Does the Post Slight Virginia?
The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, yesterday took on the age-old complaint by some Virginia readers that the newspaper cares more about Maryland and the District than about the place that is home to its largest contingent of readers and subscribers, the great commonwealth of Virginia.
Her verdict: Guilty as charged, but not by much and it's getting better. The most damning quotation in Howell's piece came from--ouch--right inside the Post building, from the paper's vice president for circulation, David Dadisman, who said that "as a Virginia resident, I find the Post's coverage of Virginia news inadequate and given from a distant perspective. I perceive a somewhat snobby and distant attitude toward us Virginians in many things Washingtonian."
Ok, but I detect a somewhat snobby and distant attitude toward Maryland on the part of many Virginians, and a similar attitude toward the District on the part of both Marylanders and Virginians. Part of all this is just standard regional jealousies, resentments and rivalries and part reflects the real political and cultural differences that help determine where we each choose to live.
For many readers, the most telling fact in Howell's column will be that "The vast majority of top Post editors live in the District or in Maryland." For those who believe that the Post's coverage has an anti-Virginia animus, the residency choices of the paper's reporters and editors will serve as proof positive of bias.
But wait a minute: It is certainly true that any journalistic endeavor improves with the reporters' deep familiarity with the place and people they are writing about. But it's also true that reportorial distance is essential to providing an outsiders' ability to see things fresh and as they really are, rather than as we might like them to be. That's why foreign correspondence tends to produce more authoritative and confident reporting and a more illuminating kind of storytelling. When I was reporting from Europe, I could fly high enough above the ground to say some truths in my reporting that are more difficult to weave into a narrower, more local news story. That said, nothing beats the intimacy of a local story that really connects with its community, that reveals something essential about where we live and who we are.
The trick to running a successful news operation is to find the right place between intimacy and authority, to tell stories that connect but don't seem obvious or naive. You need the courage to make people angry, and that's sometimes hard to do where you live: Look at your local community weekly and in most cases, you find a paper that's much more about making friends with its readers than it is about telling truths no matter whom they might hurt.
So, back to Virginia: I write more columns about Virginia than I do about Maryland or the District, and that's been consistent throughout the more than six years that I've been writing a column in the Post. Reason: Virginia is a reporter's dream, a vast bank of the things that define news--conflict, characters, cultural divisions.
But it's also true that the Post doesn't feel like a Virginia newspaper in the way that, say, the Richmond Times-Dispatch does. The Post does tend to report on RoVa--the Rest of Virginia--as if it were an exotic hinterland more akin to rural Kentucky than to, say, Bethesda or Mitchellville. Big metropolitan newspapers tend to reflect the values and interests of their readers, and the Washington area is the most affluent and best-educated metropolis in the United States, so the Post reads like the lives of people in Arlington, Annandale, Alexandria, Reston, Herndon, Leesburg and Sterling. The big swath of Virginia where commuting to Washington or the Dulles Corridor is not common sometimes comes off as a place that we neither understand nor particularly feel comfortable with.
Close readers of the paper will also have noticed that for many years, news from Virginia has tended to be reported in a more traditional, hard news style than similar stories about Maryland, where Post reporters for many years had more leeway to try different kinds of storytelling--more character-driven, featury kinds of stories. This of course varies from writer to writer, but generally the Virginia desk of the paper has for many years had a more just-the-facts, ma'am approach.
It's also fair to note that the big investigative guns of the Post have been trained far more on D.C. affairs than on issues in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. That has been changing in recent years, but it is true that stark urban ills and the particular corruption and incompetence of the District government have for many years made a rich and important target for the paper's investigative reporters.
Still, from where I sit, Virginia has the best political stories (can you top this fall's Senate campaign?), the best illustrations of big social and economic trends (sprawl, traffic, new technologies, changing workforce, educational imperatives and experiments), the sharpest contrasts (urban-rural, north-south, old economy-new economy, immigrant-native), and the richest, most wonderful characters of any of our three big jurisdictions. There's a ton of stuff for us to write about, and if we do it right, the stories will be captivating and revealing no matter where the reader may live.
Do you see geographic bias in the paper's coverage, and if so, how does it show itself? Bonus points if you find bias against someplace other than where you happen to live.
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