The media today: What about the agencies?

Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders, and now Anthony Scaramucci. These are a few of the names that dominate headlines around the Trump administration. And that’s before we get to the president, himself. With the White House bouncing from Twitter-induced crisis to rumored staff shake-up to campaign-style rally, the cacophony of noise out of the West Wing often threatens to overwhelm any other news about the workings of government.

The government employs more than two million federal workers, the vast majority of whom never walk through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The agencies they work for impact the quality of the air we breathe, the types of schools our children attend, how we manage public lands, and much more. When Donald Trump and his coterie of advisors and spokespeople constantly garner air time and page space, it’s tempting to lament: Why isn’t the media covering the agencies? When we hear from readers, that’s a common refrain. But the reporting is out there; it’s often just tougher to find.

That’s why it was heartening to see Michael Lewis take a big swing at a story on an agency few people—including, until recently, its director—understand. The author of Moneyball and The Big Short dropped nearly 13,000 words on a Vanity Fair feature about the Department of Energy. Titled, “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From Inside the White House,” it is, to be clear, not reassuring. Lewis speaks with dozens of current and former DOE staffers about the new administration’s approach to its work, but the piece also reads as a primer on what the agency really controls.

What the alphabet soup of the federal bureaucracies actually do can be maddeningly complex, and policy decisions made at the highest levels often take awhile to trickle down to daily life. The job of explaining those policy decisions and how they will affect American lives falls to reporters whose work rarely leads news broadcasts or dominates political conversation. The work, however, is being done. Below, some help on finding it.


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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.