April 6, 2012

When George Clooney came to town in March to urge Congress not to forget the violence in Sudan, he got the full treatment from The Post — coverage in the Style section as one might expect for the popular movie star — and a 650-word story in the A section about his activism on the war-torn region of Africa.

And that’s what bugs Dan Scandling, chief of staff to Rep. Frank R. Wolf, the Republican who represents parts of several counties in Northern Virginia. His boss, by many accounts and not just Scandling’s, is the leading expert on Sudan in the Congress. The congressman has visited there six times and has followed the subject for two decades.

But Scandling can get almost no coverage of Wolf’s human rights work from The Post. “Why does a story on George Clooney get 22 inches, and the local congressman, the leader on this issue, gets nothing?” Scandling asks.

You recall the recent controversy over President Obama’s new rule that religiously affiliated employers have to offer contraception and other preventive care, free, for women as part of the new health-care law.

Did you know how the preventive-care provision for women got into the health-care law? It was written into it during legislative markup by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Maryland’s Democratic senior senator. Mikulski has worked on women’s health issues for 35 years in Congress. Did The Post reach out to include Mikulski’s thoughts on the contraception debate? Not that I could find in looking through Nexis and Post archives.

And so it is with some, though not all, of the members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland. They and their aides say they find it hard to get traction from The Post, especially on an issue of national or international scope on which they are knowledgeable and influential.

Part of the reason may be a mentality on the foreign and national desks that the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia don’t exist — the reporters and editors there see only “Washington” writ large.

But aides to lawmakers say, too, that Post coverage of their work on local issues is diminishing to nonexistent.

That’s a bit unfair. It’s not that the local congressional delegation gets no coverage — that’s false. From what I’ve read in the past 15 months, there’s been consistent coverage of the delegation on a few fronts.

The Post does a good job of talking to the local members on federal employee issues — Federal Eye and Joe Davidson have been diligent about this. Federal funding issues for Metrorail and local transportation needs are covered pretty well by local reporters. Ben Pershing covers the election battles of the local members of Congress thoroughly.

But beyond that, the members and their staffs said, coverage of the issues on which they spend a lot of time is lacking.

Vernon Loeb, Post Local editor, responds, “I think we always have to be asking ourselves whether we’re writing enough about the work area members of Congress are doing in their districts — and whether we’re doing enough to hold them accountable. We certainly have the staff and the desire to do so.”

That’s the right attitude, but I think The Post could do a better job covering local lawmakers — and I don’t mean a lot of fluffy, puffy, ribbon-cutting coverage but hard looks at what they do and don’t do.

It is what the readers want. The Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2012 report notes that readers cite coverage of local politics and government as one of the top reasons they still subscribe to or read a local newspaper, whether online or in print. That’s what readers who write to me say, too. They can’t get enough local government coverage. The Internet has sparked interest in local issues, not lessened it.

This is also about making government work. Voter turnout in the Maryland primary on Tuesday was abysmally low.

Staffers to these local lawmakers said that one reason for the low turnout is the decline in coverage of local issues and members of Congress by the two major newspapers in this region, the Baltimore Sun and The Post.

If newspapers don’t cover the substantive work of these elected officials — not just the horse race — how can the people judge if they’re doing their jobs or not? How can they hold their representatives accountable?

The answer is they can’t.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.