Letter to the Editor: Times story was investigative journalism at its best

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An image generated by WMATA that shows the revised Potomac Yard Metro plan with a northwest entrance and planned southwest access point. The original plan called for three entrances. (Image courtesy WMATA)
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To the editor:

As we sort through the upheavals of the June 12 election, let us not focus only on the results but on some of the unexpected twists and turns, and the need for revisions in the process before the 2021 campaign begins.

Appreciation goes to our Alexandria papers for the huge role local journalism played in trying to educate the voters in a neutral, accurate and transparent way.

Mainstream media pretty much ignored Alexandria in this spirited contest. WAMU Radio did two short interviews with incumbent mayor Allison Silberberg and Justin Wilson, but very early in the game, with no follow up. The station ignored the 12 other candidates vying for the six coveted slots on council, nor did they dwell on complex issues or the uniqueness of a cross-over primary, where all can vote, not bound by party. But WAMU covered in excruciating detail every aspect of recent similar primaries in the District, in Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties and for the race for Governor of Maryland.

Similarly, the Washington Post showed little interest in the Alexandria council races besides listing the names of those running. When the Post finally ran an article on the mayoral candidates on May 21, they failed to do the necessary fact-checking and to correct false statements in a neutral way. And that article then became the basis for an equally biased endorsement a few days later. Tell us the pros and cons of both candidates. This isn’t supposed to be a public relations exercise.

The May 24, May 31 and June 7 issues by both the Alexandria Times and the Gazette did provide helpful in-depth, spreadsheet comparisons of the council candidates. Especially useful was the centerfold comparing their answers – or lack thereof – on the same questions from the May 18 debate. They also made space for lots of thought-provoking letters to the editor. Based on the election outcome, many voters never saw or read them.

For 2021, the Times should skip the six council endorsements that seemed based more on diversity and demographics – one old, one young, a Black, an Hispanic etc. – than on their significant accomplishments relevant to governing a complex city. And don’t just tell us how much money a candidate raised – tell us where it came from, including local and non-local developers and fellow politicians.

Overall, where the Times excelled was in its playing David to the Post’s Goliath when it came to reporting on the debacle of the Potomac Yard Metro station. This tiny paper wrote a riveting story, based on the results of a FOIA request that yielded 500 pages of emails and 750 pages of redacted emails.

What is astounding to readers of this story and to Alexandria residents alike is the total disconnect between public statements of city officials, staff and some council members, versus the paper trail of conflicting private emails. The only non-redacted exchange released was between City Manager Mark Jinks and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, and neither appear to be very straightforward in the interchange.

This is investigative journalism at its best, and it seems the giant Washington Post skipped the work required. I hope the Times’ reporters continue to pursue this story with aggressive research and documentation.

The election is over, but the outcome of this story and this Metro station is not.

-Kathleen M. Burns, Alexandria

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