Printer Friendly

Jack Kemp's free ride.

HOW THE MEDIA LIONIZED THE "BLEEDING HEART CONSERVATIVE" AND IGNORED THE PROBLEMS AT HUB.

When Jack Kemp accepted the job as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development a little more than four years ago, he gambled his political future on an obscure agency that had never been a stepping stone to higher office, let alone the presidency. When he left the position in January, his presidential prospects were better than ever, thanks in large part to the way the press covered his tenure there.

The rebellious Republican ideologue would have probably remained in the public eye no matter what job he took after his failed 1988 presidential bid. But as secretary of HUD, Kemp enjoyed a remarkable run of uncritical coverage in the national and local news media. Newspapers and television news shows gave wide play to Kemp's bold rhetoric, in which he cast himself as a reform-minded "bleeding heart conservative" who had a plan to save the cities and "empower" the poor. Columnists lionized him as a "folk hero" and "a luminous star" with the strong potential to go all the way to the White House.

In a classic example of political myth-making, the press allowed Kemp to create a lasting impression of himself as a savior of urban America without digging deeply enough to find out what he actually accomplished. The press failed to hold Kemp to his promises, did not provide perspective or follow up on his proposals, and generally ignored serious management problems at HUD that may eventually cost taxpayers millions if not billions of dollars. Even after the riots in Los Angeles last spring, the press did not scrutinize Kemp's record as the administrator of a $27.6 billion budget and the man most responsible for federal housing and urban aid programs.

If the news media had focused more on what Kemp actually did and less on what he said he wanted to do, they would have painted a far less flattering portrait of the former congressman, according to dozens of knowledgeable sources in the housing industry and state and local government. These sources credit Kemp for sounding alarms about urban problems and boosting morale at HUD, but also say he did very little to help solve the problems about which he professed such concern.

Critics say he was so obsessed with his narrow agenda for empowering the poor that he neglected existing programs and basic management of the department, leaving his successor, former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, with problems that will take years and millions of dollars to resolve. A 1992 General Accounting Office report echoed much of this criticism. "These department-wide deficiencies-inadequate information and financial management systems, including computerized systems; weak internal controls; inappropriate organizational structure; and insufficient staffing," said the report, "leave the department open to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement."

"The fact that Kemp escaped blame for bad administration of HUD programs and is now considered a serious presidential candidate is a reflection of the fact that the press did not at all poke into him well enough during his four years at HUD," says Chester Hartman, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group. "The press clearly fell down on this one."

Most of the sources interviewed for this article, including several reporters who covered HUD, agree that Kemp received generally favorable, perhaps too favorable, coverage. "I think most reporters liked Kemp a lot," says Steven Waldman, a Newsweek reporter. Steven Friedman, executive producer of the "NBC Nightly News" during the Bush administration, says the press took to Kemp because he "was a smart guy, photogenic, glib, and he issued policy statements on subjects in which there was interest." Another reporter, who had the HUD beat at a major national newspaper, says many reporters admired Kemp's determination, which "led to some credulous reporting about how effective his proposals were."

Despite repeated requests, Kemp would not agree to be interviewed for this article. At the end of his term, however, he took credit for putting 55,000 public housing tenants "on the path" to homeownership and helping 1 million people buy homes. In a recent interview, Frank Keating, HUD's general counsel under Kemp, defended his former boss' empowerment programs and said he "radically reformed" an agency that had been riddled with political corruption.

Scandal

It's not surprising that the press gave Kemp's tenure at HUD high visibility and little scrutiny. The stage was set during the Reagan administration, when the HUD beat was near the bottom of most editors' priority lists. Few experienced reporters were assigned to the beat, so a skilled politician like Kemp could be fairly sure that coverage would not be intense or intrusive. Indeed, coverage of Kemp's early days and early promises was positively glowing. On February 16, 1989, a Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed, "Kemp bubbles with enthusiasm as he preaches 'progressive conservatism' for fighting poverty." The next day, the Washington Post followed with "Kemp and Co. charge into HUD; secretary carries energy, enthusiasm into '10 floors of basement.'"

