and focus-grouped. The chain's study identified three predominant matters of reader concern: education, health and a subject dubbed sprawl--a growing unease with unchecked suburban expansion. Beginning this January, two Scripps Howard Washington reporters were assigned to each of the three "Centers of Excellence." The reporters conduct weekly e-mail chats with journalists at client newspapers, who suggest hot topics or file a quote or two to be churned into the Washington report and sent back to the hinterlands in customized, localized stories.
What about the idea of having a reporter assigned to cover federal agencies to report how the government is spending taxpayer money? I naively ask. You know, what used to be called "building coverage"?
Tomasik, a pleasant-looking, gray-haired man with no tie and comfortable docksiders, falls momentarily silent. The whites of his eyes widen, his head shakes ever so slightly. He looks at me as if I qualified for a dinosaur's pension. "No. No," he explains gently. "That's one hundred years ago. That's old."
IN ITS LAST piece on Washington beat reporting, in April 1999, AJR found that many newspapers and wire services had walked away from covering federal agencies and departments--long regarded as the meat of good reporting in Washington. Much of the media simply abandoned departments like transportation or housing or agriculture. In the last two years, there has been further decline. Now, there are no full-time reporters at the Department of Veterans Affairs--the third-largest federal workforce, eclipsed only by the Pentagon and the Postal Service. Nor are there any regular reporters devoted to doings at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Several newspapers have made further cutbacks in coverage at the Labor Department, Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration as well as once must-do beats at the State Department and the Pentagon. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, has all but eliminated agency beats, and asks its reporter John Diamond to cover both State and Defense. (For the purposes of comparative study, AJR defined full-time beats as those in which a reporter devotes at least two-thirds of his or her time to covering an agency and closely related issues--a standard that in itself brought howls of derision from many interviewed for this article as too tough and archaic.)
"It's obvious to us that there is a lower on-campus presence by reporters in many of the traditional Washington beats, and that includes the White House, State Department and Pentagon," says Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sandy Johnson. She doesn't mind at all. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us," she says. Now even the AP, and the Big Three newspapers--the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--elect thematic coverage rather than full-bore agency beats.
Washington bureau chiefs give nearly uniform responses as to why they left behind what they so dismissively label building coverage. "My standard guidance to reporters is: ŚWe don't cover buildings,' " Johnson says. "We have beat reporters who keep an eye on agencies, but we want them to bring government policy alive for the reader, beyond what HHS or the Pentagon said today."
Liz Spayd, national editor of the Washington Post, says that her paper's national staff of 50 just isn't big enough to cover all the federal regulatory agencies and departments. "In an ideal world, where the number of reporters was limitless, we'd have someone cover HHS or HUD. But we just don't have the resources. In the old days we did a lot of institutional coverage that was of marginal interest to a lot of people, and which didn't really go to the heart of the issues."
Some editors and managers cite reader fatigue with old-style Washington stories that tended to focus on incremental policy changes and debates, budgetary issues and bureaucratic announcements. "There's been a real castor-oil quality of coverage," says Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief, Kathleen Carroll. "If you look back at the way Washington stories were written in the past, you see that it's just boring as hell."
The notion that government reporting is necessarily dull has been used to justify the cutbacks in full-time coverage, although Carroll says Knight Ridder readership surveys show that readers are interested in news out of Washington but want provocative, to-the-point stories.
Smaller bureau leaders say there is no reason to duplicate the already excellent coverage offered by the AP and Reuters. As alternative, supplemental news sources, they have to be selective, choose subjects that they can do with more insight, more verve, more relevance to readers. If news heats up on a particular subject, they deploy more forces as news merits. A vast array of trade publications today covers the agencies in incredible detail, and reporters read those journals. Thus, not only Scripps Howard but Cox Newspapers, Copley News Service, Hearst Newspapers, Gannett News Service and many papers such as the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Detroit News have minimized department and agency coverage or eliminated it.
