“Washington Post” Writer: “I Don’t Need to Be Fair”

Investigative reporting in the Post’s shrinking Metro section is on the decline, so editorial-page writer Jo-Ann Armao has taken up the task. And she has many city officials afraid—very afraid.

By: Harry Jaffe

The Washington Post has been starving its Metro coverage to the point where some days it seems little more than obits, weather, and traffic wrapped around a few news articles. A fellow is handling the coveted Montgomery County schools beat. Northern Virginia has pretty much dropped off the page.

Jo-Ann Armao has stepped into the breach when it comes to DC reporting. Writing on the editorial page, she has become a crusading investigative reporter, opinion writer, and executioner all in one. In the process, she has rankled Post reporters, who say she has usurped their turf. Former education writer Bill Turque accused her of providing ex-DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee “a print version of the Larry King show.” One District official, who declines to be named out of fear, says of Armao: “She’s permanently outraged and thinks she runs the city. She will take down anyone she can.”

Check Harry Thomas Jr., once a rising star and Ward 5 council member. Armao reported and wrote editorials that prompted city and federal law officers to investigate Thomas and find that he stole DC funds. He resigned and went to jail. “We were out there before anyone,” Armao says. “People think editorial writers are locked in a room to think and write. We have to do our own reporting.”

For Armao, that means digging up documents and using her access to power players to build cases against what she sees as examples of malfeasance. These can be as trivial as who gets contracts to cut grass in DC or as important as whether Ward 1 council member Jim Graham acted properly in discussing—and perhaps steering—development deals when he was a member of the Metro board.

“She has the power of the editorial board and the tools of an investigative reporter,” Graham says, “but without the ordinary restrictions that apply to Metro reporters. If that type of journalism is appealing to some people, there you have it. It’s not to me.”

Armao has written 17 editorials about Graham and the Metro board since January—“without the suggestion of any laws being broken or any crime being committed,” he says.

Says Armao: “There were unanswered questions. You just don’t drop it.”

Armao, 61, has been at the Post since 1984. She has reported and edited articles on DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Since joining the editorial board in 2006, she has focused on DC.

Armao does pick favorites: She had a cozy relationship with former DC mayor Adrian Fenty—so close that his predecessor, Anthony Williams, called it “four years of adoration and devotion”—and she lavishes praise on police chief Cathy Lanier.

“Oftentimes I can get closer to the truth in writing editorials,” Armao says. “I don’t need to be fair and balanced. If something is fundamentally wrong, I don’t have to pay phony homage to something that is not true.”

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.