HUD also presented an opportunity for Kemp to burnish a reputation as a reformer. In the months preceding the 1988 presidential election, local news organizations and trade publications had reported what later became known as the HUD scandal. They revealed that Reagan administration HUD officials had been influenced by consultants, personal loyalties and questionable gifts in allocating millions of dollars in federal rental assistance contracts.

When Kemp took office, however, the story had not yet been reported by the national news media. The television networks and national newspapers picked up on it only after Kemp announced in April 1989 that he was eliminating the rental assistance program at the heart of the scandal. After virtually ignoring HUD for years, the national media assigned teams of reporters to a story in which Kemp took center stage.

From the time Kemp assumed office in early 1989 through 1992, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post published more than 1,300 stories on HUD or Kemp. ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows aired nearly 200 pieces, while the three weekly news magazines published more than 50 stories. The majority of these stories focused on the scandal and were based primarily on congressional hearings and federal criminal investigations.

The scandal revolved around Ronald Reagan's HUD secretary, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., and his assistant, Deborah Gore Dean, who disbursed HUD rental assistance contracts to politically connected developers. The press closely tracked the federal investigation of Dean, who was indicted on bribery and false statement charges in April of last year. Her trial is slated to begin June 28.

Kemp rode the wave of publicity skillfully, closing down other troubled programs and issuing press releases about his battle against corruption and political favoritism. "He's got a great P.R. sense," says Howard Kurtz, who covered HUD for the Washington Post in the early 1980s before moving to the media beat. "He was smart enough to get out in front on the scandal, to denounce what had happened and talk about reforms." In the months following Kemp's announcement of his HUD cleanup, columnists celebrated him. In August, U.S. News & World Report's David Gergen suggested that Kemp's reforms might earn him a higher office. "If Kemp continues on course," Gergen wrote, "it won't be long before pundits see him as a possible alternative to Dan Quayle on a 1992 Bush ticket."

The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, as well' as ABC, CBS and NBC, provided extensive coverage of Kemp's reform plans. Most of the stories echoed statements from Kemp and congressional leaders and provided little independent analysis or perspective.

In 1990, two stories in the Los Angeles Times reflect the generally positive tone of much of the coverage. On May 30, the paper published a story by William Eaton, "Agency Seeks to Change Focus from Scandal to Aiding Poor." Its subhead read: "At first, the secretary battled waste and corruption. Now he is pushing a plan to increase housing options." The article touched briefly on some of Kemp's proposals, ending with an upbeat description of how his "outgoing personality" contrasted with that of his predecessor, Pierce. "The new HUD boss has turned up the lights in dim hallways, replaced dull murals with dramatic scenes of Washington landmarks and even managed to bring tasty food to the government cafeteria," Eaton wrote.

The second, Robert L. Jackson's November 2 article, "Housing Agency Efficiency, Fairness Under Kemp Cited," gave Kemp credit for seeming "determined to reform the programs in which abuses were found" and noted his "evangelical-style enthusiasm." The article included only one paragraph addressing concerns about indecision at the department.

Kemp justified his actions by characterizing private owners of low-income housing as profiteers and slumlords, a charge that went unchallenged by the press. "Kemp got a lot of headlines for slamming slumlords," says Newsweek's Waldman. "He painted it in very black and white terms."

Kemp deserved credit for shutting out political influence in HUD programs, but his attacks on developers were an oversimplification that wasn't fair to the many honest, well-intentioned organizations that use HUD programs, says Charles L. Edson, a Washington attorney who represents several housing industry trade organizations. "He played to the public by beating up on developers and it made very good copy."