Some argue that Washington journalism has never been better, practiced by reporters who are more educated, more expert and more investigative in approach than their Neanderthalian predecessors, who reported on federal bureaucracies like stenographers. "Journalism has changed dramatically, and reporters are asked to do less transcriptive work than they once did," says the AP's Johnson. "Now stories have background, context, authority--things that didn't exist 20 or 30 years ago." Editors also contend that many news organizations, including the AP, now devote more resources to investigative teams and enterprise reports that serve effective watchdog functions.
All of the reasons offered to abandon the old beats sound so reasonable. Let the wires do the boring grunt work of daily process stories. We don't have the resources. We zig while all the others zag. News doesn't emit from buildings; it is to be found all over the nation.
"But while many of these news outlets say, or claim, they are going to substitute issue-oriented coverage for the old beat system, they don't really do much of it," observes Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "The new approach, while valuable, provides political cover for the abandonment of these old beats."
So if the major national papers and the biggest wires are cutting back on their role of watching major chunks of the federal government or checking up on how untold billions are being spent, what is the collective result? That's easy. Less public accountability by the government.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says the result is that "the regulators don't feel any heat. They used to sweat it when the Times or the Washington Post comes. They don't sweat anything anymore, because they know the stories will be here today, gone tomorrow." Instead of viewing agencies as news beats, he says, news organizations have turned federal government coverage into "a sporadic stop on a feature-oriented highway."
He cited the New York Times' Matthew L. Wald as "a very good reporter" caught in this trend. "Matt Wald covers the FAA, auto safety and the NRC, and he doesn't do any of them adequately, because it's too much for one person," says Nader. "You've got to get inside, you've got to get the leaks, and the whistle-blowing, and you can't do that once in a while."
Wald doesn't dispute Nader's comments, although he counters that his coverage overlaps with other Times reporters on all of those subjects. "The world is not so neatly divided," he says.
To examine how news organizations' policies shape the way journalists do their jobs, AJR focused on three reporters who operate within the new dictates and confines of Washington beat reporting. The three featured here are examples of what might be called the New Washington Reporter. They are classic good journalists by any definition, yet give only part-time scrutiny to the business of the federal government or the intricacies of bureaucratic politicking. One is a news-service reporter charged with juggling responsibilities for watching the Pentagon, the State Department and the exploding field of personal technology. Another reporter lives 1,300 miles away from Washington and covers the Federal Aviation Administration by long distance. And one is an investigative reporter who does no traditional beat reporting at all, but was allowed six months to report what turned into a stunning series of stories that revealed the inner workings of the FDA. Undoubtedly they are the success stories, among the peaks in the shifting landscape of Washington reporting, whose work eloquently demonstrates the need for intense press scrutiny.
BECAUSE OF A sore knee, Lisa Hoffman is limping as she trudges the long, long corridors of the Pentagon. "This is where the muckety-mucks are," she says, pointing to walnut paneled walls. "Wherever you see wood, it denotes muckety-mucks." We pass the secretary of the Army's office, then go down another hall lined with portraits of former secretaries of defense, duck around corners, and finally reach a low-echelon, windowless warren of offices with dreary metal desks. Our goal is Room 2D673, headquarters for the Army's Base Realignment and Closure Office, known in militaryese as BRAC.
Hoffman hits the Pentagon once or twice a week--it's an easy Metro ride from the downtown Scripps Howard Washington bureau. Today's goal is to cultivate the Army brass in charge of base-closings, which she forecasts will be a big issue in 2001. The U.S. military is hoping to save billions by closing at least 50 military installations over the next few years, a plan that will be fought bitterly by politicians and communities. "It's a hugely political issue," explains Hoffman, 48. "The communities where the bases are located hate it. Congress is breathing down the Army's neck. But they have to do it. The Pentagon is begging to do it. They have too many bases."
She asks a young officer in khaki for the BRAC office. He hoots, "Oh, the only declared war zone in the administration." He directs us to an unmarked office, and in its far corner is the door to another unmarked office. A colonel sits with his back to us, intent on his computer screen. He turns at Hoffman's knock.
He comes to the door but doesn't invite her in. His jaw juts hard left as he dubiously listens to her spiel: "I'm Lisa Hoffman, a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service," she says, offering her card. "I'm here to develop background on BRAC. I've looked at your Web site, and it's a good one, as it has a lot more than many of the Army Web sites."
