The Magazine

Lives of the Scribes

What you thought you knew about the Washington press corps.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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On the strength of half-a-century’s work with newspaper people, I can confidently say that no cadre of that tribe is subject to greater superstition than Washington reporters. It seems a settled prejudice that all reporters, everywhere, are puffed-up Pulitzer-seekers and partisans in disguise, prostituting themselves for glittering prizes. Assuredly, journalists are no more immune to mean ambitions than anyone else. But I routinely challenge these skeptics to spend a night in a busy newsroom, or face a gruff copy editor of the old school (a vanishing breed, alas), and still believe that news is easy to cook, especially when it is big and breaking.

Jimmy Carter meets the press, 1977.

Jimmy Carter meets the press, 1977.

Associated Press

In fact, it is too often served raw. When this writer was a cub reporter in Charlotte, assigned to cover the nightly mayhem in the streets, I presented to the copy desk on one of my first days a piece about the “lacerations and contusions” suffered in a highway accident. “Sonny,” barked a hard-faced copy editor, “here in America we call ’em cuts and bruises.” I had stumbled unwarily into the hospital-speak of my sources.

In any case, those who seek the straight stuff on these alleged fabulists, these journalistic unicorns, will profit from Stephen Hess’s longitudinal study. Three decades ago, he and his assistants interviewed as many of the species as they could track down, more than 400, and published a book about them. Now, 30 years later, the Hess team has reviewed its findings and tried to discover what became of their subjects. The results are interesting, although the data are mostly such as can be neatly tabulated. The arguably more interesting personal questions—parental influences and mentors, reading habits, musical tastes, and the like—aren’t sought, and the favored categories are generational and professional, and male/female. The names of stars and prestige papers naturally get more exposure than the also-rans, although the categories (“boomers,” “lifers,” and so on) are impersonal; and there is a handy appendix in which the 1978 interviewees appear.

There are interesting tales. It is, or was, familiar lore that the late James Reston of the New York Times, surely the most eminent Washington reporter of the postwar generation, created his own domain as the paper’s chief capital Corrrespondent (capital “C,” please) and resisted home-office efforts to control it. The story of the hiring of young Steven Roberts, who seems to have wanted to work for the Times since he could walk and talk, confirms it. When the editors in New York balked at hiring Roberts, then 22, and Reston’s successor as bureau chief, Tom Wicker, had trouble breaking the home-office blockade, Reston took control. Roberts recounts:

[Roberts and Reston] walked out of 1701 K Street, where our office was, got into a cab, went to National Airport, flew to New York, marched into the office of the managing editor, Clifton Daniel, and Reston said, “Are you going to hire this kid or not?” At which point Daniel said, “OK, OK!” That’s how I became a reporter on the New York Times at 22.

On the other hand, reporters who enter the gilded world of television news, especially those who cover courts, clearly have the hardest time getting their stories through the electronic fog and frivolity. That problem finally got to Carl Stern, who had been covering the Supreme Court for NBC:

The principal producer to whom I reported in New York [had] very strong views as to what she thought the Court was doing, which occasionally did parallel what the Court was doing, but not all the time. .  .  . She would change my copy. .  .  . Frequently it reached the point where I didn’t believe half the things I was saying on the air. Not that it was blatantly false but that it was inaccurate.

Stern, protesting, was admonished by a senior producer that what mattered was not the “fairness bullshit,” but being “fair overall.” Stern fled to academe. Fred Graham had a similar problem as judicial reporter at CBS, where the term “infotainment” seems to have been bandied without irony. CBS News chief Van Gordon Sauter advised Graham, who was handicapped by a law degree, that the reporter should seek, in every story, “a tear-filled moment, a happy moment, anyway an emotional moment .  .  . and your rating will go up.”

No doubt, covering judicial subtleties is a challenge for a visual medium that must tell stories in pictures and “feelings” elicited from desolate people. It seems widely believed today that this imaginary judiciary of sob sisters (and brothers) may be swayed by demonstrators; and since many people claim to get their news from television, that idea may be encouraged by the theatrical values urged upon Stern and Graham (and no doubt others). But the disturbing effect is a grossly distorted impression of what judges decide, and how.

Of special interest is the space devoted here to that ur-Washington institution, the Gridiron Club, which has been staging winter follies in a white-tie setting for well over a century. These annual events feature pointed skits teasing presidents and other political bigwigs, who are expected to attend, laugh, and retort. For a very long time, the evening’s follies opened with a reminder that “ladies are present,” meaning presumably that locker-room humor was out of order. But of all the recent indicia of journalistic change, none is more startling or symptomatic of what has befallen old-boy networks than the recent advent of Susan Page of USA Today as the Gridiron’s fifth female and first baby boomer president.

Even more revolutionary has been the dilution of the so-called pencil press by members from TV—though one hopes not the clowning producers who drove Stern and Graham out of reporting. It was Page, in her presidential “speech in the dark,” who marked another transition in her tribute to David Broder, the dean of recent political reporters, who had died four days before the Gridiron dinner in February 2011: “He embodied the values of thoughtful and civil engagement on the most critical issues we face as a nation.” It was true, and more good things could be said of Broder. But one quality especially marked him as exceptional in a thin-skinned trade: He usually devoted his last Washington Post column every year to a critique of his own errors and oversights.

My own unscientific survey of the reportorial species would include another institution overlooked here, the Sperling breakfast, long convened by Godfrey Sperling, chief Washington correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor—perhaps because it so often could have been described as the Gridiron with bacon and eggs. On weekday mornings, in one hotel eatery or another, one would find an assemblage of many eminent reporters and correspondents—often the aforementioned Broder and also Robert Novak, the equally brilliant political reporter who posed, in his later years, as the “prince of darkness,” and loved the role so much that he almost believed in it. Sperling could draw administration and congressional eminences for an hour of on-the-record questions and answers.

So far as I recall from my own time at Sperling’s friendly table, few sensations emerged—not even when Bill Clinton, as a candidate in 1992, was asked toward the end of the hour about his rumored dalliances. (“I thought you’d never ask,” Clinton replied, but spilled no beans.) Though there was the weird morning, in the second Reagan term, when Admiral John Poindexter, the new, naïve national security adviser, was summoned to the White House mid-breakfast. Naturally, we wondered what agenda couldn’t wait another 30 minutes. It was shortly surmised that the official line on the recent Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev was under overhaul, and what had been perceived as a flop was about to be reclothed as the coming millennium.

In fact, as is noted by Hess, Poindexter had let it out that one of his functions was to blow smoke at the press. His tenure was brief.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure

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