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Reporters: the new Washington elite.

Thumbing through his engagement book, Los Angeles Times Bureau Chief Jack Nelson surveys an impressive array of entries--a gala affair for King Fahd, dinner at the Canadian Embassy, U.S. News and World Report's party for retiring Editor Marvin Stone, cocktails for the Chinese ambassador, and several movie screenings. "Spring is the worst time of year," complains Nelson. "You could just look at your schedule and see that you had too much to do. There were about eight black-tie things."

Nelson is not unique. He represents a pervasive phenomenon on the Washington scene: the Socialite Journalist. Washington editors, and even reporters, enjoy a status that would shock their counterparts in Cleveland or Chicago; no party today is complete without its representatives from the media. "When we're putting together a guest list," says Betsey Weltner, a publicist with Gray and Company, the public relations firm, "including a journalist is just as important as including a diplomat or a Cabinet member."

"We invite jobs, not people as individuals," admits Sandra Gottlieb, the socially savvy wife of that Canadian ambassador. Asked for a list of status positions, Mrs. Gottlieb ticks off the editor of The Washington Post, a Supreme Court Justice, the bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, and a vague category called "opinion makers."

Ambassador and Mrs. Gottlieb frequently entertain Meg Greenfield, the Joseph Krafts, the Tom Bradens, the James Restons, and Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. A writer and Post columnist herself, Mrs. Gottlieb also gives less official "smart lady lunches." Women's Wear Daily's Susan Watters, Abigail McCarthy, Barbara Matusow (Mrs. Jack Nelson) and Washington Weekly Publisher Joan Bingham have been to smart lady lunches.

Journalists in Washington have become what bankers are in Pittsburgh or Tulsa: the straws that stir the drink. "Washington is fundamentally like Hollywood," says Richard Cohen, a Post columnist who is himself something of a "catch." "It doesn't make steel, and it doesn't make computers, and it doesn't deal in high finance." Washington makes news, and the life goal of the powerful here is that others think well of them. For this to occur, the press must think well of them first.

Ali Bengelloun, Ambassador of Morocco, recalled for the Washington Journalism Review how he stopped by The Washington Post to visit Executive Editor Ben Bradlee immediately after presenting his credentials to President Carter. "I consider Bradlee a personality who plays a big role in Washington," Bengelloun explained. And he added, "I consider it very important to have journalists to my home, just as I would want to meet a member of the Cabinet face to face." Tell that to a journalist often enough, and he'll start to believe it's true.

In a city where the elected powers come and go, the press has become a part of the permanent social establishment, valued for its store of lore and wisdom. More than one new senator or Cabinet secretary has huddled with a veteran pundit to find out how to deal with the Appropriations Committee chairman or where the bodies are buried at State. Journalists, for their part, scrutinize a new administration a little the way the denizens of Palm Beach size up the family that bought the mansion down the drive. In contrast to the permanent pillars of Washington journalism, says Mrs. Gottlieb, "A Mr. Secretary today is a Mr. Has-Been tomorrow."

Socializing with the Washington media becomes a priority even for the very highest. President Jimmy Carter, for example, showed up for the 1980 opening of the L.A. Times's new bureau on I Street. Nelson, who knew Carter when he was a reporter with the Atlanta Constitution, sees nothing extraordinary about the president of the United States stopping by a newspaper party. "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't consider ourselves on equal footing with those we cover," he says.

All of this sounds a bit strange if you still think of journalists as the hard-boiled types who do most of their socializing in bars. It's equally curious to a journalist from another country. Christopher Hitchens, the British-born correspondent for Nation magazine, says, "If you said in London, 'You must come to dinner. i've got the features editor of the Observer,' everybody would laugh."

New Deal seduction

Asked to check her guest list, Polly Fritchey, wife of columnist Clayton Fritchey and one of Georgetown's leading hostesses, finds that about half of the people at her last party were journalists. Would the press have figured so prominently on such a guest list 20 years ago? "Oh, God, no!" exclaims Hugh Sidey, the columnist and Washington bureau chief emiritus of Time. "It amazes me even today."

When sidey came to Washington during the Eisenhower years, the social life of reporters here--even the relatively privileged ones at Time--was far more modest than today. "We didn't make much money, and I lived in a small apartment on Pook's Hill with my wife and child," recalls Sidey, who wrote books on the weekend to help make ends meet. He donned white tie for the first time on his life for the second Eisenhower inaugural, but he was totally unfamiliar with the capital's social elite. "I whispered to somebody, 'Who's that very handsome woman,'" he recalls. "It was Mrs. Merriweather Post, but I didn't recognize her."

One day earlier this year, Sidey's upcoming social calendar included such events as a dinner at the F Street Club for Clare Booth Luce hosted by Henry Grunwald, the editor-in-chief of all Time, Inc. publications. Ronald Reagan was one of the invites expected to attend. On another evening, Sidey was due at the Chevy Chase Club for a dinner in honor of Count von Stauffenberg.

As Sidey's experience indicates, the social debut of the Washington journalist is a fairly recent occurrence. A handful of lions, such as Walter Lippmann, have always supped with Cabinet secretaries and ambassadors, but ordinary reporters and bureau chiefs, even for major publications, have traditionally been minor characters on the social scene.

In the late 19th century, Washington reporters were widely associated with rough-and-tumble congressional politics and influence peddling. Some correspondents supplemented their meager salaries by working as staff members for the same legislators they wrote about. The champion in this regard was probably one Uriah Painter, for 25 years a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer and described as "one of the few newspapermen in Washington who died wealthy." Painter played all the angles, coming out against bills so he could be bought off, as well as doing freelance lobbying on the side. One congressman of a progressive bent complained that within six months of their arrival in Washington, reporters could be found "eating out of every official hand between the White House and the Capitol."

through the 1920s, Washington was a pretty sleepy place, ignored by the rest of the country and small enough for a single correspondent to cover. Presidents such as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge didn't cause many late hours for the press corps here. Herbert Hoover, a man of greater talents, held himself aloof from journalists; fraternizing would have been beneath his dignity.