The colonel's jaw eases, his eyes relent as he looks over Hoffman, a sensible-looking, middle-age woman with shaggy black hair and a comic's mobile mouth.
We see by his name tag that he is Lt. Col. Stephen A. Shambach, Chief, BRAC. He speaks: "I think you're supposed to go to Public Information. I don't really know because no other reporters have ever shown up. But I'm willing to talk."
Bingo. Hoffman hides her smile.
Before we leave, I ask: "How many reporters ever have called to ask about BRAC?"
"That's easy," says the colonel, and cups his hands into a big goose egg. "Zero."
When we later roam out of earshot, Hoffman lets out a breath and says in her low, smoker's voice, "That worked beautifully. Except he's leaving at the end of the month for a new assignment. But I'll be able to use his name with the new guy."
This Friday afternoon, Hoffman walks--her limp notwithstanding--an estimated two miles of corridor in order to track down Col. Shambach and one other potential source. A lot of work. "Yeah," she acknowledges. "But it always pays off. They get to put a name with a face. And you never know where these guys end up. Colonels often go on to [become] commanders."
Four hundred of America's newspapers, ranging in size from the Maryland Beachcomber to the Chicago Sun-Times, depend in part on Hoffman's Scripps Howard reports for Defense Department news.
Hoffman no longer devotes all her time to the Pentagon. Under a reorganization of the Scripps Howard bureau that began about a year-and-a-half ago, she splits her time among Defense, international news, the State Department, the Internet and, on occasion, the pandas at the National Zoo.
Not that she doesn't handle the juggling act well. As part of her Internet coverage, she broke the story January 24 that George W. Bush had given up e-mail--a fact she picked up out of a daily pool report posted on the Internet from a casual remark the president made on Air Force One. Presidential correspondence, even personal e-mail, is required by law to be archived as public documents, so he decided to stop using the computer to communicate, even with his children.
Hoffman may be the quintessential old Washington beat reporter operating in the new-world redefinition--aiming for less government news, less inside baseball or even inside-the-Beltway coverage, more stories that purport to relate to the average reader's daily life. Her coverage is purposely different from the previous generation of Washington journalists', and certainly different from the work of her father, Fred Hoffman, who was the AP's respected Pentagon reporter from 1961 to 1984.
Her stories are not mega-projects, but rather run from 500 to 700 words. Her articles often break news, and reflect the careful sourcing and historical perspective that is the foundation of good beat coverage.
When American fighter jets bombed Iraq three weeks after President Bush was inaugurated, Hoffman, unlike many others, didn't hail it as a bold signal of a new, stand-tough administration. She knew that American bombing of Iraq was a routine event and had been since 1998 when the U.S. stepped up patrols of the "no-fly" zones. She reported that there had been in fact eight such bombing attacks against Iraqi military targets in the first five weeks of 2001.
She called the Iraqi bombing raids "the forgotten war" when she reported in July 1999 that American warplanes had pummeled nearly 200 Iraqi targets with $19 million in precision-guided bombs on missions every couple of days--a finding gleaned from weekly briefing reports.
After an Army helicopter crashed off Hawaii on February 12, killing six soldiers and injuring 11, she reported that it was the third serious crash involving the Black Hawk UH-60 model this year, including another crash the previous week.
Some of her best stuff involves what she calls "The Big Story." It's not about tanks or aircraft carriers anymore, she contends, as the real warfare is computer-based "cyberwar." She laid out in a two-part package in October 1999 how, during the brief Kosovo conflict, American forces attacked Serbian computer systems, disrupting the Serbs' command-and-control network, as well as the Serb telephone system.
So why doesn't Hoffman just pay all her attention to the Pentagon? Part of the reason was evident as she sat at her 10th-floor desk overlooking Vermont Avenue and scanned the Scripps Howard electronic archives to see how her cyberwarfare series played in middle America: "The play was just okay," she admits as she scrolls through the files and finds that the story ran in Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press. "Good for them. Fine newspaper," she cheers. "They even did the sidebar." The Rocky Mountain News used it way inside. "47-A," she laughs. "But they used most of it. I betcha they were the only one of our big papers that used it."
