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Commentary: When less was more in the news business

by on June 21, 2014 10:59 AM

When I first worked at the newspaper trade in Washington, back in 1966, it was a different form of journalism. I don’t mean the difference in the technology, the 24-hour news cycle, or the ramped up interest in celebrity. I mean something more protean, more organic.

I worked at The Washington Daily News — a tabloid in size but not in mission — and we covered the news in a very traditional way: whatever our news judgment demanded. Although we were a Washington afternoon newspaper, politics was just part of the mix.

The Daily News had one full-time congressional correspondent, and we sent reporters to Capitol Hill when there was really a lot going on. The Washington Post — then as now the dominant paper in town — covered The Hill more intensely, but not with the intensity that it does today.

In short, political coverage was more laid back; not asleep, but not as frantic as it is now. Nobody felt it necessary to record every slip of the tongue, or where a congressman had lunch or, for that matter, with whom. Certainly, nobody felt they should shun the wine list — and few did.

Covering the White House was a simple matter: Once through the gate, you could stroll through the West Wing and talk to people. Today, even if you have a regular or so-called hard pass, you are restricted to walking down the driveway to the press briefing room. If you have an appointment, or want to smell the flowers, you have to have an escort — usually a young person from the press office.

Why this is, and what the purpose of this minder is, nobody has been able to tell me. It is so dispiriting to see the equanimity with which reporters accept their prisoner status.

It did not happen overnight, but gradually under president after president. In my time in Washington, reporter freedom has been curtailed at the White House to the point that unless you want to go to the briefing, there is no point in going through the gate. No news is available because you, the reporter, are not at liberty to collect it.

News out of the White House now has to be gained off the premises, on the phone or by the Internet. The briefing room is a dead zone for print reporters, with the television reporters going back and forth with the press secretary, which is what their medium demands. No news is broken except when the president saunters in and things pick up. That is not worth hanging around there day after day.

But the real change is the proliferation of political media, including the dedicated publications like Roll Call, The Hill, POLITICO, The National Journal and the cable news networks. This means there are more reporters chasing snippets of news. The big issues get lost as often as not while the news hounds are baying after trivia, little non-events, misstatements, or failure to apologize for imagined slights.

Also, White House staffers and people who work on Capitol Hill have less and less confidence in reporters and are less frank with them. I find very little point in interviewing Congress people these days because they worry that whatever they say will, if you like, go into their record to be dredged up way in the future.

The other great organic change is in reportorial ambition. Back in the 1960s (and I must confess I started reporting in the 1950s), reporters longed to be foreign correspondents; to go abroad and tell us about life in faraway places. Today, with the emphasis on politics, the ambitious reporter longs to cover politics in Washington. So if there is a big international event, such as the Iraq-ISIS conflict, it ends up being covered through politics. What did Obama say about it? Has John McCain been heard from?

This affects both our understanding of an issue, and does nothing to ameliorate propaganda narratives. Over-covering the snippets does not help: It obscures when it should clarify.

A lot of news used to come out of reporters’ long lunches with politicians. Now the number of drinks served, as espied from another table, would be the news.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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