Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

In what might be her last big scoop as an Examiner reporter, Kytja Weir announced on Twitter that the paper is closing its local section. Losing their hardworking team of reporters will be a big blow to the depth of local coverage, but I won’t miss the times its clear anti-bicycle, anti-transit, pro-AAA editorial viewpoint warped ostensibly-objective news stories.

The Examiner had far more detailed local coverage than other media outlets. They reliably informed people about many small yet important developments at WMATA, area schools, city budgets, road projects and more. There have often been many stories in the Examiner that other media outlets simply didn’t cover.

At the same time, the Examiner is flagrantly anti-bicycling and anti-transit even though their reporters usually aren’t. Its stories were often the worst stenography of AAA talking points (though the Washington Post is not exemplary in this area, either). Moreover, their focus on finding waste in government sometimes finds real waste, but often nitpicks really unimportant budget items to death.

The Examiner’s strength was cranking out a lot of articles on many subjects. Since the start of 2012, we have included Examiner articles 284 times in Breakfast Links, second only to 531 Washington Post mentions (third is City Paper, fourth DCist). Our policy is to link to the article that has the best and/or most complete original reporting on a subject, so the high number of mentions means a lot.

Examiner doggedly pushed war on non-cars

However, on bicycling and transit, the editors repeatedly took reasonable articles, placed inflammatory headlines atop them, and splashed them on the front page.

DCist even started mocking the way the front page editors juxtaposed angry anti-city headlines on the top with large pictures that illustrated other articles below. Most recently, they matched up Pope Benedict with driving being “hell.”

The Examiner delivers paper copies for free to suburban households periodically (I believe once a week), and at least the last “war on cars” front-pager, by Eric Newcomer, was on the distribution day. It’s hard not to see this as propaganda designed to enrage suburbanites against the city (and maybe drive up subscription numbers).

Certainly an article whose headline proclaims “D.C. waging war against drivers” is not seriously attempting to educate anyone. Newcomer’s piece wasn’t quite as bad as the headline, but he did clearly set out only to identify costs to drivers, a one-sided approach. Further, someone Newcomer called about the story told me that Newcomer had approached him specifically for comments for a story on the “war on cars”; the assignment was slanted from the start.

If AAA had a point of view, you could usually count on an Examiner article which quoted AAA heavily, then maybe added a token quote or two from the police or the mayor’s representatives. Alan Blinder’s article today is a classic case: it leads with a dollar figure they got from AAA DC officials, then has some quotes from AAA spokesman John Townsend, followed by a couple quotes from the mayor’s representatives, and then closes with AAA talking points again.

Examiner reporters almost never spoke to pedestrian or bicycle safety advocates for these stories. Every story about cameras got the frame, city officials versus drivers. The people who get killed on the roads don’t exist. Unfortunately, Ashley Halsey III’s articles in the Washington Post are the same way; cameras are just “lucrative” and not “life-saving.”

Ledes emphasized “what you pay” over “what you get”

Moreover, Examiner articles frequently confronted any budgetary issue by leading with what it would cost taxpayers rather than the benefits. For example, a Maryland House committee yesterday approved a proposal to increase sales taxes on gas. This will have two effects: people will pay more for gas, and Maryland will get more transportation infrastructure that it needs.

This morning’s article on the proposal, by Andy Brownfield, leads off with the costs and makes no mention of benefits. Yet Brownfield made the time to quote conservative opponents, a form of balance that we rarely see on AAA stenography articles.

This form of journalistic bias, which frames any government proposal in terms of harm to taxpayers much more strongly than benefits to residents, was common at the Examiner and reflected its editorial views.

I wish I could say the Washington Post’s article on this subject, this time by John Wagner, was better — but it’s not.

Spent $10 too much on pencils? Front page story!

The more money any organization spends, public or private, the more often some piece of that spending won’t quite stand up to close scrutiny. With government, we need to have the press playing a watchdog role. The Examiner did more of this than anyone.

With the pressure to come up with stories on spending, however, this often went too far. The paper would relentlessly FOIA budget documents from everyone (except state DOTs, whose road projects they didn’t look at too closely) and write a headline about almost any kind of spending.

Sometimes that spending is really inappropriate, and it’s the press’s duty to call attention to it. Sometimes, the numbers just sound high when you drop a dollar figure on the front page without context, but actually make sense. Or sometimes, the spending might be inappropriate, but it’s really a tiny issue, and maybe the cost of adding more accounting controls is even higher.

This focus on waste also obscures another serious problem with government: not getting things done. Take Ken Archer’s recent exposé about the DC Department of Employment Services and the One-Stop job centers. Their process puts up so many obstacles to getting training, such as proving residency, which are so arduous that many job seekers end up dropping out and not getting any training.

I couldn’t help but wonder: if DOES fixed the process to make sure that more people got training, inevitably here and there some person might get training who isn’t eligible. If the Examiner found out, even if that’s a negligible number of people, it’d be front-page news about how the program is wasteful.

The biggest problems with DDOT projects is not waste, but procurement delays. It’s just so hard to get anything done. We have exhaustive processes to ensure not a single dollar gets spent without review, bidding, and on and on. In practice, that means that staff spend so much time trying to move their projects through the financial process that they have too little time for actual design, community engagement, and more.

The main burden for all of these flaws should fall on editors rather than the reporters. Some reporters were better than others, but editors write the headlines and choose what to put on the front page, not the reporters. Editors assign subjects and push the reporters to write more or less on certain topics.

We can hope that the good reporters there find new jobs. In fact, they deserve to get better jobs working for editors who are actually trying to run a journalistic enterprise. I’ve long wished that reporters like them could work for a better paper; now, hopefully, is the chance.

Update: The original version of this article said that AAA sent the dollar figures to Alan Blinder for his story, but the story says they came from DC officials. Many articles in the preceding week did get their numbers directly from AAA, like Ashley Halsey’s, and AAA has been sending around press releases with these or similar figures, but this particular story did not specifically get the numbers from AAA.

Tagged: government, press

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.