While Kemp's rhetoric made news, the details and impact of his reforms did not. His initiatives culminated late in 1989 with enactment of the HUD Reform Act, which imposed a series of restrictions on the way the agency deals with lobbyists and disburses funds. But the press wasn't interested in the details. On November 23, 1989, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the reform act on page A28; the Washington Post likewise buried its December 1 report on page A25. And there was little if any follow-up on the impact of the reform legislation in the newspapers or on television.

As the stream of indictments and hearings dried up, news organizations reassigned reporters to more pressing issues, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, for example, HUD coverage was folded into broader urban affairs and poverty stories or was handled by real estate or business reporters. At the networks, HUD was covered on a sporadic basis, primarily in response to press releases from Kemp.

Despite a good deal of self-criticism for missing the HUD scandal as it was happening, the press went back to neglecting the department. The total number of stories about HUD (including local and routine news items) in the four above newspapers dropped from 714 in 1989 to 249 in 1990, 131 in 1991 and 110 in 1992. A wider database search including those four papers plus the Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Christian Science Monitor found 1,312 stories on HUD in 1989 and 1990, but only 488 in 1991 and 1992.

"After the scandal, the press didn't stick around long enough to determine whether Jack Kemp was actually able to dean up the programs that were so corrupt," says Kurtz of the Washington Post. "We did our usual overkill on the scandal, but we didn't do the less sexy and more challenging work of assessing these programs."

Notable exceptions to the cursory coverage were articles by Newsweek's Waldman that ran on October 9, 1989, and March 26, 1990, both of which placed Kemp's reform efforts in historical and political perspective.

Not Much HOPE

After establishing his Mr. Clean image, Kemp captured the imagination of the press with his determination to empower the poor by helping them manage and eventually buy apartments in federally assisted projects, particularly public housing. The centerpiece of Kemp's plan--and the crown jewel of the Bush administration's urban policy--was the Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE) program. Kemp touted HOPE as the answer to a host of urban ills and the chief weapon in "a new war on poverty."

HOPE quickly became a hot story--at least as hot as a housing story can get. Kemp made numerous appearances at housing projects, often to announce small federal grants for tenant groups, and focused attention on two projects where tenants were successfully managing themselves, Kenilworth-Parkside in Washington, D.C., and Cochran Gardens in St. Louis. He ordered all sections of HUD to promote empowerment and in speeches and interviews continually mentioned the leaders of the tenant organizations at those projects.

Kemp's appearances and the examples he used to promote HOPE were dramatic and visual--perfect for television. But much of the coverage failed to look at the limitations of the plan in addressing the lack of affordable housing and the run-down, crime-ridden condition of public housing in many cities.

One of the most glaring examples of superficial reporting was a May 13, 1990, segment on CBS' "60 Minutes." Correspondent Morley Safer accompanied Kemp on a tour of some Chicago projects that had succeeded under tenant management. During the piece, Safer interviewed the respective heads of the LeClair Courts and CabriniGreen public housing tenant groups.

The segment was full of holes. Safer made no attempt to put HOPE into perspective or to analyze its limitations or its potential. He did not distinguish between the merits of tenant management versus tenant ownership of public housing. And he included only a passing criticism of HOPE, and that referred only to its high cost.

It was an "incredible puff piece," says Paul S. Grogan, president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which assists community-based housing organizations across the country. A "60 Minutes" spokesman said only that the program stands by the segment.

Kemp's visits to public housing projects also generated upbeat local news coverage, according to a HUD public affairs official. It was typified by a November 2, 1989, Los Angeles Times story about Kemp's visit to a local project to announce grants to train public housing tenants to manage their buildings. The article, "Hugs and Applause Greet Kemp on Visit to Housing Projects," by Jill Stewart, ran on the front page of the Metro section and called Kemp "the conservative Republican with a flair for innovation."

