January 13, 2012

Readers frequently write to me saying that The Post inadequately covers the many demonstrations in the nation’s capital.

Whether it was the anti-pipeline protest in November, in which demonstrators linked arms to ring the White House, or the annual anti-abortion March for Life rally last January, which attracts a quarter-million people and almost no coverage, readers and the participants themselves say this most basic function of democracy — petitioning the government for a redress of grievances — is something The Post should cover more thoroughly as the capital’s leading newspaper.

If people from around the country are upset enough about an issue to organize, travel, acquire a permit, arrange speakers and then rally, I generally think that’s news, whether they’ve done it annually for 30 years or it’s a one-time deal. Left or Right, pro-life, abortion rights, Tea Party, Million Man March or Resurrection City, The Post should be there.

So now we come to Occupy Wall Street, and more parochially, Occupy D.C. at McPherson Square, which has no permit, and its cousin encampment a few blocks away in Freedom Plaza, which does have a permit.

Since OWS began in New York in September and came to the District on Oct. 1, I’ve received letters about The Post’s coverage. Those from the right say the coverage has been too fawning, too extensive and too little focused on the fact that, at least at McPherson Square, it is an illegal, rat-infested, messy, eyesore of an encampment. Those from the left say that the coverage has been sparse, hit-or-miss, negative, too much about officialdom and the police’s point of view, and not enough about the issues the campers raise.

Covering the occupiers does present challenges. This is not a typical protest that gathers, rallies and ends. It is open-ended.

It is purposefully leaderless. There isn’t a spokesman. It has an agenda — broadly speaking, economic justice for the 99 percent — but it does not have a point-by-point legislative plan and only sporadically organizes into conventional protest actions such as a march, a rally or a lobbying day on Capitol Hill. Daily events to cover are few.

It is small and even tiny — probably less than 150 people — but people around the country, and the world, share the protesters’ concerns and follow the movement closely, judging by the ombudsman’s mailbag.

The protesters’ point is to occupy, to be there, to be seen and to be an irritant, a disruption that reminds people that, in the protesters’ view, the political and economic institutions in this country are skewed toward the rich and powerful. The protesters see themselves as winning simply by occupying.

When the protesters came here in October, Post coverage was initially a bit haphazard and uncoordinated. PostLocal’s Katie Rogers pitched a tent and spent a night with protesters. BlogPost blogger Elizabeth Flock walked with OWS demonstrators all the way from New York to the District. The Style section did an urban architecture commentary on the encampments. Finally, in December, when Post wealth, class and income reporter Annie Gowen was put on the beat and two editors were assigned to oversee it, the coverage improved.

Now we’re getting regular updates and stories in the paper and online about the rat problem, a baby left alone in a tent all afternoon, sex in the tents and the court proceedings, which may decide how long the occupiers can stay. The Post and other media outlets have put in Freedom of Information Act requests to determine whether the White House has influenced the U.S. Park Police to go easy on the protesters.

Jane Elizabeth, The Post’s deputy local editor for digital, is one of the two editors overseeing coverage. What she hears from readers is that “I don’t understand. What are they doing? Why?”

The Post is “attempting to answer those questions,” Elizabeth said. “This is an atypical protest, one that goes beyond politics and becomes personal and local. How does the movement impact D.C. policy, the budget, local business, tourism, health-and-safety issues? How will the protesters handle the cold winter? Will the protest disrupt my commute? We’ve worked hard to answer those questions, large and small, and provide context and relevance for our readers.”

The protesters are living less than a hundred yards from The Post’s building, and they, like this publication, are protected by the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Occupiers might be there awhile. And The Post should be too.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.