Story use and play in Abilene, Texas; Evansville, Indiana; and Ventura, California, are monitored at Scripps Howard. Editors and reporters become very attuned to what sells, and soon abandon what doesn't. "Right now we're at peace," says Hoffman's boss, Scripps Howard News Service Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland. "If we were to go to war, I suspect Lisa would be doing more defense coverage. It's just that they're not committing news anymore at the Pentagon." (Copeland's remarks came before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld launched his sweeping reevaluation of the military.)
In the new order of nontraditional Washington coverage, Scripps Howard doesn't even expend one of its seven precious national reporters to cover Congress anymore--longtime Capitol Hill reporter Lance Gay has been reassigned to the issue of food and product safety. "These are hot topics, and we don't think they are as well reported as the mainstream topics," says bureau Managing Editor Tomasik.
Tomasik, a former Cincinnati Post sports editor, was recruited in late 1997 by Copeland specifically for his outside-Washington perspective. "We don't have someone covering Congress every day, or the Supreme Court, or Labor or Justice--all those traditional beats. That stuff, frankly, is a dime a dozen," says Tomasik, who gets excited and leans out of his chair as he expounds on how newspapers have grown boring and must change, fast, if they are going to survive. "What we are not getting is really excellent coverage of quality-of-life issues. If I had to sum up what we are doing, it is quality of life."
But who's keeping track of the federal government? "First of all, there are plenty of news organizations that are doing that and doing it well," he says. "We're not talking about fluffy and soft. Food is not fluffy and soft. We might do a piece on what is the difference between farm-raised and ocean fish. You are not going to find that story in a building in Washington. You might find the start of a trail there."
Adds Copeland: "We are in the unique position of being a supplemental news service. I think of AP as the infantry. The regular army. They do the nuts-and-bolts stuff, but it's not very interesting. It's not. We're a special-forces A Team."
Not to be a bother and keep asking the same question, but doesn't that mean that, collectively, the media are forsaking their traditional government watchdog role? Copeland admits, "I want to do what you're saying, but I don't have the people..."
ONE REASON THAT reporters no longer stake out desks at federal agencies or even visit much anymore is because they don't have to pick up press releases in person or, in some cases, even attend press conferences. Most agency press offices have become so adept at utilizing telecommunications innovations that the practice of journalism has been changed dramatically. At the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, where rulings on high-tech companies translate into volatile trading jolts in the stock market, the press office links as many as 100 reporters into telephone press conferences. E-mails and faxes are distributed simultaneously to hundreds of reporters.
Press conferences at most departments and agencies are almost instantly transcribed and posted on government Web sites, to be perused with equal ease by reporters stationed a few blocks or a few thousand miles away.
For example, nowadays many briefings at the State Department could be held in a closet, as the only real regulars are network television and wire service reporters. Nearby in the pressroom, desks assigned to the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and other papers are usually empty. "I've hardly seen the New York Times or the Washington Post set foot in the pressroom in five years," says George Gedda, a longtime AP reporter. "Why schlep over here? It takes 15 minutes to get here, then they have to sit for an hour, then it takes 15 minutes to get back. They could much better spend their time on the phone or eating lunch with somebody."
That's OK by many Washington news managers. Scripps Howard's Copeland bluntly says: "The stories don't exist in the State Department."
But some disagree. "You have to go," says Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus, who also spent time as a reporter patrolling the marble halls of State. "Being there is better than pulling it off the Web. Because it is not all in the transcript. Because body language is important. Because grabbing the spokesman off-the-record is important. Because sessions with your colleagues are important."
IN THE AGE of high-tech reporting, some reporters find it is possible to cover federal bureaucracies from afar, only visiting the nation's capital for quick refueling stops. David Cay Johnston of the New York Times was awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for articles on the IRS that revealed corporate tax cheating. He works in New York, with only occasional visits to Washington.