Even after the HOPE program lost its news value, the press continued to echo Kemp's self-portrayal as a champion of empowerment and made little or no reference to the program's limitations. For example, in a May 5, 1992, article that reviewed Kemp's proposals following the Los Angeles riots, Washington Post reporter Ann Mariano called him "an outspoken advocate of unconventional strategies to empower the poor .... "Six months later, in a November 8 column in the Washington Post, David Broder cited Kemp's empowerment plan as evidence of his ability to lead the Republican Party after President Bush's defeat: "In his four years at HUD, when he became an outspoken advocate of empowerment programs for the center cities and the poor, he has acquired a stature that his 18 years in the House of Representatives never gave him."

While reporters remembered Kemp's promises about HOPE, they did not follow up with an analysis of its accomplishments. In a December 29, 1992, review of Kemp's HUD tenure in the Washington Post, reporter Guy Gugliotta did not even mention the program. Likewise the New York Times' Jason DeParle, in a February 28, 1993, article in the Times' magazine, provided insight into Kemp's losing battles within the Bush administration but did not look at what HOPE achieved.

In fact, HOPE transferred no public housing units tO tenant ownership (one Washington, D.C., project was sold to tenants under a demonstration program initiated before Kemp took office). And while Kemp has claimed credit for putting 55,000 public housing families "on the path" to homeownership, even if those families had taken ownership of their homes, it would have accounted for only 4 percent of the nation's 1.4 million public housing units.

While tenant management is a worthwhile goal, says Hartman of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, tenant ownership will not work for most public housing units because of their deteriorated condition and the high cost for the government to enable low-income people to buy their apartments. Even if ownership could be done on a large scale, Hartman adds, it would do nothing to serve the estimated 1 million families on waiting lists for public housing. (HUD currently provides aid to about 4.5 million families, either through public housing or subsidizing rent for private housing.)

Kemp's emphasis on public housing raised other questions that were never covered in any depth. First, Kemp preached about the need to give the poor control over their lives. Yet his HOPE program would have given public housing tenants only one option--to buy government-owned units that are frequently dilapidated and located in crime-ridden neighborhoods. And Kemp's idea of empowerment did not include working with local nonprofit organizations that were already building privately owned affordable housing. "Kemp fastened onto public housing tenants," says Grogan of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. "Local community development corporations are wrestling with the same problems, but he didn't do much to focus on that."

Former HUD General Counsel Keating blamed the lack of results on congressional opposition. Indeed, Congress--and administration officials such as Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman--would not give Kemp the money he wanted. "No one looked at why Congress fought our change in direction," Keating says. "From the administration there was a yawn, from Congress there was sniper fire."

Reporters and editors defend their coverage of the HOPE program largely on the grounds that a cabinet secretary's ideas are newsworthy, even if they don't make for sound policy. "He had good ideas and was trying," says Diane Spatz, assignment editor for domestic issues at the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau. "There is a place [for the press] to float interesting new ideas."

There were exceptions to the lack of in-depth coverage. While the Los Angeles Times was generally uncritical, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post each published several stories quoting critics and citing the weaknesses of the program. They also reported on Kemp's battles with Congress over funding.

New York Times reporter Jason DeParle turned in some balanced, thorough stories, including an article in the New York Times Magazine on January 5, 1992. Other notable exceptions include a very detailed analysis in the April 6, 1991, issue of the National Journal by Robert Guskind and Carol F. Steinbach. Two weeks later, the Washington Post excerpted the National Journal piece, and two months later published its own detailed piece. Nevertheless, the overall tenor of the coverage was much more upbeat than warranted.

Mismanagement

While the press played up Kemp's lofty ideas for empowering the poor, it neglected dozens of stories with far more immediate impact on taxpayers and HUD clients. In particular, the press did an inadequate job covering HUD's failure to take action to alleviate the nation's affordable housing crunch, major problems at the Federal Housing Administration and HUD's mismanagement of its programs and assets.

Housing providers blame the press for ignoring their complaints that Kemp was so focused on his own agenda that he ignored their needs. Whether by intent or by neglect, they say, Kemp drastically curtailed HUD's traditional role in helping finance affordable rental housing. "HUD became a place that was impossible to work with, not because of corruption but because of the desire to avoid mistakes," says Grogan. "This translated into immense delays and grotesque overregulation of existing programs."

