When members of the Virginia Senate rose the other day to denounce this newspaper for an article on a Northern Virginia legislator, it was the latest manifestation of a new relationship that is trying members of the Western Hemisphere's oldest deliberative body.
The Washington Post article on the tribulations of Loudoun County's maverick senator, Charles Waddell, was the latest of a number of newspaper accounts critically evulating the performance of the General Assembly. And as 21 of the state's 40 senators made clear in a petition to The Post last week, they can't understand it.
They are not alone. In the House o Delegates, members of the Norfolk delegation are openly hostile to some reporters from that city's largest newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot.
On the eve of the legislative session, The Virginian-Pilot published a hard-hitting, four-part series outlining the weaknesses of the state's conflict-of-interest rules and describing how many legislators cheerfully walk through the law's many loopholes. The series, called "Private Profit, Public Trust," pointed out how lawyer-legislators introduce bills that would benefit their own clients and then specialize in appearing before state regulatory agencies whose bureaucrats are fearful of offending legislators.
The Norfolk series, one of the most critical ever published about that region's legislators, has set off a furror in Tidewater. Legislators there, accustomed to VIP status, are baffled. As James Raper, the Pilot's metropolitan editor, put it last week: "They don't know what to make of it."
That's probably the reaction of many legislators this session as they find themselves suddenly confronted by a press corps that is younger and more aggressive. Some examples:
A Richmond reporter noted that House Majority Leader Thomas Moss went before a secret meeting of a judicial committee to complain about the way a judge, up for reappointment by the Assembly, had handled a case involving one of Moss' clients.
Early in the session, the Associated Press carried an account of how legislators were avoiding introduction of any bill that would require truckers to pay more for using the state highways. State studies, the Associated Press has reported, found that trucks were wearing out the roads and that the lack of such legislation was testimony to the power of the trucking lobby.
An United Press International profile of Charlottesville's patrician senator, Harry Michael, a candidate for a federal judgeship, noted Michael's membership in a racially exclusive country club.
Such stories are part of what political scientists John Whalen, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls a trend toward "performance coverage" of the General Assembly. Unable to keep track of the more than 1,400 bills that are typically introduced in a legislative session, the press has begun to focus on what the resulting legislation does and who it benefits, Whalen says.
That means looking critically at the legislators, their personal interests and their legislation. While that is hardly a revolutionary concept in most states, bear in mind as recently as the Watergate days, some reporters assigned to the Virginia statehouse would while away the day playing cards (mullet gin) in the press room with state officials and lobbyists for the electric company and truckers.
During Mills E. Godwin's term as governor, select groups of reporters were invited to the mansion of Friday afternoons for whiskey and not-for-attribution chats with "his excellency." The result would be reams of copy, usually for Sunday papers and almost certainly uncritical, about how the governor viewed events in the Old Dominion.
That patronizing attitude would spill over to the General Assembly. It used to be that you could tell where a reporter was from by observing when he lifted his pen. Reporters from Newport News, for instance, tended to quote only the legislators from their region during debates, regardless of whether their remarks were pertinent to the discussion. And reporters from Newport News were not alone; newspaper accounts in almost every region of the state tended to reflect the same attitude.
The result probably gave newspaper readers -- and legislators -- a distorted view of their lawmakers' importance in Richmond. Given coverage that invariably tended to present legislators in a favorable light, it is little wonder that there's consternation in the Assembly this year.
Admittedly, not all the state's reporters are as aggressive as those from Norfolk or Washington, whose newspapers have done most of the critical reporting. But clearly, the free ride is over for many legislators.
If the troubles the legislators, it should delight newspaper readers.