He's hardly the only carpetbagger to swoop into Washington and grab prize-winning stories right out from under the noses of Washington bureau reporters who were neglecting agency coverage. In fact, Johnson was the fourth out-of-towner to win a Pulitzer for IRS coverage.
Albuquerque Tribune reporter Eileen Welsome's 1993 prize-winning story was a compelling narrative of the human experiment subjects who had been injected with plutonium in 1945 through 1947. Much of her reporting was culled from Department of Energy reports, and parts of the story had actually received less interesting treatment by other reporters for two decades.
These examples illustrate how intense agency scrutiny need not translate into boring stories--and in fact can produce stellar, provocative reads that embody the highest aims of public service journalism. Critics say they also are an indictment of the way Washington is being covered.
J. Lynn Lunsford is an example of the Washington reporter of the future--the knowledgeable out-of-towner who reports all over America, while attached via fax, e-mail and cell phone to officialdom. Lunsford, 37, has covered the aviation beat for 15 years, based in Texas for the entire time: first for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then eight years for the Dallas Morning News, and, since April, for the Wall Street Journal, where he reports on Boeing Co. and airline safety issues. He is one of seven reporters stationed in bureaus around the country who report on aviation for the Journal. Despite his Texas base, Lunsford talks with Federal Aviation Administration officials every day.
Whenever he is in Washington, Lunsford makes a pilgrimage to the National Air and Space Museum. When I meet him, he is standing under the Voyager, an ultra-light, pointy-nosed two-seater that was the first aircraft to go around the world nonstop without refueling. Lunsford watched it take off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14, 1986, and was there to see it land nine days later.
Our next stop was on the second floor, the Holy Grail: Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, which made the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic. "It's still got water and grease stains at the ailerons," Lunsford says reverently. "I come to look at this plane because, personally, I feel it may be as important as first flight. This was the one that opened it up. Flight stopped being something that crazy people did and started to be something that got people someplace faster."
But it is the FAA, a few minutes' walk across Independence Avenue, that really makes Lunsford's pulse race. Suspended from the ceiling just inside the front door is a yellow Piper Cub--a dead ringer for Lunsford's own 1938 model. The Cub's two-seat cockpit opens with a clamshell, top-hinged door. It is powered by a 65-horsepower engine and only flies about 75 mph. There is no starter--it is fired up by yanking on the propeller. Lunsford is known around the FAA as the reporter with the antique Cub--a collector's item that is something of its own Holy Grail for pilots. "After you've flown enough hours," Lunsford says proudly of his prize possession, "you don't fly it. You wear it."
Lunsford got the flying bug early. As a young boy, he had been entranced by his grandfather's neighbor, who had worked on Lindbergh's plane as a mechanic and spun tales of the Lone Eagle.
Lunsford's hair is now graying but is buzzed short like a fighter pilot's. He usually wears a leather flight jacket for what his friends call his "horseshit and gunsmoke" Texan act. When he was interviewed for this article, he was in Washington on one of his periodic trips to cultivate sources. The day before he had met somebody for coffee, someone else for dinner and yet another for drinks. He dropped in on the FAA public information staff. "Just talked. Hardly anything about work," he says. "About their kids, what fun trips have you done. Most people know I fly this old plane and ask me about it. Simple things. You learn to talk to people when you don't have to, and that way they'll return your call. It's exactly the same thing you learn as a baby reporter covering police."
While Lunsford wears his plane, he also lives his beat. He's covered more than 200 air crashes, from single-engine planes to the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island. When a plane goes down, he flies to the site and checks into the same hotel used by National Transportation Safety Board investigators. He completed an eight-day crash investigation course at the Transportation Safety Institute. He knows the Dallas-Fort Worth airport bar where the mechanics hang out and the gym where the pilots work out. Every six or eight months he spends a midnight shift with a crash-fire rescue team. Many control tower chiefs around the country have Lunsford's cell phone number--and use it.
But the big aviation decisions are still made in Washington, at the FAA and its neighbor at L'Enfant Plaza, the NTSB. Lunsford is living proof that it's possible to cover Washington from another part of the country; he works hard to maintain his contacts. "No matter how you cut it, if you want someone to believe you care about covering their agency," he says, "you have to show up in person once in a while and prove it."
The FAA, like most of the big agencies in Washington, holds telephone press conferences to reach news organizations that don't send reporters. Lunsford listens in on the briefings--"because of the background information. You never know when you need it."
His careful attention to his subject yields results. Three days after a ValuJet airliner disappeared into the Everglades in 1996, Lunsford filed a FOIA request for all NTSB recommendations made over the previous 20 years. The files showed that FAA adopted 80 percent of NTSB's recommendations, but had rejected 532 safety suggestions--mostly big-ticket items that were viewed as not economically feasible. "After ValuJet went down, it suddenly became tremendously economically feasible to outfit those cargo holds with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers," Lunsford says grimly. New rules now mandate the safety equipment.
On his Washington trip, he focused on advanced evacuation equipment, which he figures will soon be a big issue. "Manufacturers are talking about bigger jetliners," he explains. "That's fine, but how do you unload 500 passengers when the upper deck is 60 feet from the ground? If I'm doing my job, I can write about issues before they are hot."
IT'S EASY TO see that Lunsford is a bright spot. More difficult to assess is what happens at agencies where there are few regular reporters to pursue the daily stories that allow them to develop sources, pick up tips and put together complex stories from bits and pieces.
What gets missed?
These days no one devotes anything like full-time attention to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, located in the Washington suburbs in Rockville, Maryland, and charged with supervising the nation's 103 commercial nuclear power plants. H. Josef Hebert, the AP's longtime energy expert, recounts that after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, he covered nuclear power full time for two years. Now it is only an ancillary beat for him, part of a broad mandate to cover energy, the environment and natural resources, subjects that cut across several agencies. "You simply can't have someone sitting out in Rockville to cover the NRC full time," he says. "When big news happens, then we narrow our focus. I don't think we miss a lot, to be perfectly honest."
Hebert received reinforcements this year when the AP added an environment reporter as a result of California's power problems and the Bush administration's controversial energy proposals, including a plan to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Likewise, the Washington Post this year shifted two reporters to monitor the Interior Department on a more regular basis.
Hebert says that part of his job as the AP's environment reporter is to scan the dozens of trade publications "that cover the EPA like a blanket. No one covers that agency like that. But you can read them, and in some sense, that is what trade publications are for. I might say, ŚHey, this is interesting,' and then decide I've got to spend more time on the EPA."
Hebert has no doubt that reporters could ferret out more good stories if they spent more time there, but asks, "What is our alternative--hire three times as many reporters?"
The Department of Veterans Affairs is another of the neglected agencies, with no current representative from a mainstream newspaper or wire service regularly assigned to watch its immense $45.7 billion federal budget, which distributes monthly benefits to 3.5 million veterans. This is not to say that no one ever calls the VA press office--its log shows that between January 1 and March 7, 2001, reporters from no less than 187 news organizations telephoned with queries. But there were almost no repeat callers, and only a fraction were from general interest newspapers or wires; most were from specialized military magazines such as All Hands or Disability Funding News.
When I visited the VA in the waning days of the Clinton administration, I found the bureaucrats so hungry to see a reporter that I was unexpectedly ushered into the office of then-Assistant Secretary John Hanson for an hour's chat--and a complaint that the agency doesn't get top-quality, expert coverage. Instead, it is the subject of quick hits, usually by reporters who need an hour's briefing on the basics. "Most coverage is regional or local," said James H. Holley, then-deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. "Much of the national level reporting is pretty sloppy."
Of course, Hanson and Holley were complaining about the lack of stories that put their agency in a good light. But they offered an interesting point of view. They contended they couldn't get out their message that VA hospitals--the largest hospital system in the country, training more than half of the nation's medical students through affiliations with medical schools--have improved far beyond their stereotyped image as sour sinkholes, memorably portrayed in the film "Born on the Fourth of July."
With their nationalized data collection, the VA hospitals have become effective research labs--developing the most sophisticated prosthetics, for instance, or using bar codes for drug distribution, which has reduced medication errors.
