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OmBlog
Posted at 05:07 PM ET, 11/29/2011

Post Roast: Coverage of White House shooting aimed too low

It’s not that the Post’s coverage of Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez — the man accused of firing bullets at the White House on Nov. 11 — is terrible. It isn’t; there’s been a lot of coverage. But to me it lacked ambition and depth, and in the end it didn’t go the extra mile, particularly in the print editions.

The Post online has had numerous items on The Crime Scene blog about the alleged shooter, frequent updates from the Associated Press and shorter online stories from staffers. It also included a video from Ortega-Hernandez himself, in which he describes himself as “a modern day Jesus.” In print, the coverage started slowly on inside pages of the Metro section, built to two front-page stories, one that said Ortega-Hernandez “hates the president” and another that said he “needed to kill” President Obama, and then fell off after Ortega-Hernandez was arrested.

But the New York Times, although its stories were fewer, reached deeper, got more detail and really worked the story assiduously from the beginning. And it sent a reporter to Ortega-Hernandez’s home town of Idaho Falls, Idaho, getting a richer profile story of the accused from talking to his friends and relatives.

For that story, the Times also interviewed a psychiatrist who used to work at St. Elizabeths Hospital with patients who were “White House” cases — those who had attempted to cause damage to the White House or to its residents. The psychiatrist, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, said that Ortega-Hernandez fits the classic profile of a paranoid schizophrenic.

If The Post is to be the indispensable guide to Washington — both for readers in this region plus those reading from far away online — then this was the kind of information it should have had. This was a story ripe for more ambition, more stories in the newspaper and more imaginative coverage.

Ortega-Hernandez is accused of firing at the White House with a high-powered rifle, a variant of the ubiquitous AK-47, this one a Romanian-made semiautomatic equipped with a high-powered scope. According to gun-enthusiast Web sites, this weapon is often used by military snipers. And, according to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity, this kind of rifle is frequently used in drug violence in Mexico.

The shooter, according to witnesses, fired the weapon perhaps seven times out the passenger-side window of a Honda Accord at about 9 p.m. that Friday, with his car pulled over on Constitution Avenue NW south of the Ellipse. The Secret Service has said that only two bullets fitting the size of Ortega-Hernandez’s weapon were confirmed to have been found on White House grounds — one of them managing to hit un upper-floor window of the White House — where President Obama and his family live. Fortunately, the antique glass in the old structure is backed by ballistic glass that stopped the bullet.

This was a pretty good shot by a high-powered weapon, as USA Today illustrated in a graphic. Police have said it was shot from 750 yards out, about the length of two good par-4 golf holes. That’s a serious attempt, even if the shooter wasn’t smart about Obama being out of town at the time.

Post Local Editor Vernon Loeb said that there was discussion about sending a reporter to Idaho Falls, but given that there was no indication from police or from the reporting that would link Ortega-Hernandez to any organized group or conspiracy based in Idaho, he decided not to send anyone.

“We thought about it, it was close, but on balance we felt we did well on the story from here,” Loeb said. “We felt that we were competitive without going out there.”

Loeb noted that the Times staffed the story from one of its West Coast bureaus, something The Post can no longer do after closing the last of its U.S. bureaus in 2009. And he noted that veteran Post crime reporter Paul Duggan was on the case and capable of handling it well.

I understand that The Post is still in cost-cutting mode. Sending a reporter on short notice to Idaho for a couple of days is not an insignificant expense. But this shooting happened here in Washington, and its target was the president of the United States. Not to cover this story like a blanket left me cold.

 

By  |  05:07 PM ET, 11/29/2011

 
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