Keeping a close eye on Washington pays off for readers

The Baltimore Sun

Economic pressures have led many metropolitan newspapers to reallocate more resources to topics of local interest, leaving most national and international coverage largely to wire services. In Baltimore, a city less than an hour's drive from Congress and the White House, the shift in emphasis has in fact produced journalistic dividends for Sun readers.

While many larger newspapers have sharply reduced or eliminated their Washington bureaus, The Sun has chosen to retain reporters in the capital to cover subjects and institutions of keen interest to Maryland - the National Security Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon.

In recent months, Sun reporters have received several national reporting awards for articles that larger newspapers have then followed. For the many thousands of Sun readers who work, either directly or indirectly, for the above-mentioned and other institutions, this Washington coverage has made the newspaper essential - if not always popular - local reading.

Two recent examples: An April 29 Page One article by Jonathan Rockoff about the FDA's serious problems monitoring the safety of foreign-produced food - a problem highlighted by the contamination of pet food by industrial chemicals from China - and Siobhan Gorman's incisive May 5 article about management problems at the NSA that she said had created a "culture of distrust and failures of oversight." Both drew strong reader reactions.

Ellen Apple said of Rockoff's article: "I'm sure I'm not the only one who was frightened and angered by the article, 'Foreign food fears hit close to home.' Those of us who try to maintain a healthy lifestyle by consuming more fruits and vegetables are very concerned about the safety of these products, as well as the safety of meat and poultry. When the FDA is understaffed and undertrained because of budget cuts, how can we be sure that these products, grown both at home and abroad, are safe for human consumption?"

A reader and NSA employee reacted to Gorman's article: "I saw repeated instances of people hired in the 'core skill' area, such as linguists, who only had marginal skills and could not perform up to standard in their skill field. These same people left their core area and somehow found their way into senior management positions. These people, as a consequence, were not able to manage and provide vision to the skilled work force. Many of these same people are still at the agency, licking their chops and waiting for retirement."

By paying close attention to their beats, Rockoff and Gorman have produced exceptional stories in a city where, on any given day, hundreds of journalists may be writing carbon-copy stories on more high-profile political activity.

Rockoff's beat reporting on the FDA and NIH is not only important because of their proximity to the Baltimore region but because of the far-reaching effect these institutions have on American life. The FDA not only monitors food but is responsible for new drugs, working with companies to change labels of drugs already on the market and to withdraw drugs that prove dangerous. The research of the NIH has the potential to dramatically affect medical care for major diseases such as diabetes, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

The payoff of covering these agencies full time comes during events like the pet food crisis. Said Rockoff : "It takes grounding in the beat to find the deeper issues behind the headlines and know who can provide authoritative insights. I learned about safety concerns well before cats and dogs began dying because I had been working my beat. Also, former FDA officials, industry representatives and consumer advocates all told me about how tight funding has crimped the FDA's ability to monitor food safety."

The NSA is not only one of the largest employers in Maryland but, as the largest spy agency in the United States, plays a critical role in the government's national security efforts. Given policymakers' increased dependence on intelligence to make national security decisions, informed media coverage is a difficult but worthwhile endeavor.

Covering an essentially secret agency is not easy. Said Gorman: "It is difficult to break past the internal rivalries and security classifications to understand the issues at hand. It has taken a while to build up a group of trusted sources from different areas who can help me understand the culture and actions of the agency."

Gorman has a strong record of accurate reporting, but the nature of what she covers means hers is one of the most difficult and demanding beats around. Still, because the NSA is covered regularly by very few media organizations, Gorman hears from readers both in and out of Maryland.

One such note arrived the day after her most recent article: "Thank you for your interest in the NSA. Don't blink and keep coming at them! I am one of the career employees at the agency that can't believe what is going on day to day. If NSA were a business, we would be out of business."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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