The press provided almost no detailed coverage of what many critics describe as paralysis at HUD. For example, the HOME Investment Partnership Progain, a substantial housing initiative, was authorized by Congress in 1990. More than two years later, new HUD Secretary Cisneros reported that only 4 percent of the program's 1992, $1.5 billion appropriation had been committed. Housing industry sources say this is largely because Kemp had issued such restrictive rules for the program that Congress had to enact corrective legislation.

Kemp also was responsible for rules that made it impossible to obtain FHA insurance for multifamily rental housing. In its report, the Clinton administration transition team said FHA had "virtually withdrawn from the multifamily market."

As a result, cities and states could not look to HUD for help in providing affordable housing. They managed to finance nearly half a million units of affordable rentals utilizing a federal tax credit, but could have done more with HUD's help. This too went unreported in any detail in the national media.

Keating defends Kemp, denying that HUD was paralyzed. "HUD was saying no," he explains, by shutting down programs that were "a trough for owners to make a quick kill at government expense."

But Keating concedes that HUD was not responsive to industry concerns about limitations on the availability of FHA insurance for rental housing. He blamed the failure on career bureaucrats to whom Kemp delegated administrative responsibility. He also acknowledges that some aspects of the HUD Reform Act, which Kemp championed, were too restrictive and needed to be revised.

Coverage of these internal problems was spotty at best. On July 6, 1990, Gwen Ifill, then at the Washington Post, reported on industry concerns about HUD inactivity. Three months later, on October 12, DeParle of the New York Times did likewise. But neither reporter went into much detail.

By 1991, national coverage was almost completely focused on Kemp as a politician and a conservative economic theorist, not on the department he ran. "Ninety percent of the media's interest was in Kemp as a former and future presidential candidate," says Kurtz. "From the point of view of the nuts and bolts of the department, for the most part, the press couldn't have cared less."

The press was particularly negligent in covering the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the branch of HUD that insures loans for moderate-income homebuyers. FHA underwent severe financial stress and important policy changes under Kemp, but it received perfunctory coverage in the papers and very little on television.

A database search of a number of newspapers indicates that FHA coverage was light. The Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post published 73 stories on FHA in 1989 and 1990, partly due to HUD scandal spillover. In 1991 and 1992 the eight papers published only 55 FHA stories.

Reporters also failed to ask the right questions. For example, reporters did not investigate claims that Kemp may have cost the government millions of dollars by closing down the FHA's coinsurance program, through which the government covered most of the cost of insuring loans made by private lenders for moderate-income rental housing. In many loan guarantee programs, the government works with lenders to keep troubled loans from foreclosure. Kemp refused to do this and also refused to let lenders make new coinsurance loans that would allow lenders to stay in business. As a result, many lenders shut down and the government had to pay the full amount of its insurance liability on their loans.

Kemp's unwillingness to compromise vastly increased the ultimate cost to taxpayers, says Anthony S. Freedman, a Washington attorney and former HUD official. "The mess was so big, they couldn't deal with it rationally," he says. "They assumed anyone associated with the program was corrupt."

Keating acknowledges that the department overreacted to problems in the FHA program and will have to rethink its approach.

News organizations, especially the networks, were also duped by a Kemp public relations smokescreen that obscured one of the biggest FHA stories of the period. In July 1991, the FHA issued new rules that increased the cost of insured mortgage loans to borrowers, a move that contributed to a 31 percent drop in the number of moderate-income buyers using FHA loans in the last half of 1991 and threatened the agency's financial solvency, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. Some of the rules were changed by Congress last fall in an effort to reverse this trend.

HUD did not publicize what would have been an unpopular rule change. Instead, Kemp released a report on the need to cut through state and local regulations that increase the cost of housing. This familiar Republican theme is not news to anyone except reporters who don't know the housing beat, and has never led to any important changes.