Says Media Relations Director Phil Budahn: "One of the consequences of not being covered regularly is that a lot of stories are driven by anecdotes: John Jones in Peoria is angry because he isn't getting disability benefits, and because of privacy laws, we can't say the guy isn't qualified."
Just two years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs had been a regular beat for David Dahl of the St. Petersburg Times and Bill McAllister of the Washington Post. Dahl was recalled to Florida to become state editor and not replaced on the beat; McAllister quit the Post to become the Denver Post's Washington bureau chief.
McAllister says he was frustrated because he couldn't get interest or good play for his best VA stories, such as one about how the shrinking vet population was forcing hospitals to shut down. "I tried and tried to get that hospital story on the front and couldn't. It ran inside," McAllister says. "After you do something like that and it doesn't seem sexy enough to sell, you say, ŚWell, what's it worth to me?' "
McAllister's experience is hardly unique. Reporters who attempt to cover federal beats in the old style, writing incremental, policy-watching, procedural (some say boring) stories, do not get rewarded. Even sexier stories out of the agencies can get buried.
"I can tell you from experience that most agency stories don't come near page one, which reinforces the notion that these are second-tier assignments," says the Washington Post's Kurtz, who covered HUD in the early 1980s.
"When a major HUD scandal erupted, which included some of the same elements I had written about years earlier, it became absolutely a page-one story, but by then the money had already been looted and journalism was rushing in after the barn door had already been unlocked. Digging into the way these agencies use and misuse money is an important journalistic function. And there are great stories hidden in the bowels of these bureaucracies. But all the market incentives in journalism lie in the other direction. The glamour, the front-page stories, the invitations to appear on television, generally don't flow to those who are doing yeoman work of covering HUD or the Energy Department or the EPA."
Now, no one is covering HUD full time for the Washington Post, acknowledges its national editor, Liz Spayd: "In the past, we wrote about HUD a lot, but not about housing enough. That was the trade-off. You could ask the question of whether we've gone too far the other way now."
ON A MUGGY July evening three years ago, a government doctor returned from work to his suburban Maryland home. As he walked up the driveway he was stopped by a quiet, rather somber-appearing stranger, who introduced himself as David Willman, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. Willman was looking into the Food and Drug Administration's handling of the diabetes drug Rezulin; the researcher had fought unsuccessfully to stop the drug's release.
"I've been ordered not to talk. But people are dying now," replied the doctor. "We are into criminality. Come in."
Finding the researcher had been difficult and time-consuming. A source had mentioned a surname, but without a correct spelling. Working phonetically, the reporter scanned FDA employee rolls for plausible matches, looked up addresses, and then began the tedious process of knocking on doors. Willman had already been out to the house twice before, only to find no one home.
The doctor Willman met that summer night provided an information breakthrough: The FDA had approved Rezulin despite detailed opposition from the medical officer most knowledgeable about the situation. On December 6 and 7, 1998, Willman wrote that 33 liver-failure deaths had been linked to Rezulin. He obtained transcripts and minutes of meetings that helped to create a picture of the inner workings of the FDA in more detail than perhaps ever before.
Willman won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year for his work that showed that Rezulin and six other prescription drugs had been approved by the FDA despite danger signs or blunt warnings from its own specialists. He reported that the seven drugs were suspected of causing more than 1,000 deaths. He also documented that many of the agency's advisers and important decision makers at the National Institutes of Health had accepted fees or grants from Rezulin's manufacturer, Warner-Lambert Co. The FDA finally recalled Rezulin in March 2000, amid criticism for moving too slowly.
The Pulitzer Board called Willman's work "pioneering" and praised his critical analysis "of the policy reforms that had reduced the agency's effectiveness."
Even Willman's competition was admiring. Marc Kaufman, who covers the FDA for the Washington Post, says: "David Willman is not a beat reporter, but he had the skills to unearth this kind of tale. Ultimately this kind of reporting that gets 'em between the eyes is as much of a watchdog as covering the daily news out of an agency."
(The Post devotes its own considerable resources to the medical/health/drug beat, including two practicing medical doctors, David Brown and Susan Okie. "At any time, four or five reporters at the Post are working on stories involving the FDA," says Kaufman. "The agency isn't covered by an individual--it's more like a swarm.")
