Washington Uncovered

Is anyone paying attention to the federal bureaucracy? In a recent cover story in American Journalism Review, two veteran journalists argue that major newspapers aren't, to the detriment of readers of across the country.

John Herbers, former deputy Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, and James McCartney, a former national security correspondent and columnist for the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder newspapers, based their story on a study of the Washington press corps by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland College of Journalism and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That study, they argue, shows "a steep slide in beat coverage" of key agencies by major newspapers across the country.

Herbers and McCartney note that an agency as significant as the Interior Department, with 68,000 employees and a budget of $7.8 billion, doesn't have a single reporter assigned to it full time. As a result, they say, government press officers at Interior and other agencies can spin their stories to more credulous local media outlets and more readily manage the way news about them is reported.

Fewer and fewer newspapers do their own reporting on Washington stories, relying instead on four key outlets-The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press-to do the grunt work of reporting on agency operations. That means many important national stories are going uncovered, Herbers and McCartney argue.

It's not a pretty picture. But the situation may not be quite as dire as Herbers and McCartney make it out to be.

For starters, the data from the Project on the State of the American Newspaper isn't exactly crystal clear. The study looked at 19 federal departments and agencies. In the case of eight of them, researchers found, the commitment to coverage had clearly declined in the 1990s. But in seven other cases, mostly involving agencies that deal with business, technology, health and science issues, coverage has increased in the past decade. In four cases, newspapers pay about the same amount of attention as they used to.

In other words, for 11 out of 19 agencies studied, newspaper coverage has risen or stayed the same in the past decade. The list includes such key agencies as the Defense and Justice departments, the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.

More important, the study looked only at coverage by the Washington bureaus of big-city newspapers across the country. It excluded TV networks and the growing number of Web publications, along with specialty newsletters, trade magazines and other news services. Some of these-especially those covering financial news-are huge. Bloomberg News Service, for example, didn't even exist a decade ago, but now has 60 reporters in its Washington office.

If specialized organizations are taken into account, Herbers and McCartney admit, "more reporters are prowling Washington than ever."

But newspaper reporters aren't covering government the way they used to. Washington, Herbers and McCartney argue, "increasingly is seen as a center for information rather than a center for government." Reporters are more likely to be sifting through data and trying to report on trends of direct interest to the readers back home than showing up on a day-in, day-out basis to cover the headquarters of individual agencies. As a result, the commitment to devote full-time reporters to such Washington institutions as the departments of State, Agriculture, Labor and Veterans Affairs is down.

But it's not clear that having groups of reporters assigned to specific agencies improves coverage of their operations.

Look at the White House, which is still covered by a large cadre of correspondents who spend their days in the cramped West Wing quarters waiting for news to break out. This arrangement breeds cynicism, because the reporters resent their restricted access to key officials and the fact that they are constantly being fed the White House line of the day.

When groups of reporters are assigned to the same buildings week after week, they tend to engage in pack journalism, all writing the same kinds of stories about the same events. To avoid this problem, many newspapers have restructured their Washington bureaus so that reporters focus on broad themes, such as race, money, jobs and families.

With this approach, reporters have to cover a lot of buildings, and probably won't become experts on any one agency's operations. But they are also more likely to dig for out-of-the-way stories and not allow the agencies to set the news agenda.

Regardless of how newspapers and other media outlets choose to organize their Washington operations, it's important that they constantly pay attention to what agencies are doing. Because while many of the stories about the federal government in the past decade have focused on downsizing and the shift of power to states and localities, Uncle Sam is still a major influence in Americans' lives.

"The demise of big government has been greatly exaggerated," Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, told Herbers and McCartney. "I'm actually surprised at how obsolete we aren't."

Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government
Executive.

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