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Who Killed The Washington Post?

If you hadn’t heard, there was a terrible subway accident in Washington this week that killed nine people. It turns out that the fault probably lay in a poorly functioning computer system that failed to adjust an oncoming train to a train that had stopped immediately ahead of it. The Metro crash is a good argument for speeding up the spending on transportation infrastructure. I hope the Obama administration and the relevant committees, which are dithering, take notice.

But for me it’s also argument why my hometown paper, The Washington Post, has become a travesty. I don’t usually contact newspaper editors, but at least a year ago, I called up the editor at the Post whom I understood to be in charge of reporting about the Metro system. She didn’t answer, but I left a message saying that as a regular rider on the Metro’s Red Line (where the crash occurred), I had come to believe that the system was breaking down. There were long delays almost every day from trains malfunctioning. The escalators at the subway stops never worked. It was clear to me--a layman and novice rider--that something very bad was going on with the system, and I suggested she (it was a woman as I remember) put some reporters on the issue.

I’m not saying this to take pride in my predictive powers. The breakdown of the system (and it was fairly sudden) was obvious to anyone who was riding it regularly. And I am sure that if I called, many other people must have written letters or emails or made calls.

There were a few scattered stories about management or train problems, but nothing like the kind of extensive front page day after day expose that would have triggered action. I don't know, but maybe it might have prevented the crash this week. No, the newspaper was too busy assigning its metro reporters to do a year-long investigation of “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” The result of that exercise was a meandering twelve part series on Levy’s death that failed to answer the original question. The police, fortunately, answered it months later. I have never seen such a sheer waste of journalistic talent.

And now in the wake of the Metro crash, how is the newspaper responding? With a front page fluff piece on three people who survived the crash. Maybe it’s a wonderful piece, a real tear-jerker by an author with the skills of a Tony Lukas or Joan Didion. I don’t know, because I am not wasting my time reading it. I am still waiting for the newspaper to do what local newspapers should do, and get to the bottom of what happened, and do it in a way that will prevent future crashes.

--John B. Judis