By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
FOUR YEARS AGO, Marlin Fitzwater was watching the presidential campaign from the inside.
This year, as an independent consultant, the former White House press secretary had the opportunity to look at both of his former professions ? journalism and government ? with an outsider’s eye.
The bottom line: His opinions of both have changed little, he said during an informal discussion at his Virginia home.
“I spent so long in journalism, and was such a student of the press for so many years in all my press secretary jobs, I don’t think that there’s been any revelations since then, where I would say, ‘Aha, they are all liberals,’ ” Fitzwater said.
As ever, he maintained that journalism “is a tough job that’s done very well,” but added, “It’s very hard to tell people inside the White House that.”
Nevertheless, given the opportunity to do it all over again, Fitzwater said he would take a page from the current administration’s playbook and would be more critical of the press, both publicly and in private.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed about the Clinton administration is that they have no qualms about calling up journalists and telling them they’re wrong and stupid and telling them how to write their stories and what they’re doing wrong,” he said.
“I thought journalists would react negatively to that, but, in fact, it seems to work,” he added, expressing amazement that journalists have allowed the White House “to intimidate them in so many ways, and I think, maybe, I should have done more of that.”
In his autobiography, Call the Briefing! Reagan and Bush, Sam and Helen: A Decade with Presidents and the Press, Fitzwater described the press corps as “an unwanted appendage, like a cocklebur that attaches to your pants leg.” But he doesn’t feel that way so much anymore.
“I think that’s a phenomenon that occurs certainly within the White House and within any large institution that’s being examined by journalists,” he said, “because, first of all, if you boil it down to a kind of a personal thing: Nobody welcomes criticism or that constant oversight.”
While people in government respect intellectually the role of journalism in democracy, he questioned, “Does that mean they like to have journalists spending their every day looking over their shoulder at everything they do? No, and, thankfully, I don’t know very many people who think that’s a swell way to spend your day.
“So, to leaders in government and business, journalism is kind of an unwanted spectator,” he said. While it is the lot of journalists “to examine and make judgments about others. That’s what people resent about journalists, is that they’re always making judgments about them,” Fitzwater said.
“And most times, when people say, ‘Well, journalism isn’t too objective anymore,’ it means they thought objective journalism was just reporting what happened. And what they really resent are the judgmental qualities of journalism that now is a very big part of journalism,” Fitzwater noted.
From the inside, Fitzwater said, the so-called advocacy journalist seems like “people questioning your motivation, which people just absolutely resent.”
His advice to government officials? “Get over it and get used to it, because it’s going to get worse.”
He ought to know. Fitzwater was a newspaperman before crossing the isle to spend two decades in government, mainly as a spokesman for various agencies, and then 10 years in the White House, under Presidents Reagan and Bush.
“It’s incredible,” he said. After four or five years at several newspapers, 20 years as a government spokesman, a couple of years as deputy press secretary, and a presidential campaign, “I thought I had probably as good a background as you can have.
“But it still could not prepare me for the pressures of the job” of heading the White House press office, Fitzwater said, because of the enormity of the scrutiny compared with, say, being public affairs director at a cabinet agency, where maybe five or six reporters cover you on a regular basis. They don’t write about you on daily deadline, so you have time to handle information, he explained.
“The margins for error are so small in the White House. If you say one word wrong, it goes out through so many channels that you just can’t believe it,” Fitzwater said. “There are so many avenues of information, or ways that you can make mistakes, that can blow up at you, and there’s no comparable situation to that in the world outside the White House,” he continued.
Therefore, no matter how well-prepared you are for the job, “it’s going to test you in ways you’ve never been tested before.”
Had President Bush won re-election in 1992, Fitzwater would have stayed about six months to get the new administration going before seeking another job, possibly with the U.S. Information Agency, a move he had discussed with the president about a year before the election.
“I really thought I was getting burned out after 10 years in the White House,” Fitzwater said, and he advised his successor not to stay as long.
“For one thing, I think it’s too high-pressure. You get along OK, but you don’t realize how your effectiveness becomes diminished by just the daily battles,” Fitzwater observed. “I don’t think a press secretary can survive in that kind of a pressure cooker for more than four or five years.”
He also suggested White House press secretaries “try to be as nonpolitical as possible and try to maintain your honesty and integrity, which is mandatory for the job.”
“But,” he added, “you also have to examine your own personal traits. If you’re not a person who’s tolerant of others and is patient with others, you’re doomed, because you’ve got to tolerate every point of view, every kind of individual, every kind of publication, every neurotic quality that as many people in one room can have ? and try to be even-tempered about it.”
