The current issue of U.S. News & World Report features an interesting topic ("The 'Other Washington' That Tourists Don't See") at an interesting time (the kickoff today of a major city effort to promote community pride, "Washington Is a Capital City"). But the magazine fails to deliver on its promise of a glimpse of nonofficial Washington, and produces instead a shallow portrait. Welcome to a Washington I've never seen.
The premise that the magazine flashes out across America is that the Other Washington is plagued with woes, and the implication is of a direct causal relationship between the woes and the fact that 70 percent of the city's population is black, not to mention the black-led local political structure.
The article's third paragraph sets the tone: "How many Americans are aware, for example, that Washington, the capital of a nation that is predominantly white, has a population that is 70 percent black--the largest proportion of any major city in the U.S.?" It seems an odd way to begin the story, presenting a well-known fact as some kind of revelation.
The magazine reels off statistics: The population is shrinking and the recession has brought on hard times; crime is rampant and the city's median family income of $18,839 in 1979 was below the $19,908 for all U.S. families; the poverty population exceeds the national figure; the high cost of welfare, food stamps and Medicaid; the out-of-wedlock births and the high abortion rate.
An I-hate-Washington quote from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is placed conveniently at the end of this horrifying string of numbers.
Of course, the article leaves some unanswered questions. If the shrinking population is such a bad omen, then why has there been such an explosion in downtown building, and what shot the median price of a house here to $100,000? And if the city is such a bad place, with such intractable problems, then why are so many candidates fighting to become mayor?
The piece raises fears that the recession may curb the influx of tourists, and shows a picture of the 14th Street strip, which it says survives "in a deteriorating business district that has lost many stores to the city's suburbs." Well, it has. But new construction is replacing a lot of those stores. The reporters must have missed the new office building across the street from the strip. And the one a block away. And the one around the corner.
The piece fails to mention the solid middle class. Some of it has moved to the suburbs, granted, but a healthy core remains. And through their churches and nonprofit corporations, Washington's middle class has played a key role in rebuilding the riot corridors and in constructing hundreds of apartments for the elderly.
The article mentions crime three times in the first page of a three-page story. But Washington's crime rate isn't rising in a vacuum. We're in a recession; there's widespread unemployment in all the nation's cities. But if the recession doesn't scare tourists off, I suppose articles like this probably will.
Perhaps it is just that the reporting didn't go far enough, or perhaps the reporters didn't bother to venture off the well-trod visitors' path to really talk to the people in the neighborhoods. In the end, though, it is the article's tone that is most insensitive, concentrating so much more on the city's peccadilloes than on its possibilities.
And the effect of the story's appearance now is far more serious than whatever blow it might deal to the city's public relations effort. What's really unfortunate is that the article coincides with increased polarization that is surfacing after more than a decade of uneasy race relations, a polarization fed by the increasing power of conservatives, by the Reagan Revolution and by the bruised economy. Instead of focusing positively on the divisions, such articles nourish them.
It's a strange view from a magazine that's been here half a century, its fortunes tied to the fortunes of Washington. It's only half a story--the negative half.
But most of all, it's a throwback to another era that not only hurts the city's image, but also the image of a magazine that claims to delve beneath the surface. The Washington that U.S. News portrays isn't the Washington I know.