That five-column spread on the front page of The Post last Thursday about the Fairfax County fire chief had one thing to commend it, the headline, which read: "Fairfax Chief: Too Many Irons in the Fire?"
It was a good local feature and deserved all that space. After all, here was a local firefighter, world renowned for his expertise in hazardous materials, recently elected president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, invited to lecture in the capitals of Europe and the Far East, a man of recognized stature. But The Post handles the story with a Woodward-like thrust and plays it as though it were the second coming of Watergate.
An "investigative expose'" like this debases the currency, and if I were Bob Woodward, I'd complain to the management. It was, quite simply, a hatchet job. The article did point out that the chief's speaking engagements abroad didn't cost the taxpayers a cent -- all expenses were paid by the hosts. But over a four-year period he was away from his post the equivalent of one working day a week. Big deal. His county supervisors were well aware of his absences and apparently thought it was good PR for the county, which, indeed it is. He probably brings new business as well as prestige to a county bordering the capital of the United States that is not particularly well known for its good government -- or its fire department.
On the same day The Post hung Fairfax County Fire Chief Warren Isman out to dry on the front page, the editors elected to leave in the Metro section the story of the indictment for fraud of the former president of the District of Columbia's university, Dr. Robert Green. It was a story worthy of page one. Here was a scholar and a man of reputation known in academic circles throughout the country, who was now a stark symbol of what a makeshift government The Post has at its doorstep, regardless of whether he is found guilty.
This isn't the first time in recent days Post editors have erred badly in treatment of local stories, where injustice is done to people who have little or no redress. A second incident concerned the Republican challenger for Arlington County sheriff, Ronald B. Hager. It suggested he was mercilessly milking a frail 83-year-old widow of her life savings. She was the biggest contributor to his campaign, had lent him $35,000 to buy a house, a loan she said she didn't expect to get back.
The impression you get is that here's an unscrupulous young whippersnapper taking a senile old lady for all she's worth. But if you read the story carefully, you learn that this 83-year-old lady has all her marbles, and then some, that she's known the candidate for sheriff since he was 7 years old, that close relatives of the elderly woman approve of the relationship, that they were aware the woman had given him power of attorney, that they were both grateful he is "good to her." He even cooks for her, and he looks after her every day.
This could have been a wonderful upbeat story instead of a trashy one. Obviously, it was planted by political enemies, but The Post fell for it. The editors should have said: "Wait a minute."
Another story that caught my eye last week was in the Sunday Travel section. It was a classic example of how Post editors sometimes lack a sense of community spirit or concern. The article, which could have been macabre, was an enchanting travelogue based on the writer's literary pilgrimage to the grave sites of famous authors all over the world. The closest the writer came to the Washington area was Baltimore, where Edgar Allan Poe is buried. Not a mention of the grave site of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
It would have livened up the article if The Post editor had insisted on a sidebar pointing out that famed author Scott and notorious wife Zelda, yuppies of their time, snobs who wanted to be buried in the yard of that quaint little church in the country village of Rockville, far from the madding crowd, are now resting in the middle of a freeway. And then, the utmost humiliation, to be totally ignored by the Sunday Travel editor of The Washington Post.