It’s a job not many people are suited for and a job that has changed considerably in light of the proliferation of new media, which Fitzwater saw firsthand during the Persian Gulf war.
Among the biggest changes in journalism, he cited the impact of satellites and the proliferation of television journalism and computerized journalism, and desktop publishing.
“There has been an enormous growth in the journalism industry, with thousands of new outlets of different kinds and so forth that reject many of the old newspaper/radio ethics, if you will, but certainly bring a new speed and a new dimension to the way journalism is practiced.
“That, in turn,” Fitzwater continued, “has led to changes in the way government responds to it, the way journalists look at their own profession, and the way the public looks at the journalists.”
During the Gulf war, for example, there were several instances in which “not only did the live coverage mean that people felt more a part of what was actually happening, but it also meant that government had to respond on a real-time basis,” he said. In one case, Fitzwater recalled, Saddam Hussein had proposed a settlement, which President Bush and his advisers determined was phoney.
When the president needed a way to tell the 26 nations in the coalition that he planned not to respond, the “quickest and most effective way was CNN, because all the countries in the world had it and were watching it on a real-time basis,” he said. “And 20 minutes after we got the proposal . . . I went on national television, basically, just to tell the 26 members of the coalition that the war was continuing.”
That “strange” incident “had enormous impact within the government, because basically what it meant was all the old diplomatic channels were circumvented,” he said. “All the State Department channels were circumvented, so that all the traditional means of communications that America had been using for 200 years to communicate with other heads of state ended that morning. And it ended, basically, with George Bush and the secretary of state and the press secretary sitting in a room and saying we go on television and announce this decision.”
Another phenomenon is the rise of highly paid celebrity journalists, he observed.
“We have journalists now who don’t necessarily see themselves as just reporters,” he said. “They see themselves as someday being publishers or columnists or commentators or part of management in some fashion.”
After growing up and working as a newsman in Kansas, Fitzwater found on the East Coast “another world of journalism” dominated by four or five big publications and the television networks in which “the celebrity is focused on themselves,” he observed in reference to TV shows dominated by journalists talking about themselves.
The result is that the journalists “have all become celebrities, and, therefore, people can’t tell the difference between whether they’re giving you news or giving you celebrity information.”
Now “a fairly widespread phenomenon,” Fitzwater first noticed it back in the 1980s with Sam Donaldson of ABC News.
“We started noticing that wherever Donaldson went with President Reagan, people would rush over to talk to him as much as they would the president,” Fitzwater explained.
Press secretaries have had to develop new strategies in response to the wave of celebrity journalists, he continued. In other words, you did not simply interact with the public through reporters. Instead, in dealing with celebrity journalists and TV talk shows, “what you try to do is make celebrities out of government officials, putting cabinet officers or others on, or you develop spokesmen.”
Although the role of a presidential spokesman has really developed in the latter part of this century, Fitzwater said that now its gotten to the point where “the spokesman’s job is so related to the media itself that everybody has a spokesman ? every movie star has a spokesman, every government official has a spokesman, news organizations have spokesmen. So, there’s another whole industry that’s generated just because they needed a group of people with the expertise to deal with this new, fast-paced journalism.”
In the end, however, Fitzwater believes the public is winning because it is better informed than ever before, despite the confusion.
Journalism, Fitzwater says, is “a self-correcting mechanism,” and media outlets need to revisit their rules of ethics in light of all the change.
No fan of Washington’s endemic “revolving door” between journalism and government, he conceded that he missed journalism and toyed with the idea of returning to the trade in the late 1960s, but declined a job offer at a weekly newspaper in Maryland ? ironically not far from where he is building a new home.
“I love journalism,” Fitzwater said, and if he had his druthers, he’d take a job on the board of some newspaper, but, “So far, nobody’s invited me.” He said he would relish being a director and dealing with all the change overtaking the newspaper industry.
And when it comes to presidential campaign coverage, despite all the changes, he said, “the end result is about the same.”
“The whole instant response thing and fax machines sending out answers even before the questions are asked and a huge kind of industry of one-upmanship developing on both sides is a new phenomenon” ? one that has less to do with a candidate’s ability to lead than the campaign’s ability to manage technology, Fitzwater said.
“It detracts in the sense that people become focused in on who is first and who is most effective in what they said, rather than on what was said. And it diminishes in the sense that the responses are not as thoughtful, and often are wrong.”
?(Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater (right), who was at the White House for a CBS interview, jokes with current press secretary Mike McCurry in the briefing room after presenting him a copy of his book,”Call the Briefing.”)[Photo & Caption]