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Citizen Journalists, Start Your Engines!

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Bloggers and other citizen journalists have a new and exciting opportunity to find and shed light on stories the mainstream media are missing -- by combing through transcripts of recent Congressional oversight hearings. Without any fanfare, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has started posting preliminary transcripts of many of its hearings on its Web site, giving everyone a chance to pore through testimony and find news the MSM may have overlooked.

After four years during which virtually no administration officials were called to Capitol Hill to explain themselves, the new Democratic majority in January revived the tradition of closely examining executive branch activities, with House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman leading the charge. But with a few exceptions, you wouldn't know it from reading the paper or watching the news. One of the dirty little secrets of Washington journalism is that very few news organizations assign staff to cover anything but the most high-profile hearings and debates on Capitol Hill. As a result, few, if any, reporters show up for oversight hearings -- and those who do tend to leave early. Specialty publications may have more bodies on the Hill, but they tend to focus on the movement of bills through Congress rather than unrelated hearings. The legendary Washington Post investigative reporter (and fellow Nieman Watchdog blogger) Morton Mintz once told me some of his best stories came from sitting all the way through congressional hearings that other reporters had already left.

Like many other committees, the Oversight Committee has for quite a while posted the text of prepared statements on its Web site, along with a video of its full hearings. That was a great start. But the best stuff at these hearings tends to come out under questioning, not in opening statements. And slogging though an unindexed, untranscribed video is a thankless chore.

Major hearings are often transcribed in real-time by CQ Transcripts and the Federal News Service, but those are copyrighted works that are only available to those who pay for them or have a subscription to Nexis.

Up until now, it took more than six months for public-domain transcripts of most hearings to become available. They had to work their way through an arduous proofing and approval process before finally being published by the Government Printing Office.

But now, without any formal announcement, the House Oversight Committee has started Web-publishing the preliminary transcripts prepared by official stenographers as soon as they are available -- typically within a few days of the hearing. In other words, while the news is still fresh.

Let's hope other committees follow its lead.

Here, via Google, is a list of those hearings for which preliminary transcripts have been posted.

Here, for instance, is the transcript of a Nov. 8 hearing during which Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was grilled about the EPA's position and current plans for addressing greenhouse gas emissions in light of its refusal to consider the global warming effects of massive coal-fired power plants proposed for the Western United States.

And here is the transcript of a Nov. 1 hearing on what committee chairman Henry Waxman called a "reckless" proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services to make major changes in federal Medicaid policy.

This is a great opportunity for citizen journalists to become Washington reporters. If you find some overlooked news in these or other transcripts, e-mail me your blog posts or your findings, and I'll try to make sure that they aren't overlooked as well.

Cross-posted from the Watchdog Blog at NiemanWatchdog.org.