ABC, CBS and NBC ignored the FHA rule change and instead covered Kemp's report on state and local barriers to affordable housing. On the July 8, 1991, "NBC Nightly News," Kemp said the report marked "chapter two in a new civil rights chapter in American history." The segment did not provide any historical or policy perspective.

Newspaper coverage was more balanced. The FHA rule change was covered in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. A database search found no follow-up stories on the impact of the rule changes, however. The four newspapers gave Kemp's report on affordable housing light news coverage, and the New York Times published a long piece featuring criticism of the report's findings.

The biggest story the press missed may become the next HUD scandal. The department manages a huge inventory of expensive assets, including $43 billion in multifamily mortgages insured by the FHA. It is also responsible for funding and insuring millions of units of low-income housing, much of which is in deteriorated condition. The cost of preserving this public housing, as well as privately owned subsidized housing, will be more than $67 billion over the next 20 years.

HUD is ill-equipped to manage all of those assets because of a severe shortage of trained staff and inadequate data systems, according to HUD Deputy Inspector General John J. Connors. "Another HUD scandal is a distinct possibility unless the department has sufficient resources to carry out its formidable mandate," Connors wrote in a September 1992 report.

Although Kemp took steps to implement better management systems, the report says, HUD understated its resource needs, including staffing, and Congress cut the agency's budget. Housing advocates agree this is a problem. "There has been a severe deficiency of qualified people at HUD and it is getting worse by the month," says John McEvoy, executive director of the National Council of State Housing Agencies. "Kemp didn't ask for people to run the programs and didn't create an environment where people wanted to make decisions." McEvoy stresses that his opinions are his own, not those of his organization.

The national press has done very little reporting on the depth of the management and staffing problems that still plague HUD, and there has been no attempt to assess Kemp's responsibility for the condition of the department. "Kemp had a four-year honeymoon with the press, and while the nation slept, HUD continued its decline," says McEvoy. "It will cost a pretty penny to dig out from the non-management of the human side of the department."

Back in the Spotlight

As Kemp entered his last year in office, the golden boy began to look a little tarnished. Several newspapers published critical stories focusing on his lack of power within the Bush administration and his contentious, often fruitless battles with Congress over funding of his programs.

Kemp needed something to restore his image as a doer, and two opportunities came up within months of each other: the Los Angeles riots in April and the Republican Convention in August. The number of positive Kemp stories jumped again in the spring and summer of 1992, many of them giving Kemp credit for fighting for more federal attention to urban affairs. Television producers sought him out frequently: Kemp made the network evening news 11 times in the month after the riots and appeared on numerous morning news and weekend interview programs.

Columnists toasted his determination as well. In a May 25, 1992, Newsweek column, Meg Greenfield wrote that Kemp had become "something of a folk hero" for his concerns about inner city residents. Other pundits, including William F. Buckley Jr. in the Los Angeles Times on July 24, suggested that he might replace Dan Quayle as Bush's running mate.

While many stories noted Kemp's battles with the Bush administration, none investigated his record of utilizing HUD's resources. Likewise, there were dozens of stories on the networks and in the newspapers about urban problems. But none focused on the history of the agency, which ironically was created after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles to prevent further deterioration of inner cities.

This new press attention didn't last long, however. Nor did the medias interest in urban affairs. An urban aid bill drafted amid a flurry of publicity about the need to save the cities was vetoed by President Bush last November. It included a pilot program of enterprise zones, one of Kemp's highest priorities as HUD secretary. It was the closing chapter of Kemp's term at HUD, but the death of the legislation, quite unlike its birth, got very little press attention.

Not Sexy Enough

Editors contacted for this story defend their coverage of urban affairs and poverty but don't claim to have covered HUD well after the scandal. They concede that much of their coverage of Kemp focused on his political agenda rather than his management skills or accomplishments at the agency. Reporters who covered HUD regularly for the national press defend their work, but admit that their beats were far too broad to allow for ongoing, in-depth coverage of the agency's programs.

