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Insideritis and other maladies of specialized journalism.

James Q. Wilson, the political scientist, once noted that organizations come to resemble the organizations they are in conflict with. The burgeoning bureaucracy of the legislature, for example, has begun to look like the bloated bureaucracy of the executive branch. It is rather like a football team adopting the formations of the opposition.

The theory fits the press and the government: two institutions in conflict, increasingly resembling each other. The most obvious resemblance is in personnel. The denizens of government executive suites and the Washington bureaus of the major news organizations are becoming interchangeable. In socioeconomic terms--schools attended, income, their neighborhoods--they increasingly look alike; in personal terms, some of them are the same people. At least 11 journalists have served in both The New York times's bureau and in some recent presidential administration. The most fascinating--and commendted upon--case in the Golb-Burt exchange.

Leslie Gelb left the Times at the beginning of that Carter administration in 1977 to become director of Politico-Military Affairs at the Department of State, staying until 1979; Richard Burt left the Washington bureau of the Times for the same job at the beginning of the Reagan presidency in 1981. Gelb returned to the Times in 1981 as its national security correspondent; Burt is presently the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. While once reporters took jobs in government primarily as press secretaries or spokesmen, the Gelb and Burt examples illustrate that ex-reporters are now moving into policy positions.

The coming together of national journalists and those they report about is the by-product of a forced march to professionalism and specialization in both trades. Journalists, in their search for professional standing since the turn of the century, have created training schools (University of Missouri, 1908); honorary societies (Sigma Delta Chi, 1910); awards of excellence (Pulitzer Prizes, 1917); professional organizations (American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1922); professional journals (Columbia journalism Review, 1961); and, at the pinnacle of respectability, Ph.D. programs in mass communications (University of Minnesota, 1950).

The best predictor of emerging professional status is educational attainment. Today, almost every Washington reporter had been to college, almost half have gone to graduate school, and a third have advanced degrees. Specialized education is particularly common on certain beats. Among Washington legal affairs reporters, for example, 64 percent have graduate degrees, primarily from law schools. Forty-six percent of the economics reporters have had graduate training.

Forty percent of Washington reporters consider themselves 'specialists,' although the definition of specialization in journalism is somewhat looser than in other professions. A tax lawyer, for example, would not consider an experienced reporter covering the Internal Revenue Service (perhaps with an M.A. in economics) to be a specialist in his field. Still, it is remarkable that almost half of the city's economics reporters have specialized training.

Historically, journalism has been the last refuge of the generalist. Furthermore, many journalists predict that specialization will become increasingly common.

Specialist journalists work differently from more traditional generalists. Specialists demand more autonomy, which means that control of the product will gradually shift from editors to newsgatherers. Specialists are also more satisfied with their work, which means that they will stay in journalism longer--and longer on the same beat. This could make the news business less lucrative for owners since personnel costs rise with seniority. As specialists remain in place, there will be less room for the entering journalist. The journalism business has thrived on an unstable personnel system--reporters drifting into other lines of work keep costs dowm and make room for younger aspirants. Thus, while specialists will provide more sophisticated coverage in many instances, they will also create new problems for Washington journalism. Here are a few others to consider:

Small conversations

One of the results of increased specialization in any profession is that it carries with it its own language. David M. Ricci, a political scientist, has written that his academic colleagues tend to hold "small conversations," in which "members of a scholarly community speak mainly to one another in language so specialized and full of jargon that it is largely unintelligible to the public."

Given the purpose of the mass media, a press corps of jargonists would be a disaster. In early June 1982, President Reagan went to Europe to attend an economic summit conference at Versailles, escorted by a 747 filled with White House, diplomatic, and economics reporters. "The blending of three press corps was fascinating," recalls Lou Cannon, senior White House correspondent for the Washington Post. "Each asked questions in its own jargon. For example, questions about 'confidence-building mechanisms' always came from State Department reporters."

While reporters have to guard against these tendencies, jargon need not be a major concern in the popular press so long as generalist editors are doing their jobs. The problem will come if editors are intimidated by their specialists. And this is possible. Extensive interviews show that generalist reporters have more disagreements with their home office than do specialists on topics such as story length and writing style. In the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun, according to one of the paper's editors, Pentagon correspondent Charles Corddry is called "The General." Who argues with a general?


As the journalist and the source increasingly look like the same person--performing different tasks--more stories will slip into print that are fascinating to the players but irrelevant or uninteresting to those who make their living in other ways.

On December 19 and 21, 1984, there were frontpage articles in The New York Times detailing what became known in Washington as the Shultz Shuffle or the Shultz Purge, depending on one's point of view. Taken together, the two articles, written by Bernard Weinraub, listed 10 job changes that the Secretary of State was expected to make: fice at the assistant secretary level and five ambassadorial positions. Most of the predicted changes were to be replacements of conservative political appointees with Foreign Service officers. The Times reported:

"One White House adviser said: 'The Shultz people got the jump on the conservatives by moving swiftly, quietly and with some stealth on these appointments. The conservatives didn't know what was happening until it was pretty well set. Now they're trying to respond.'...

"'It's not accurate to say people are being fired,' said the [State Department] official, who asked to remain unidentified. 'Some will be leaving voluntarily. Some will be taking other jobs in the administration. In a couple of instances it's dissatisfaction with the level of performances."'

One characteristic of the insideritis story is that quotations are mostly attributed to "a ranking administration official" or "a senior administration official." Usually this is a disservice to the reader, who has no way of knowing what axes the anonymous speakers are grinding. (In this particular case, however, there was little ambiguity.)

Whether the Times articles proved to be essentially correct is not the issue here. Some of the personnel changes were made; some were not. The reporter apparently had good sources, and as the saying goes, a daily newspaper is only the first draft of history.

