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Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press.

Ever since Teddy Roosevelt brought journalists in from the rain and gave them a room in the White House, we have had this peculiarly American phenomenon of presidents inviting some of their worst tormentors to live under the same roof. It is like having a bunch of sullen teenagers in your basement--sassing you, eating your food, and constantly judging you.

Feeding the Beast, by U.S. News White House reporter Kenneth Walsh, is a smooth yarn about the guilt, grievances, and dogged triumphs of the White House press corps, and about presidents' mystical yearning to create a bond with Americans by going through, around, and over the heads of journalists. Walsh, rightly proud of what the press corps accomplishes, is also disturbed by reporters' rush to judgment on politicians. He deplores the "smart aleck journalism and wise-guy punditry" that give the press corps a bad name. And he feels that too many Washington journalists have become isolated from the "real" America and are busier trying to "impress political insiders, or each other," than inform the public.

Walsh has watched three presidents up close for 10 years, and he clearly has a soft spot for George Bush, the only recent president (besides Gerald Ford) whom the press corps came close to liking. Though Bush had a lack of vision and underwhelming ambitions, he had the kind of Washington experience journalists value. He did not seem calculating or vindictive. And who wouldn't get a kick out of tooling around in the president's cigarette boat in Kennebunkport?

In contrast, Clinton flunked the press's likability test. It is still something of a mystery why the man who could charm Newt Gingrich poked a finger in the eye of the White House correspondents who were so important to him. The White House crew tried to isolate the press room and skip around the journalists with town meetings and MTV. Still, it wasn't the press's pique with the President that put him in the doghouse, but the country's disappointment over the fumbles of this unknown Arkansas governor whom many Americans had bet on to be a quick learner.

Walsh pictures his fellow White House reporters as among the most hard-working and careful of journalists. He says that it is no wonder they often feel "cantankerous, rude and angry" when "they are lied to and dismissed as untrustworthy or ignorant." They are penned up and herded about in "conditions that would make most American workers chafe." But Walsh also admits that they are a pampered lot, and that they love the thrill of flying around the world with the president, jawing with him over iced tea on the White House verandah, and being attended by high-level officials.

Although not original, Walsh's criticism gives his book greater weight. He's right that journalists need to turn from the flash and dash of micropolitics and "gotcha" journalism toward more deliberate explanation of how government works. Americans have shown they are tired of a fatty media diet of political bickering and partisan posturing, and hungry for a better understanding of Washington's mysteries. They know there is another government--rarely seen on the evening news--that affects them profoundly.

Journalists think of it as dull stuff. But when done well, stories about bureaucratic pressures and processes dramatize government's effects on our lives and build the popular link to Washington that Walsh and others call for.

If they put their minds to it, thoughtful editors and correspondents could move the press corps toward a Washington version of the new civic journalism. Correspondents could be weaned from mostly political sources and instead talk with leaders in business and industry, labor, education, the churches, and whoever else seeks to influence the White House. They could be assigned to follow a presidential policy proposal through Congress, into the federal bureaucracy where guidelines are drawn, and then down to the grass roots to see the results. Does it serve the people as envisioned? Does it work?

The media's public image--sorely tarnished in recent years--may yet be renewed if citizens can count on the press for steady explanations about why government fails, and for debate about how we can improve it.
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Author:Wolfson, Lewis
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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