SECTION: Section 7; Page 26; Column 4; Book Review Desk
LENGTH: 662 words
White House correspondents are the screenwriters of Washington. Their jobs are glamorous in theory, but they get treated like dirt in practice. They believe the whole country depends on what they say, but they have to endure long periods of forced inactivity, with nothing to do but nurse their grievances. Worse, they are bullied by arrogant 25-year-olds (White House staffers) constantly telling them how to do their jobs.
"Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press" -- essentially a memoir of Kenneth T. Walsh's 10 years covering the White House for U.S. News & World Report -- describes this caged existence. It is filled with Sturm und Drang: "Maureen Dowd was shellshocked"; Helen Thomas "spent much of Inauguration Day in a fury." The causes of the frequent explosions are never great issues of state; they are always mundane matters ("reporters were unhappy with long waiting lines at the lone men's restroom"). The book reveals the great truth of the Washington press corps. It is influenced not by liberal bias or corporate ownership so much as by day-to-day coddling or inconvenience, flattery or rudeness.
The White House reporters and the White House staff are engaged in a continuous war for status and recognition. The Administration people want admiring press coverage (while secretly believing that every journalist is an assassin in waiting). The correspondents want to be treated with the deference due to people who have reached the top of their profession. In "Feeding the
Beast," the officials who get savaged, like John Sununu and George Stephanopoulos, are the ones who treat reporters like servants. The officials who get praised are those like David Gergen and Mike McCurry, who treat them as equals.
When journalists examine themselves, they tend to weave self criticism with self-congratulation -- like a bunch of people piously whipping themselves with feathers. And Mr. Walsh's broader thoughts on the performance of the news media, while sensible, are not particularly new or gripping. But this book is valuable because it allows readers to observe the journalistic mind in its natural habitat.
For example, Mr. Walsh shows Wolf Blitzer of CNN calling the same source every two or three minutes, doggedly trying to track down some information. Mr. Walsh lovingly describes his own scoops and quotes from the stories in which he was ahead of the curve. Like most reporters, he doesn't appear to have a developed ideological sense. He seems more interested in history than in political theory or grand ideas. But he is conscientious and curious.
Mr. Walsh documents the fact that the vast majority of his colleagues are Democrats, but their biases are subtle, not overt. (The book even includes a heartfelt chapter in praise of Dan Quayle.) Predisposed toward Bill Clinton, they were quickly disgusted by the Clintonites' willingness to deceive, and by their incredible arrogance.
Inadvertently, Mr. Walsh also demonstrates the news media's unpleasant traits. Though critical of the press corps's herd mentality, he includes many "we journalists" sentences in his book, as in: "We journalists shared the administration's initial skepticism about whether Mikhail Gorbachev was a serious reformer." What did they do? Hold a referendum? And Mr. Walsh will often reduce complex situations to snippets of conventional wisdom. The Republican Congress is forever mentioned alongside the word extreme"; the Bush Presidency is linked at the hip with the words "lacked vision."
The lesson here for politicians is that you should always pay homage to reporters' experience and wisdom -- to their faces. Make sure they get mints on their hotel pillows. But the best thing to do during a campaign is to get them interested in your opponent. In these negative times, whoever receives the most coverage loses.
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.