December 2, 2011

I met with a couple of dozen civic activists from Northwest Washington this week to get some feedback on The Post’s coverage of the District.

I got an earful. Maybe 10 earfuls. These leaders, all in the Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia, represent every northwest neighborhood from Crestwood to Georgetown. This was a largely white crowd and not representative of the city as a whole. But collectively, the activists have several hundred years of knowledge of this city’s neighborhoods and its government.

And these leaders are frustrated with The Post on micro and macro levels.

On the micro level, they’re not seeing stories in The Post about the issues important to them. Here are just two of the 10 or so topics they raised.

The entire District is going through a multi-year rezoning process, a rare event for a city so large. Most of the public hearings were held in 2008 and 2009, and the Office of Planning has since been rewriting the rules mostly out of sight.

This rewrite will, once it’s approved, govern some of the most important aspects to life in the District: commercial and residential building densities, parking, parkland and green space, locations of retail stores, historic preservation, arts and culture venues, the future of downtown, and the expansion of the city’s many college campuses.

Planning and zoning coverage is at the heart of local reporting, regardless of the jurisdiction. But these civic leaders said, as regards the District, “you would never know it by reading The Washington Post.”

Yes, The Post will dip in on a big issue and cover it well — the coming of Wal-Mart to the District, for example, or Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s early ethics problems, the activists said, but there isn’t the constant coverage that tells residents what they need to know.

What of the rezoning plan, for example? Where does it stand? When will it be made public? Is it stalled? Why? What is Mayor Gray’s view on it? There hasn’t been a story in The Post on this rezoning that I could find in the past two years.

Another issue: the city’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, accent on the EMS. Many of the activists are older, and they note that D.C. has one of the highest number of “aging-in-place” groups of any city in the country. These groups of volunteers monitor and help their elderly neighbors in their homes so they don’t have to move to retirement communities.

The activists say that the city’s ambulances are old, that there have been seven EMS medical directors in the past 12 years, and that they are not confident that the 2007 recommendations of a task force on EMS have been carried out. The task force was formed after retired New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum died after being misdiagnosed by a paramedic as drunk, when in fact he was severely injured after being beaten to incoherence during a robbery.

On Nov. 17, according to the activists and to reports on WTOP and WJLA, a woman died at Howard University Hospital of a heart attack after a paramedic said her abdominal pains were not serious. The paramedic has been put on administrative leave. I couldn’t find any coverage of this in The Post.

Said one of the activists: “If you have a heart attack in this city, you had better worry.”

On a macro level, the activists say that they can’t hold their city government accountable without The Post behind them.

They compliment The Post’s D.C. blogger, Mike DeBonis, but they say that they don’t see beat reporters at the D.C. Council meetings, or prowling the halls of the John A. Wilson Building, or probing the departments in the D.C. government. The activists say they are finding it harder and harder to pry information out of the Wilson Building.

They understand that The Post can’t cover every neighborhood dispute, as do some community newspapers, but they want a sustained effort from The Post to cover a government that they believe has become less responsive to citizen concerns.

These community leaders understand that politicians are less likely to engage in shenanigans if a powerful newspaper is on their trail. As one of the activists put it, D.C. politicians have the attitude of, “If it’s not in The Washington Post, then we won’t do anything about it.”

The Post, one of these civic leaders said, “has a tradition of getting the truth out of the municipal government.” A watchdog newspaper is the ultimate check on government, they said, the thing that politicians fear most. These activists appeal: Help us.

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.