Patrick B. Pexton
Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman

The Post needs less on politics, more on government

Bordering our beautiful Mall in Washington are some of the, well, less sexy Cabinet departments of the U.S. government — Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor and Transportation.

Among them, they account for about $173 billion of annual federal spending. The decisions made in those buildings, and by the congressional committees on Capitol Hill that oversee them, affect the lives of millions of Americans.

Patrick B. Pexton

Pexton served as Post ombudsman from March 2011-March 2013.

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But you won’t read much about them in The Post, even though one of the financial strategies for this publication is to be the indispensable guide to Washington. Sure, the sexier departments — Defense, State, Treasury and the intelligence agencies — are covered in award-winning style by The Post’s national security and financial desks, but these less visible Cabinet departments are barely covered. Most of them have not even one full-time reporter assigned to them.

Think about just one of those departments. The Agriculture Department helps shape both which crops will be grown by some 2 million farmers in this country and the prices they will bring, at home and abroad. U.S. farmers exported approximately $136 billion in food in 2011 — a record — with large increases in wheat, corn, beef and veal. How is that affecting life down on the farm?

The food-stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is also under the USDA. It serves 47 million Americans, a record. Is it working, is it effective, is it serving the needs of families and of farmers? Readers might like to know.

I advocate increased coverage of the Cabinet departments not only because it is good public-service journalism but also because I think it is good strategy in the long term. It could increase Post readership locally in print by federal workers and nationally on the Web by people affected by government policies — farmers, for instance, whose local and regional papers don’t cover this sector as well as they used to, either.

One of the problems of American journalism broadly is that stories about government have retreated while stories on politics and personality have skyrocketed. Washington coverage increasingly means just the White House, Congress and all politics all the time: the polls, the gaffes, who’s up, who’s down, who’s raising the most money. This coverage increases the banality of U.S. politics, where issues are never discussed beyond sound bites.

The Post is not immune to this trend. By my count, it has 21 people — reporters, bloggers, editors, columnists, producers — covering politics full time out of a national desk of 96 people. That leaves out the polling staff and the three White House and five congressional reporters who are often pulled in to cover politics. The Post announced Thursday that it will increase its video news offerings with a new politics channel. That will require the hiring of many more people to produce. Not one of them will be covering government, per se.

Kevin Merida, The Post’s national editor, points out that the weekly Federal Worker page and the Federal Eye blog, plus the In the Loop feature, all keep track of federal employees and their issues. He adds that “the federal government is our hometown industry, and we care about it immensely as a news organization. . . . We are constantly looking at ways to deepen and broaden our coverage of federal agencies. That includes reviewing whether we need to redeploy reporters to spaces we’re not currently covering as well we’d like. Most recently, we’ve discussed pulling together a federal council of sorts — government reporters who would meet regularly to brainstorm ideas and maximize our collective knowledge across the newsroom.”

That’s a good idea. Merida also notes that “you don’t always need to have beat reporters assigned to an agency to do well on a story,” citing the Secret Service prostitution and General Service Administration scandals of 2012.

I take his point. But to unearth the granular and revealing stories about how government works and does not work and to uncover scandals requires organic, embedded beat reporting that breaks and leads the news, instead of chasing it. If I were The Post’s new executive editor, Marty Baron, and I had to shrink the newsroom and reallocate resources, I’d look at cutting back on the politics to add to the government team.

What politicians promise and say in election campaigns is important, but more important is what they do once they get in office. Covering the departments of government shows the effects of their decisions, which serves readers and the cause of democracy.

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

 
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