By: Joe Strupp
While the Washington, D.C., press world keeps following the daily revelations about controversial reporter James Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, some historical perspective is probably necessary.
A look back at more than 200 years of the Washington press corps and its relationships with previous presidents shows that relations have never been as even-handed and unconflicted as many would like them to be today. So says Donald A. Ritchie, a former U.S. Senate historian and author of the new book, “Reporting From Washington: The
History of The Washington Press Corps” (Oxford University Press), which hits book stores March 15.
Ritchie, whose previous books have included histories of American journalism and the Capital Hill correspondents, contends that while Guckert’s lack of journalism experience and unusual sex-business private life may be unique, the ability of a favorable reporter to gain access is not unusual.
“Almost all presidents have allowed people in the White House who couldn’t pass muster to get a regular press pass but served the purposes of the administration,” Ritchie told E&P, noting Guckert’s need to obtain daily press passes after failing to obtain a permanent ?hard pass’? credential. “Press secretaries for many presidents have winked at people they knew would ask soft questions, even though they didn’t meet the same criteria.”
Ritchie cited Walter Winchell, the famed gossip columnist who was unable to get a hard pass, but whom Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted in press briefings. “I don’t think anyone would consider Walter Winchell a Washington journalist,” Ritchie noted. “But Roosevelt wanted him to be on his side because his column was read by everyone under the sun.”
FDR also gave special consideration by allowing only the three wire services at the time — Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service — to travel with him but not report on any elements of the trip until he returned. “They couldn’t even tell their wives where they
were going,” Ritchie said.
Reporters attending Herbert Hoover’s press conferences had to submit questions in advance, according to Ritchie’s book, and Hoover would choose those he wanted to answer. “Some reporters said he restricted the answers
to those questions he wrote himself,” Ritchie said. Hoover also singled out a special group of about six reporters who wrote favorably for special access via a daily morning “medicine ball” game on the White House front lawn. “He had regular press conferences, but this was
an inner circle of journalists he talked to exclusively,” Ritchie explained.
When television came into the briefing room during the Eisenhower Administration, only taped accounts of the events could be used, and only after White House officials
edited them, “in case the president said something he shouldn’t have,” Ritchie reported.
Richard Nixon took reporter favoritism to an extreme with Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor who worked for Nixon in between stints at the newspaper. “Nixon at one point was letting him look at income tax records of Nixon’s opponents,” Ritchie said. “He never wrote about them, I believe, but he fell out of favor with the paper over it and eventually left to teach.”
A similar practice occurred during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt of the 1950’s, when several pro-McCarthy reporters were allowed to use his office and helped him write press releases. Among those were George Waters and Ed Nellor of the Washington Times-Herald.
“They gave him more credibility and actually reported things before he announced them because they had access,” Ritchie said. “But when McCarthy was censured and the rest of the press stopped reporting his allegations, they never got any more credibility.”
Going way back, prior to Andrew Johnson’s presidency in 1865, all press dealings with presidents were strictly off-the-record, Ritchie said. Only when Johnson faced impeachment did he allow on-the-record interviews with reporters in an effort to defend his actions. “He was able to mount a defense that helped him win the [Senate impeachment] trial,” Ritchie said.
The first White House briefing room did not exist until 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt had the West Wing constructed. “Before that, reporters had to stand in the hallways from time to time,” Ritchie said. “TR would also do
interviews while he was shaved in the morning in the barber’s chair. He was very quotable.”
Aside from the access and partisanship element of Guckert’s situation, though, is the question of judging who is a journalist and what is a news organization in the Internet age. Guckert’s story highlights the long-running debate over how online outlets are to be judged.
Ritchie reminds readers that every time a new technology — from radio to television to the Web — has emerged to report on Washington, access has come only after much determination: “The definition isn’t set in stone and
it changes every time a new form of technology emerges,” Ritchie said.
The Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of Capitol Hill reporters who determine which reporters receive congressional press passes, and indirectly which get White House hard passes, has held that power since
1880, Ritchie notes. In each case over time, those reporting for new technologies have had to convince the group that they were deserving.
Web sites in general, broke through in 2001, according to the book, when WorldNetDaily successfully earned a Capitol Hill credential after threatening legal action against the committee. “Once again a major change in communications had shaken the settled world of the Washington press corps and forced it to adjust to a new order,” Ritchie wrote.
Ritchie’s book also looks at how broadcast and Internet outlets changed coverage, the limits placed on women and black reporters, and, of course, investigative reporters, leakers, and anonymous sources — including Washington’s most famous anonymous source, Deep Throat.
While Ritchie does not add his pick for Deep Throat’s identity to the growing list of speculated possibilities, he does narrow it down to someone from the FBI. Noting that Bob Woodward of The Washington Post had often referred to his “friend in the FBI” during the Watergate investigation,
according to colleagues with whom Ritchie spoke, the author also contends the FBI had good reason to make Nixon look bad at the time: “That was a time when J. Edgar Hoover had died and Nixon was trying to make the agency an arm of his administration, which the FBI was resisting.”