What should have been clear, however, is that the jobs in dispute were longer on title than on power. They were distinctly a group of middle-level positions. For the right-wingers to fight over any potential losses--no matter how slight--is understandable. For the Times to devote two front-page stories ro such a squabble it so assume that the outcome would be of interest to the majority of its subscribers and/or that the outcome was important in its effect on U.S. foreign policy.

Times columnist James Reston would later list such personnel tales as "among the many puzzling pleasures and trivial pursuits" of Washington. Capital residents divide the world between inside-the-Beltway and outside-the-Beltway; these were inside-the-Beltway stories.


The present ombudsman of The Washington Post, Sam Zagoria, reminded readers in January that this paper had published 12 series between Thanksgiving and New Year's week, amounting to more than 5,000 inches of type. Among the subjects covered were "Africa: The Hungry Continent," "Whoops" (the Washington Public Power Supply System), "Inside the Geographic" (the National Geographic magazine), "Nicaragua's Secret War File," "Lean, Green and Mean: The Army of the '80s," and "The Roots of Biotechnology."

Zagoria made it clear that he felt the Post was guilty of journalistic overkill. In his column, he asked: "How many of you read even one complete segment of any of the series from beginning to end?" He says he received calls in support of his position.

Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. was not dismayed by the lengthy pieces. "I don't really expect a series to be read word for word," he says. "They serve different publics." (They also win prizes for newspapers.)

One of the most common complaints about generalist journalism is that the media do not treat issues with sufficient depth. But the debate between Zagoria and Downie is really about the coming of professional journalism, whose hallmark will be a great deal of in-depth coverage--on topics of interests to the specialist.

The case that can be made against the way the Post covered the 1984 race for the Democratic presidential nimination combines the overkill and insideritis theories. On March 4, 1984, for example, the Post ran 12 election stories or opinion columns, amounting to over 12,000 words; on March 25 the totals were 14 stories or columns, adding up to over 11,000 words. Rereading this coverage, one is reminded of a cast of characters who for months filled the national papers with their musings and predictions: Robert Beckele, Kathy Bushkin, Patrick Caddell, Charles Campion, Tim Hagen, William Hamilton, Oliver Henkel, James Johnson, Robert Kneefe, Richard Moe, Jeanne Shaheen, Paul Shone, Robert Squier, Gerald Vento. It you cannot identify half of these players, then the game--as reported by the Post--is not your favorite sport.


Richard Neustadt was the first to write about "in-and-outer"--that select group who always seem to show up in high appointed office when their party captures the White House, and who then return to careers in such professions as law, banking, and academics until the next opportunity for public service. Only in recent years have the in-and-outers included journalists.

There always have been former journalists in government, but rarely did they return to the news business. The distinction of being first to go from journalism to government to journalism to government to journalism--the true test of an in-and-outer--belongs to Eileen Shanahan, whose resume reads: Journal of Commerce, Treasury Department during the Kennedy administration, NEw York Times, Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration, Washington Star.

Journalism still is not sure how to deal with its in-and-outers. On the one hand, their experience in government usually adds richness to their reportage. Probably no journalist explains the processes of the bureaucracy as well as Leslie Gelb, who beside his stint in the State Department, has worked in the Pentagon and the Senate. On the other hand, how sure can a news employer be that the in-and-outer reporter does not have a hidden political agenda?

Gelb argues that there should be a presumption against news organizations hiring reporters who have held policy or advocacy positions in government. There is no problem, however, with those former government officials--such as columnists George Will, William Safire, and Carl Rowan--whose writing is clearly labeled as opinion.

Still, Gelb proves by his own example that there should be some way to make exceptions. A litmus test that will measure the intensity of one's ideology? the strength of one's convictions? Shanahan contends that reentry into journalism can be based only on an evaluation of the official's past record in the news business, particularly on the individual's commitment to the rules of balance and fairness that govern mainstream journalism.


There is in presidential politics a bend-over-backwards factor: the tendencies we worry about most in a candidate are often those which the candidate goes out of his way to check once he's in office. Former General Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, left the White House warning against "the military-industrial complex."

If there is a bend-over-backwards factor in the emergence of specialized journalism, it is in reaction to the fear that the specialist will be co-opted by his official counterpart, becoming beholden to sources and functioning as a cheerleader for an energy or a policy.

Sociologist Herbert Gans, a careful observer f the news media, contends that "surrendering to fatal in the long run, for once reporters have developed a reputation of having been co-opted, they lose the confidence of their peers and superiors." The high regard of one's colleagues is particularly important in the Washington press corps, where, according to my research, nearly half of reporters' closest friends are also in journalism. (The comparable figure for journalists throughout the United States is less than a third.)

Moreover, to date, most specialists in journalism are journalists first. Most of those with law degrees, for example, went to law school after they had worked for a news organization. Frederick Taylor, executive editor of The Wall Street Wall, explaining the practice of his newspaper, says, "It's easier to make a reporter into an economist than an economist into a reporter." When in conflict--between the profession of journalism and the profession of the reporter's beat--journalism, with its emphasis on controversy, will probably continue to win.

A larger question is whether specialist journalists will succeed in explaining the strange events of Washington to people who don't live here. Washington insiders--whether in journalism or government--are a breed apart. The fact that government workers and news workers choose to live here implies that they are uniquely interested in politics, diplomacy, and public policy. Those who choose not to come to Washington, I think, are increasingly finding government of minor interest at best, and more often, a major irritant in their lives. The best that journalists can do is to accurately described and analyze this world to those on the outside. The new-style specialists have the potential to do this better than anyone has ever done--if they can avoid the dark side of professionalism.
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Author:Hess, Stephen
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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