Former HUD General Counsel Keating says press coverage was "positive, pro-Kemp and pro-reform." His only criticism is that the press didn't do enough to cover Kemp's battles with Congress and expose "the stranglehold [it] has over HUD."

As for Kemp's record at HUD, Keating cites the elimination of political favoritism as Kemp's main accomplishment. "The department was a leaking, listing hulk," he says. "We radically reformed it." Housing advocates agree: Kemp did salvage the department's reputation and restore staff morale.

Kemp also worked hard to enforce fair housing, encourage homeownership and evict drug dealers from public housing, Keating adds.

But HUD also provided a platform for a politician who wanted to court the press because the agency wasn't considered important enough to merit regular coverage. At most news organizations' Washington bureaus, HUD is part of a larger poverty'and social issues beat, but most of the coverage is handled by real estate and business reporters.

The only consistent, thorough coverage of HUD programs appeared in policy-oriented publications, most notably Congressional Quarterly and the National Journal, and in the trade press, particularly by Byron Fielding, a reporter for several newsletters on HUD programs.

Among the major newspapers, the Washington Post gave HUD the most regular and in-depth coverage, which was provided by Gwen Ifill with help from real estate reporter Ann Mariano. When Ifill left the paper in mid-1990, however, no one was reassigned on a full-time basis until recently.

No one at CBS or NBC has regularly covered HUD on an exclusive basis since the scandal. "You can't possibly have someone look at every single cabinet department in depth," says CBS' Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran. Former "NBC Nightly News" Executive Producer Friedman says that his network is "not in the business of saying how Kemp was doing at HUD. TV news doesn't do that. No self-respecting news operation would say, 'Let's have a correspondent cover HUD.'" Both Cochran and Friedman acknowledge that the lack of ongoing coverage allowed Kemp to set the agenda for their stories. (ABC News declined to comment on its coverage.)

Limited resources aside, news executives may have been deterred from covering HUD because the stories are complex, hard to get and much harder to make interesting. HUD scandal stories and Kemp's crowd-pleasing rhetoric were dramatic and easy to report, but in-depth analysis requires a lot more time and effort. "It's boring," says Newsweek's Waldman, "so reporters don't sweat the details."

Fred Barbash, national editor at the Washington Post, agrees. He says the stories that get the most reader response are those that feature anecdotes about real people and their problems. And it's difficult to describe the bureaucratic mismanagement of HUD programs in a compelling way.

Barbash and other editors interviewed for this article also acknowledge that their disillusionment with government poverty programs played a part in their editorial decision-making. "During the Johnson administration," says Barbash, "we poured money into the cities and there are still riots and crime. There's a feeling that these programs don't have much impact."

Given the dryness of the topic and cynicism about solutions, one could argue that if it weren't for Kemp's sincere enthusiasm for empowering the poor, housing and urban issues wouldn't have gotten nearly as much attention as they did. But most sources that deal with HUD believe Kemp reaped the only real benefits of that coverage.

"Kemp polished his image very nicely. What he did was turn the department into an image-building operation," says Freedman, the Washington attorney and former HUD official. While the positive publicity helped dissipate the taint of scandal that hung over HUD, he adds, it didn't do much to help ease the housing crunch or revitalize the inner cities.

Nor did it help avert the strong possibility of future scandals and mismanagement that could cost taxpayers huge sums of money--and make editors even more cynical.

"The press does a good job on the White House, State Department, congressional leadership and Defense Department," says Newsweek's Waldman, "but the departments that do 90 percent of the government's business don't get the attention they deserve. That's a big part of why the HUD scandal and the savings and loan scandal happened in the first place."

Andre Shashaty writes on housing and urban affairs. He broke the HUD scandal story six months before Kemp announced it. This article was partly funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:uncritical portrayal of Jack Kemp's tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Author:Shashaty, Andre
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:5660
Previous Article:Beware the big lie.
Next Article:We win! N.Y. Post scribe's inside look at how tab staff drove off hated owner.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters