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News blues at the Pentagon.

Very few Washing ton players could lay claim to handling the press better than Les Aspin. Vaulting over several senior colleagues to grab the House Armed Services chair in 1985, "Les," a everyone called him, went from junior congressman to senior statesman while treating reporters with disarming respect. He returned phone calls, held press conferences at countless stages of the budget process, did interviews on short notice, hired media-savvy staff and hosted cozy breakfasts where he remembered reporters' first names.

But now he's running the Pentagon and no one, except perhaps his boss at the White House, has had a rougher start with the press. Lack of access to top figures, favoritism, stonewalling, arrogance and shoulder shrugs in answer to routine queries, all led to a bitter protest last spring. The result was the formation of the Pentagon Correspondents Association, a rare beat organization among the individual egos of the Washington press corps, created to address Aspin's new press strategy.

Reporters are quick to blame the astonishing turnaround on Vernon A. Guidry Jr., an Aspin policy adviser on Capitol Hill who now has a similar job at the Pentagon after a troubled start as Defense's top spokesperson. On issues ranging from Aspin's health and the taxpayers' bill for the entourage that accompanied the secretary on a brief vacation in Venice, to the armed services' embarrassingly uncoordinated rush to be the first to announce a policy allowing women in combat cockpits, Pentagon public affairs appeared to be rudderless, obstinate, even contrary.

What really galled the press was that the wisecracking Guidry used to cover defense for Baltimore's Sun. "This is all very ironic, considering his background," says the Los Angeles Times' Melissa Healy, who recently left the Pentagon beat to cover environmental policy. "I sense that he didn't even anticipate our questions."

And that attitude filtered down. John Tirpak, a senior editor for the influential newsletter Aerospace Daily, asked uniformed public affairs officers a routine question: What hardware would weapons manufacturers be allowed to lease back from the military to display at the Paris Air Show in June? "Up until two days before the event, there was no answer," he says. "Vern's attitude was, |You're reporters and shouldn't have to rely on PA [public affairs].' Our answer was that for questions like the Paris Air Show, we shouldn't have to do investigative journalism."

Nor do beat reporters appreciate unfair competition. When the Sun's Rick Sia discovered that the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal had received "callouts" for a private briefing on Aspin's heart condition (since addressed with a pacemaker), he tried to protest. "But Vern hasn't returned my call," says Sia. "Unless I can confirm something in the hallway with him, I can't confirm."

Heightening the tension are the inevitable comparisons with Pete Williams, the former Wyoming radio and television reporter who was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's chief spokesman. Despite the fact that he was an architect of the controversial Desert Storm press controls, Williams is remembered as a nice guy who understood journalists' gluttonous appetites no matter which news organization they worked for. By contrast, says Mark Thompson, Knight-Ridder's Pulitzer Prize-winning defense correspondent, "there's no enabler in the press office now, throwing raw meat to the press."

It didn't take long for gripes to turn into action. In March, three days after Tirpak posted a flyer seeking interest in an association, he had 68 signatures. That led to a 7 a.m. meeting of Pentagon correspondents at Reuters' Washington office and a couple of sessions with Guidry, who promised greater openness, including more on-the-record briefings from senior officials.

Guidry is quick to apologize for the early chaos, pledging that "personnel and procedural changes" will smooth the information flow. He blames some of his problems on pressroom worries that Aspin had downgraded the top spokesperson's job when he changed the job title from assistant secretary of defense for public affairs to assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. In an acutely status-conscious bureaucracy, any modification could signify a shift in importance, but Guidry says the job's substance remains the same.

He also admits that the move across the Potomac caught Aspin's staff by surprise. "On the Hill, you could drop out of sight if you wanted to and seek attention when you wanted to," he says. "But that can't be done...with a standing press corps that has to be tended every day." Guidry declined to contact Aspin for comment; the secretary, be said, was too busy.

Guidry promises that the new top spokesperson, former ABC White House correspondent Kathleen deLaski, will not have to go through him; she enjoys "direct access" to Aspin. But skeptics are watching. In mid-July, just before deLaski arrived, and more than three weeks after the association's second meeting with Guidry, the Associated Press' Susanne Schafer said, "There's still a real sense of disorganization here. We've had a lot of apologies in the last couple months. What we really need is information."

Which is what it's all about. As Tirpak says, "It's in the public's interest, since they support the voluntary military with their sons and daughters and dollars, to know what's going on in this building."
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Author:Griffiths, David
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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