Best Washington Post Journalists

Paul Gonzalez
• Tuesday, 24 November, 2020
• 7 min read

As Lyndon B. Johnson once lamented, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read PRESIDENT CAN'T SWIM.” Despite the complaints, each morning Washington awakes to another day of news: The city runs on gossip, speculation, and–last but not least–hard facts.

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Residents across the region scan the day's headlines before leaving their homes, then turn on TOP or NPR for the commute until they reach the office, where TVs on desks provide running commentary on unfolding events. Budget cuts have gutted the once-powerful bureaus of major regional papers, such as the Baltimore Sun, where Paul West presides over a bureau constantly doing more with less.

In the opening picture, we show some behind-the-scenes editors and executives who shape the coverage we read and watch–the ones who make up the true journalism establishment. On I Street, Philip Tubman is the latest in a long line of power brokers to hold the title of New York Times Washington bureau chief.

Hoping to catch Hume, David Bohr man, a former dot-com executive, is helping CNN/US president Jon Klein reshape the network's coverage, making it snappier and faster. At NBC and its cable operation, MSNBC, a trio of women–Tammy Haddad, Betsy Fischer, and Elizabeth Winner–decides the political coverage, who makes it on the marquee Meet the Press, and who gets to play Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Like Todd, Mark Hampering, political director for ABC News and editor of the network's online tip sheet the Note, often seems to know what's happening in back rooms on the Hill, in the White House, and on campaigns before some participants. Safer so eschews the trappings of Washington journalism–the TV appearances, the speaking tours, and pat-on-the-back awards–that he refused to take part in the photo that leads this section.

In creating this year's list we talked to scores of political observers, pundits, Washington figures, and members of the Fourth Estate. The last time this list was published, in 2001, it was heavy on Texas reporters as “Dub ya” and the Bush administration swept into town.

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Now, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the list is more heavily geared to foreign policy and national security. Law professor Susan Ostrich sparked a debate this year by accusing the Los Angeles Times of “blatant sex discrimination” on its editorial page because of the dearth of female voices.

The situation at the Washington Post and the New York Times isn't much better: Anne Applebaum and Maureen Down are their lone regular female op-ed writers. There are notable exceptions: CNN now fields an all-female White House team, with Dana Bash, Suzanne Malraux, and Elaine Equiano.

At the Supreme Court, a cabal of talented women has seized control–including Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, USA Today's Joan Biopic, and the Chicago Tribune's Jan Crawford Green burg as well as NPR's Nina Rosenberg. This recent convert to the newsweekly from the Post's political desk is giving Beltway insiders a reason to resubscribe to Time.

Like him or not, the ubiquitous Wolfman gets the kind of airtime of which other anchors can only dream–17 hours a week split between the frenetic Situation Room and his Sunday talk show, Late Edition. One of the two entries on The Washingtonian's 1973 best journalists list who still makes it today (the other is Bob Novak), Border's longevity and stature, even in quasi-retirement, ensure that aspiring politicians still need his stamp of approval.

Although sometimes accused of oversimplifying complex divisions and issues, Brooks's fresh thinking and his perch on the op-ed page ensures a powerful audience. Political aides are taught early on that you ignore at your peril phone calls from this respected Washington observer, columnist, and CNN analyst.

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The former managing editor of the Post and 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book on terrorism, Coll's jump to the New Yorker ensures that his specialty–thoughtful articles on the Middle East, foreign policy, and terrorism–will continue to shine. Washington's own Mike Rock, he makes the grit of city life come alive in his Metro column.

Fournier, the Associated Press's lead political writer, has all three in abundance; during election night 2004, he rewrote the main story 67 times. Embattled White House press secretary Scott McClellan probably has nightmares about this firebrand in the front row of the briefing room.

Whoever Harsh's sources are inside the military, he manages to nail stories no one else can, and his reporting on Iraq, terrorism, torture, and Abu Grain helped reshape the debate on the home front. Opinions vary on Fox News, but few questions the integrity and hard work of the network's face in Washington –and anchor of cable's number-one weeknight political program, his Special Report.

This bearded, oversize correspondent keeps better records than the White House when it comes to many things presidential and thus is a much bigger “voice” than his CBS Radio perch may imply. When his colleagues sought to explain how the Bush administration had lost on Harriet Years's court nomination, they merely pointed out that Bristol didn't buy in.

The nation's most respected (and controversial) voice in media reporting, Kurtz is amazingly prodigious in his output in print, on the Web, and as host of CNN's Reliable Sources. The quiet and calm voice of the most thoughtful news show on television, Leader has the respect and admiration of his peers.

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A shining light in an otherwise anemic Style section, the Post's attitude-laden Lavish can wield enormous sway–just ask Teresa Heinz Kerry, who never really overcame his 2002 profile of her. Objectively it's hard to say that any reporter in Washington has had more influence on the media this year than the New York Times cause célèbre who spent nearly three months in jail yet managed to emerge more a pariah than ever.

Purdue's well-written explanations and unique looks at Washington life still shine even in an editor's paper like the Times. Raised in Washington society and Capitol Hill life, Roberts is as veteran as they come–and a voice of reason and moderation in a city with too little of either.

