Fall 2005

Probing the Successes and Failures of the Washington Press Corps

‘Great reporting in Washington is about cutting through the bureaucratic maze.’

By James McCartney


Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps
Donald A. Ritchie
Oxford University Press. 432 Pages. $30
In analyzing the reasons for his defeat by a relatively inexperienced John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon concluded that it boiled down to a single definable problem—his television image. If he wanted to continue in national politics he would have to change that image.

Thus in 1967 and early 1968, with great deliberation, he set about doing so. He hired two experienced craftsmen, Harry Treleaven, from the advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, and Frank Shakespeare, from CBS television, with help from a youthful Roger Ailes, who now runs Fox TV. Between them, they repackaged Richard Nixon and sold him to America in the 1968 election campaign much like J. Walter Thompson would sell a bar of soap.

In his book, Donald A. Ritchie recalls this astonishing achievement—the manufacture, through modern advertising techniques, of a “new” Nixon when, in fact, as history subsequently demonstrated, there was no new Nixon. But with the Washington press corps, Nixon and his team got away with this massive deception and, in doing so, they changed American politics

The Past Foretold the Present

This story illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Ritchie’s book. Ritchie clearly understands Nixon’s considerable achievement. He attributes it to “a savvy team of media advisors.” But Ritchie seems unaware of the relevance of his research in today’s Washington world. For all practical purposes, Richard Nixon and his “savvy team” invented the modern presidency. The techniques that Treleaven and Shakespeare pioneered have become the model for George W. Bush’s White House.

Bush and his team have stolen the Nixon playbook. They seek total control of information and try to avoid any unscripted moment. They have even copied one of Nixon’s major contributions to modern statecraft—staging phony so-called “town meetings” with carefully selected audiences, faking spontaneity.

The past is indeed prologue. Why else study history? Ritchie provides a great deal of the history of the Washington press corps, much of it fascinating and certainly well documented. But he fails to examine why the Washington press corps often fails and why it matters when they do. In a book that presumes to be a definitive history, one might expect an examination of the quality of Washington reporting—if not a critique, then at least an assessment. That apparently never occurred to Ritchie. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend in this book. But it should be clear what he has done—and done well—and what he has not done.

Let’s give Ritchie his due and deal with the good news first. In significant areas, he has carefully researched and skillfully reported some of the great changes in the history of the Washington press corps, and this results in some truly fine chapters. Here’s a sample of his writing and research in a chapter about problems black reporters had in gaining access to sources and recognition:

“The Washington press corps remained exclusively white until President Roosevelt’s press secretary, Stephen Early, kneed a black policeman in the groin during the 1940 campaign. His rash act set in motion a chain of events that finally toppled racial barriers for African-American journalists at the White House and the Capitol.”

From there, Ritchie walks readers through the chain of events that followed. He also provides an effective narrative about the battle for equality waged by women. And there are intriguing and detailed accounts of how both radio and television fought, and gained, acceptance. In a thoughtful chapter, he writes about the rise and fall of Washington syndicated columnists, whose role, he points out, has been diminished by television talking heads or, perhaps more accurately, shouting heads.

In possibly the most devastating and, in a sense revealing, chapter, he examines how Senator Joseph McCarthy was able to use many willing members of the Washington press corps in his climb to national prominence. He winds up his tale with a perceptive chapter on the growing influence of Weblogs and the Internet.

The Paths to Failure

By profession, Ritchie is an historian who has worked on the staff of the U.S. Senate since 1976. In that capacity he has come to know dozens of Washington reporters, and his book reflects considerable knowledge of the tribal customs of the Washington press. The stories he tells are often packed with background and detail. Where, then, does the book fall short?

‘A reporter who could call Henry Kissinger by his first name wasn’t worth a damn on the Watergate story.’
— Ben Bradlee
The book is not truly a history of the Washington press corps, as its subtitle suggests. It is a selective history. While he is very good at what he covers, matters of significance are missing. Ritchie appears to have no knowledge of the specialized worlds of some of Washington’s important reporting beats—the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Justice Department, and other leading agencies—each a world unto itself. The book also offers no insight about the influence and impact the 24-hour news cycle has on Washington reporting.

This might be because Ritchie has viewed the reporting world from the limited pedestal of the U.S. Senate. He appears unaware of many dramatic changes in the press in recent years—for example, the enormous expansion of many regional bureaus, most notably the Los Angeles Times. Forty years ago the Times had two reporters in Washington, D.C.. Today the Times’s Washington-based staff is more than 40. It is a major player in political coverage. So is The Wall Street Journal, which 40 years ago stuck strictly to reporting on business.

More important, the book doesn’t engage what really great Washington reporting is all about. Former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee once put it this way: “A reporter who could call Henry Kissinger by his first name wasn’t worth a damn on the Watergate story.” Great reporting in Washington is about cutting through the bureaucratic maze. The real news frequently does not come from the top, from authorized statements at the White House or the State Department or other agencies. Normally those words are spin. Often important news comes from the deep bowels of the bureaucracy or from no-name staff members of congressional committees. It comes from those who know what is going on and who think it is important for the public to know.

There is in Washington reporting an intrinsic bias to power and position. Stories by reporters who refuse to honor this hallowed tradition often get lesser play—or no play at all. But these contrarians are often closer to the truth.But the Washington media too often appear trapped by an obsession with the official—the White House announcement, the Pentagon briefing, the congressional press conference, the staged event. There is in Washington reporting an intrinsic bias to power and position. Stories by reporters who refuse to honor this hallowed tradition often get lesser play—or no play at all. But these contrarians are often closer to the truth. That is the problem, and Ritchie is clearly aware of it. In his preface, he observes that “the Washington press corps has always paid the greatest attention to those in authority.” But in his book, he fails to recognize the implications of this obsession to the nation’s consumers of news.

Thus even a well documented and well written selective history, as Ritchie has produced, doesn’t help readers to understand how the game is played and why Washington reporters often fail. It is important to recall how the Washington press corps failed to perceive the disaster in Vietnam, for example, essentially providing support for President Johnson’s misguided crusade until after the Tet offensive in l968. That represented years of failure.

The evidence suggests that the same factors that contributed to the failure in Vietnam were also present 40 years later in the run-up to the war in Iraq. The Washington press corps enthusiastically bought Secretary of State Colin Powell’s phony arguments to the United Nations seeking to justify a unilateral American attack. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post—trendsetters for Washington news—have acknowledged failure in their prewar reporting.

Ritchie’s book is excellent in what it does and in the areas it seeks to explore. He deserves his scholarly reputation. But what he failed to perceive is that there is a larger and more meaningful story to tell.

James McCartney, a 1964 Nieman Fellow, was a Washington correspondent for more than 35 years, first for six years for the Chicago Daily News, then for Knight Ridder Newspapers, specializing in national security. For 10 of the Knight Ridder years he wrote a syndicated Washington column. In retirement in Florida, he continues to write a column for Florida newspapers.


No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
   
   
   
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »