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The worst mainstream local articles of 2009

Yesterday, I highlighted reporters from the mainstream media who did a particularly good job of educating the public on urban issues in 2009.


Photo by Mark Beck.

Most of the time, the mainstream press either provides good coverage of local issues, or fills the rest of the space with fairly bland stuff that repeats press releases or each other's articles.

But every so often there is a real doozy of an article. A reporter or editor starts with some wrongheaded, ignorant, or even prejudicial idea, then runs way too far with it and fits every quote into a preconceived slant.

Here are 10 articles that rose to the top of the trash heap:

  1. To Be or Not to Be Fairfax County? by Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, The Washington Post, July 5 (article, GGW commentary). Cliche after cliche exalts the tennis clubs of Burke while casting walkable places like Merrifield as creepy and "blighted." It's an ode to sprawl that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual issue, whether Fairfax County should incorporate as a city to better control its roads and taxes.
  2. Virginians See Bridge Closings As Dose of Northern Hospitality by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, January 9 (article). The Secret Service closing bridges to traffic for the Inauguration was like the Civil War all over again, or at least so says AAA's Lon Anderson in a colorful quote Weiss is happy to turn into an inflammatory article. Weiss doesn't bother to note that the bridges would remain open to pedestrians and cyclists or the projections that large numbers of people would walk and bike to the Mall.
  3. Ride At Your Own Risk by Mark Segraves and Adam Tuss, WTOP, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Segraves and Tuss do some good investigative reporting to get years of Metrobus customer complaint data, then fit it into a preconceived slant about how bad buses are, when in fact complaints have declined in recent years. They also stake out a corner to catch a bus rolling through a stop sign while ignoring all the trucks that do it while they're waiting.
  1. Free parking spots could sprout meters by Lisa Rein and Yamiche Alcindor, The Washington Post, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Rein calls a remote apartment tower with lots of free parking "every renter's dream," exposing bias right off the bat. Then she says how Arlington's proposed parking rule changes would force all that parking to stop being free. But that's totally false, and the Post had to print a correction to the fundamental premise of the article.
  2. Tysons will need $15 billion -- 'with a B' by Lisa Rein, The Washington Post, October 30 (article, GGW commentary). Rein sees a PowerPoint with $15 billion worth of projects over 40 years and writes about how unbelievably expensive Tysons will be. Too bad that list includes projects that will happen regardless, projects developers would pay for, and even projects not really related to Tysons. The headline writer makes it even worse with a really stupid headline. The article prompts a very long rebuttal from Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova.
  3. The media frenzy over the Fenty bicycle rides, by various reporters, November 9-10. WTOP's Mark Segraves kicks it off by following Fenty's bicycle ride in a van, noticing some possible misuse of police resources. That's a reasonable story, but WTOP's headline focuses on the ride "clog[ging] traffic" which doesn't appear to be true, and subsequent press stories pile on with an anti-bike slant that misses the real story. Mike DeBonis notes that Bill Myers had the same story in the Examiner the year before; potentially inappropriate police utilization just wasn't sensational enough, but bicyclists forcing cars to change lanes was.
  4. That Street Sweeper May Soon Give You a Ticket by Tom Tim Craig, The Washington Post, May 22 (article, GGW commentary). A Bethesda resident is annoyed that she gets tickets when she parks illegally. AAA's John Townsend says DC is "trying to make the District a car-free zone." Craig doesn't bother to find anyone who appreciates getting illegally parked cars out of rush hour travel lanes.
  5. Picking Your Pocket series by Adam Tuss, WTOP, April 20-23 (articles 1, 2, 3, 4, GGW commentary). Every enforcement of a law is "picking your pocket," public safety benefits be damned, from speed cameras to street sweeping.
  6. Vote to Forgo I-66 Expansion Imperils Federal Funds, Increases Ire by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, February 20 (article, GGW commentary). Continuing his gift for using war metaphors in transportation debates, Weiss says that a COG vote to delay I-66 widening "inflamed tensions" between inner and outer jurisdictions, but Weiss seems to be the one most irate overall.
  7. New transportation fines, fees leave many feeling pinched by Alan Suderman, Washington Examiner, November 29 (article). Yet another one-sided piece about a few residents annoyed when caught breaking the law, with quotes from AAA about how unfair it is. At least it's a tiny bit less one-sided than some of the others.
Why so much picking on the Post? It's simple: They reach a lot of people, and a bad article in the Post can do a lot more damage than a bad article elsewhere. Being the big kid on the block means you get the cheers and the jeers; the Post had three of the top four slots in yesterday's top ten as well. The Post does a great job of watchdogging Metro, but doesn't apply a similar level of scrutiny or investigative resources to MDOT and VDOT.

You'll notice that yesterday I praised reporters as individuals, but highlighted articles rather than people today. That's because excepting major investigative reports, most of the important news is not really big news, but everyday comprehension of small developments. But the really bad articles stand out like giant sore thumbs.

Also, just because a reporter writes something really bad doesn't make them a terrible reporter or a bad person. Maybe their editor assigned it that way, and the headline writer oversensationalized it. Even if not, anyone can have an off day. While writing a piece on this list disqualified a reporter from making our list of the best, these folks could well make that list for 2010.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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Honorable mention: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/03/AR2009080302815.html">The Target Of Their Ambivalence: Suburban-Retail Icon Seduces Hipsters Of Columbia Heights, By Monica Hesse.

Dumbest line: "Target has made us into suburbanites, right in the middle of the Green Line.

So awful. So convenient."

Just a ridiculous article. Perfectly illustrative of the Post's decline as a real news organization.

by JTS on Jan 6, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

Merrifield is walkable? Compared to what? Granted, it's been 3.5 years since I worked out there, but as far as I remember it was mostly strip commercial and office parks. And I remember parking lots. Many, many parking lots.

by Esmeralda on Jan 6, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

JTS: I seriously considered including that one as well.

by David Alpert on Jan 6, 2010 4:03 pm • linkreport

Hey heads up, typo up there, you must mean Tim Craig, not "Tom."

by Clara on Jan 6, 2010 7:00 pm • linkreport

Clara: Fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Jan 7, 2010 8:09 am • linkreport

Seemed like you were manufacturing a beef to include the July 2009 Gardner article at the top of your list. It wasn't a paean to traditional suburbs, as you claimed, and did a better job than most Post articles of expressing the competing views of county residents about what direction county planning should take in the future. Is the goal simply to villify anyone who doesn't share your views?

by Dan on Jan 7, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

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