Today (Friday, Mar. 26, 2004), The Washington Post devotes nearly an entire page inside the Metro section to the budget impasse. Four reporters report from four areas of the state. I’m not sure what the journalistic slang might be for this series of stories, but the sum of them amounts to little. In fact, they are a waste of newsprint.

The budget machinations cry out for clear reports about the issues. Even those of us who’ve been following the debate closely are often bewildered by its complexity. Indeed, part of the reason is that the Virginia budget, as Del. Gary Reese (R-Oak Hill) argues, is obtuse and should be simplified so we can see what programs cost. Therefore, an entire page trying to explain the issues might be helpful instead of what we got today in The Post, which the editors describe as “a sampler of what [lawmakers] saw, said and heard after returning [to their home districts].”

None of the four stories on page B5 helps us understand much of anything. I read them all twice to see if I got a different perspective the second time around. No, just more confusion about what the message was. If it is simply that lawmakers are having a hard time figuring what the people want, we don’t need a full page to tell us. If they are intended to sculpt a viewpoint about where the electorate stands, I couldn’t see it.

Too often, these stories wind up being “he said, she said” journalism. Some people want unspecific tax hikes for better services and other want no increase, indeed almost no taxes at all. But all three proposals – the House’s, the Senate’s and the Governor’s – raise revenues and cause some individuals to be taxed more. Some sense of where people stand on these options would be helpful.

I’ve attended three community meetings, two in Fairfax and one in Woodbridge. In all three, clearly there was more support for increased taxes. But how much and for what plan? My admittedly prejudicial eye would say there was more support for the Governor’s or the Senate’s plan than the House’s. I can’t say for sure because politicians don’t ask for a sense of the crowd. Like attorneys, they don’t ask the question if they won’t like the answer or are unsure of what it will be.

Yet from reading the Post stories today, one can’t tell what the mood of the electorate is. In the Northern Virginia piece, we hear, “If people from both sides can work it out, then a compromise is the best thing,” [Marilyn] Jarvis, [a loan officer in Leesburg] said. “I don’t want to pay more taxes, but there are certain things that are needed that I’d pay those higher taxes for.” But which plan?

Later, we read of a 70 year-old named Chuck Jones.

“I’d go with the Senate’s plan, no question,” Jones said.

“Do you understand the implication?” [Del. Joe] May [R-Leesburg] countered.

“We have to correct these things and take the state dollars to do it,” Jones insisted.

The rest of the article in dedicated to Sen. Bill Mims (R-Loudoun) who voted for the Senate budget. We learn that he now opposes the income tax increases and the elimination of sales tax exemptions for airlines, but we learn nothing about how his constituents feel.

The Central Virginia story has only one quote from a voter: “It’s all politics down there,” [Darrell Philpot] said. Yes it is, Darrell. So? Writer Chris Jenkins has a slant to his coverage: It’s that people either don’t care or are opposed to more spending. Reporting on a meeting Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania), an advocate for the House budget, attended, Jenkins tells us there was only one question – about education spending. When a local Democratic supervisor said citizens should write Del. Cole and tell them the House version didn’t adequately address local needs, Jenkins writes, “The suggestion was met with silence from the crowd. When the meeting broke up, only a few constituents came up to the delegate.” Why didn’t Jenkins ask some people what they thought?

Later Jenkins writes:

Cole’s experience in the auditorium illustrates the difficulty lawmakers in the region north of Richmond are having in figuring out how their constituents feel about the budget crisis. While some people are concerned about state services and taxes, many others are either uninterested or uninformed about the impasse roiling the Capitol.

I might add many people are uninterested in reporters making generalized statements and reports like his don’t help to inform. And he might have added that the lawmakers could have asked for a show of hands regarding the three budget alternatives.

Carol Morello, in the section on Southeast Virginia, allows Del. John Welch (R-Virginia Beach) to get away with murder, as they say. She tells of his listening to voice mail from “dozens of callers” supporting the higher tax plans but that “[n]one of the messages emanating from the speakerphone, however, was from Welch’s constituents in a blue-collar district miles from the pricey shoreline.” How does she know that? Did she listen to all the messages and did they all say they were from the “pricey shoreline”? Welch said the calls were part of what he describes as a “stealth campaign.”

Morello then describes a town meeting in Hopewell, described by other reporters here and here. Morello says most of the people urged more spending on social and educational needs. She writes, “Many meetings are loaded with people who have a stake in the outcome” but that “[o]nly a handful were just plain voters.” What does that mean? Those with needs aren’t voters? Or that someone who actively advocates for something isn’t to be trusted as reflective of a significant block of voters?

She later writes, “Welch [is] on the receiving end of an apparently organized campaign…” and that he is “dishing it out as well.” She then tells us he has taped a message, delivered automatically by phone to residents, where he asks them about the budget. If they oppose it, he tells them how to contact the governor. Even without hearing it, it’s obvious that it’s at best a “push” poll and certainly not an unbiased one. Surprise, Morello reports that Welch has found 74 and 72 percent oppose the Governor’s and the Senate’s budgets, respectively.

This is objective reporting? As important, does this give us any better insight into how people feel about the budgets and what the issues are? This article reflects the prototypical “balanced” form of journalism: Give equal play to both sides of the issue, ignore whether one view predominates, and regurgitate any spin spun.

The last of the four articles is mostly about Del. Preston Bryant (R-Lynchburg) and the torture he’s experiencing trying to make the right decision. The article is useless but has the best quote in the series. It comes from Democratic Delegate Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville who blames the impasse on “Republican ideologues.”

“‘It really is the dog catching the bus,’ Deeds said. ‘The party of anti-government is in charge now.’”

If these stories are meant to tell us how difficult it is for lawmakers to pass a budget, the typical reaction from the person in the street is probably, “Who cares?” What would have been a lot more interesting is some sense of the mood of the electorate. Instead we have four reporters trying not to show bias (Morello and Jenkins fail) and wind up giving us little to enlighten, inspire, entertain or educate.