Willman's FDA stories had indeed not grown out of the kind of classic beat reporting in which a reporter discovers a story while on his regular rounds. Rather, it grew out of a hunch. Willman, a member of the L.A. Times Washington bureau's investigations team, had heard that the FDA was using a "fast track" system to expedite approvals of a broad range of drugs, including some with no proven life-saving potential.
In October 1997, he proposed to do some spelunking on the subject. The project was delayed so he could finish work on campaign finance stories, then delayed again by the Clinton/Lewinsky saga. Not until July 1998 was Willman, 44, cleared for the FDA probe, which ended up consuming him for much of the next two years. He narrowed his research to Rezulin, which had been banned in Britain over concern about liver damage in U.S. patients. The first reports of deaths had begun to reach the FDA by the fall of 1997.
The L.A. Times' Washington bureau is one of the largest, with 36 reporters, deployed in seven broadly defined issue-related teams. Bureau Chief McManus says that even with such abundant resources, he can't cover all of the bases, so he tries to bridge the gap by rotating reporters into neglected agencies every so often for an intensive look. For instance, investigations team member Alan C. Miller spent four months covering the Department of Agriculture in 1994, producing two noteworthy reports of high-level shenanigans. One story broke ground on ethics lapses by then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who had accepted trips and other gifts from companies; the other showed how senior career employees raised campaign money for the 1992 Clinton campaign and later reaped promotions and other rewards. The stories contributed to government probes that led to the resignation by Espy and guilty pleas to illegal fundraising charges by four employees. "Even though California is the largest agricultural state in the country, we probably haven't had anything about Agriculture since," McManus laughs with chagrin.
A review of the record shows that McManus' memory was slightly off, but his point was right on target. Miller went back to Agriculture in 1996 to report on timber theft in national forests. "Every time I dug into something at the Ag Department, we hit paydirt," says Miller. That hasn't caused any newspapers to add Agriculture to their lists of must-dos: The agency is largely uncovered except by the AP, Reuters and the Des Moines Register.
Finding the right balance between hard news and enterprise stories remains a daunting challenge for McManus, as well as Tomasik and Copeland at Scripps Howard, and all the Washington bureau chiefs. No one really thinks he or she has it entirely right.
The day I visited McManus in his corner office, he suddenly spun around in his chair and dug through a stack of papers on the credenza. He pulled out a slightly dog-eared letter. "This was given to me when I became bureau chief," he said. "It's been handed down from bureau chief to bureau chief."
I glance at the date: February 25, 1965.
Former L.A. Times Editor Nick B. Williams had written a rambling, nine-page letter to Robert J. Donovan, the paper's then-new Washington bureau chief, in an attempt to define the job. Two somewhat contradictory excerpts: "I'd say that our purpose in general is to raise the sights of what our own staffers are doing, and to deliberately delegate to less exclusive sources (like AP or UPI) the drudgery of blow-by-blow reporting." And: "Yes, cover the big spot news."
Anyone who has been in the news business for 15 minutes knows the answer to this eternal question--do we do dailies or try for more enterprise?
We want both, shouts the home office. An impossible task. But the uncomfortable conclusion of this survey of Washington bureaus is that while most assume that other news organizations are taking care of the stories out of the federal government's myriad agencies and departments, fewer and fewer mainstream news organizations bother anymore, with dailies or enterprise pieces.
"The main reason we're here is to decipher and demystify the question of how Washington really works, and how the federal government really works," says McManus. "Are citizens getting the government they deserve, is justice being done? Are people getting special breaks? Are lobbyists cutting deals we don't know about? Any Washington bureau has the dilemma of taking a finite number of reporters and pursuing an almost infinite number of stories."
In the end, McManus says that it comes down to a quaint phrase that's been kicked around the L.A. Times bureau since it was coined by former National Editor Ed Guthman in 1972, when the paper's Washington bureau was getting skunked on Watergate: GOYA/KOD.
"Get Off Your Ass and Knock On Doors," explains McManus. "It's a dumb, old, low-tech lesson."