One of the nation's most respected voices on foreign affairs; it's no coincidence that he's twice worked on reporting teams that have won the Pulitzer Prize. At 68, Schrieffer works harder than most journalists half his age–anchoring the CBS Evening News and doing Face the Nation every Sunday.

The Post probably doesn't employ a sharper pen than the one belonging to its television critic–a man with the freedom to write on a presidential speech one day and the WB the next. Though this former Clinton aide's selection to head the storied This Week was originally considered a journalistic travesty, he's building a Sunday show that's fresh and offers a voice distinct from the other talk fests.

The bureau chief of the far-reaching Knight Rider chain, Walcott, along with his team of correspondents, is managing to turn out impressive work even as his corporate bosses slash costs. This Post sports columnist and ESPN Pardon the Interruption cohost brings a well-trained and sardonic eye–as well as a hearty laugh–to his coverage.

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Thirty-plus years after he first showed up on The Washingtonian's 1973 list of great investigative journalists, the dean of the field is still going strong. With each of his projects destined for a book and front-page treatment, you need only to invoke his last name to strike fear into the hearts of government officials.

Separate from the city's top reporters, Washington has a whole class of talented explainers–the analysts who put things in context, tease out trends, and help everything fall into place. This list concentrates on journalistic columnists–not the political punditocracy of “former” something-or-others who fill the cable news talk shows and pen op-eds with reckless abandon.

Politically, columnist George Will, the Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray, PBS's Gwen Fill, and C-SPAN's Brian Lamb bring thoughtful and levelheaded analysis to the table, helping viewers and readers make sense of Washington's ups and down. Bringing insight to the economic front, Steve Pearl stein of the Washington Post and Robert Samuelson of Newsweek make their readers think about money and markets in new ways.

National Journal, the city's wonky weekly must-read, is packed with people who pull together the threads of the news to paint bigger pictures and explain what it means: Stuart Taylor Jr. is nearly unrivaled on the political and legal front; Bill Powers is an expert media thinker; and Charlie Cook knows politics like the back of his hand. Then there are the explainers who elevate writing to an art: Peter Bernard of the New Republic, Christopher Kitchens of Vanity Fair, and Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post.

National Journal's daily online Hotline has long been the definitive guide to what is going on in politics–but pricey subscriptions have limited how broadly it gets disseminated. If the hype around blogging is to be believed, the future of journalism in America might look a lot like Analysis, who broke February's scandal involving disgraced White House reporter Jeff Cannon.

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With a generation of television legends retiring–the last year has seen the disappearance of all three network evening news anchors as well as the retirement of CNN's Judy Woodruff–the medium has a need for new blood. ABC's Jessica Yelling is proving downright fiery as the new kid in the front row of the White House briefing room, peppering press secretary Scott McClellan with unrelenting questions.

Her colleague Jake Tapper, the network's man about town, is penning a daily blog (blogs.abcnews.com/downanddirty) about his reporting exploits as well as offering his own news-related haiku. Two of the reporters, Maureen Grope of Gannett News Service and Jeff Helen of the Chicago Tribune, are likely to have an impact in future presidential elections.

Remember that 16 years ago Ron Fournier, the Associated Press's chief political writer and regarded as one of the best in the business, was an Arkansas AP reporter covering a governor named Bill Clinton. Two magazine writers have great potential: Ryan Pizza of the New Republic and Jeffrey Goldberg, the new author of New Yorker's storied Letter From Washington column.

Editor at large Garrett M. Graph profiled Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz in the July issue. It’s “the most precious kind of journalism,” he said, “because it changes how we think and how we look at the world.” The group considered nonfiction books, daily reporting, documentaries, podcasts and more.

Based on the duo’s groundbreaking #Metro reporting for the New York Times in 2017, it’s a “pitch-perfect primer on how to take a hot-button-chasing by-the-minutes breaking story and investigate it with the best and most honorable journalistic practices.” The New Yorker writer’s moving portrait of a place and its people, published in 2012, is “unbelievably well written and well reported,” said a judge.

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The 2010 book by the civil rights litigator, now a New York Times columnist, “demonstrates the ways in which the War on Drugs, and its resulting incarceration policies and processes, operate against people of color.” One judge called it “crucial as an engine toward transforming the criminality of our ‘justice’ system.” This narrative medical journalism, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the Pro Public and New York Times correspondent who is also a physician, is “compelling, compassionate, and unsettling.” The 2013 book expands on her reporting based on the 2005 disaster in New Orleans.

The judges called this the “definitive journalistic exploration and documentation of fatal police shootings in America.” In the wake of the infamous police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the ambitious effort “set a new standard for real-time, data journalism and was a vital resource during a still-raging national debate.” What about “In the Dark,” the investigative podcast that helped free a Mississippi man once held on death row?”) Or they may have some other ideas altogether.

Whether you agree with the list, it might make you stop to think about some of the essential reporting that’s whizzing by you right now as you doom scroll the news endlessly into the nights. The Post explores the top secret world the government created in response to the attacks of Sept. 11.

How guns move through American society, from store counter to crime scene. If you have solid tips, news or documents on potential ethical violations or abuses of power, we want to know.

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