All that changed with the election of Roosevelt, who brought with him both intellectuals and action. Covering the important events of the New Deal, journalists became more important, too. Roosevelt understood, moreover, that the journalists could help make FDR.

The Depression was still the era of the tyrant publishers, men such as William Randolph Hearst, who presided over what critics of today's "liberal" media must think of as journalism's good old days. "The publishers didn't just disagree with the New Deal," wrote William Rivers, an historian of journalism. "They hated it." Roosevelt quickly concluded that to get favorable coverage, he would have to court the reporters--who often disagreed with their employers--the way his Republican predecessors had courted the publishers.

Before FDR, reporters had gone notebook-in-hand to White House social functions, hangers-on rather than participants. Roosevelt invited them as guests. He developed a sense of professional camaraderie with reporters, suggesting during interviews, "If I were writing that story. . . ." He also initiated the custom of the president's holding frequent press conferences, which gave reporters presidential quotes and kept FDR at the center of attention. Even Mrs. Roosevelt held press conferences--the first First Lady to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt's close friend, Lorena Hickock, was a journalist.

By extending reporters a measure of presidential solicitude, Roosevelt began their transformation from raffish operators to members of Mrs. Fritchey's guest list. According to Hope Ridings Miller, former editor of the Post society page, "Reporters have only been socially acceptable since the Roosevelts."

Redecorating with Jackie

Still, the press's position in Washington high society remained relatively minor through the late forties and fifties. Neither Truman nor Eisenhower felt at home with reporters, nor understood how they might be used to forward White House policy. And in the newsroom of the old Washington Daily News, says Tom Kelly, a reporter for the News in the fifties, staff members still socialized with cops rather than high-ranking bureaucrats or diplomats. "You drank beer and whiskey," says Kelly, "and if you'd come on about wine you'd have been laughed out of the room." Correspondents for major out-of-town newspapers had more standing than the reporters for the local tabloid, but they were still more at home in bars than in the parlors of Georgetown.

It wasn't until the emergence of John F. Kennedy, another glamorous, charming Democrat, that reporters resumed their upward march in status. And they were waiting for the call.

By the 1960s, many more reporters were college educated and from middle class backgrounds. Edward R. Murrow, meanwhile, had defined a new role--the reporter celebrity--with his World War II radio broadcasts from Europe. Through television, newsmen were gradually becoming as well known as the public officials they covered.

With his father's help, Kennedy had courted the press diligently from the very beginning of his political career. Long before he reached the White House, JFK came to appreciate the influence of publications such as Time, Life, and Look, which were then the predominant vehicles of national celebrity. Flattering photographic depictions of what appeared to be Kennedy's private life appeared frequently--and not by accident. When, for example, the dashing young senator took Jacqueline Bouvier to Hyannisport for the first time, a Life photographer happened to be lying in wait to record this spontaneous occation for posterity. Life ran the pictures under the title "The Courtship of a U.S. Senator."

Like Roosevelt, Kennedy was well versed in the world of newsroom politics and deadlines. also like Roosevelt, JFK charmed reporters with personal attention. One New York Times reporter said after the election that it was as though "one of us" had made it to the White House. On the eve of the inaugural, the person Kennedy chose to visit was Joseph Alsop, the columnist.

In contrast to FDR, Kennedy honored the press in public. The first president to hold regular televised news conferences, Kennedy showd an entire nation of viewers that he took reporters' questions seriously, that they were welcome participants in an exciting, renewed Washington.

The demise of Hearst and other autocratic, ideological publishers had given Washington editors and reporters an unprecedented amount of freedom. Major newspapers increasingly sought respectability through "objectivity." Publishers and owners saw themselves as stewards, concerned about turning a profit; the old-style conservative crusading was seen as undignified. In the 1930s, more than half of the Washington reporters responded in a poll that their stories had been "played down, cut, or killed for 'policy reasons.'" By 1962, less than 8 percent reported such problems.

Kennedy realized that, even more than in Roosevelt's time, the people to invite to dinner were no longer the publishers, but the reporters and editors who actually produced the news. And, as with his press conferences, Kennedy often entertained his journalist friends in front of a conveniently positioned camera. In his admiring account of the Kennedy presidency, entitled (suggestively in this context) Conversations With Kennedy, Ben Bradlee recounted numerous intimate family dinners at the White House. This was Bradlee the Newsweek bureau chief before his jump up to the Post editorship.

"Kennedy swept us into a world we'd never seen before," Hugh Sidey reminisces. "Suddenly here you were at Hickory Hill with the 'beautiful people' you'd only read about. You were on the Honey Fitz, or taking a nude swim with the president of the United States. Or Jacqueline Kennedy called you about a story on redecorating the White House. That's the stuff novels are written about. Kennedy brought us onto the magic carpet with him."

Camelot passed, but the prominence of reporters continued to increase. When a distraught Jackie Kennedy needed support in the hours just before her husband's death, she called on two trusted friends: Ben Bradlee and his first wife, Toni. Theodore White captured that scene in a widely read article for Life, reminding Washington of where journalists stood in society.

If Kennedy, following Roosevelt's example, conferred new power on reporters, Ralph Nader demonstrated the extent of that power. Working not from the the White House, but from rag-tag offices and even pay phones, Nader used the Washington press corps to build a movement. With late-night telephone sessions and a dead-eye news tips, Nader sold consumerism to the reporters. They sold it to the country, giving Nader's Capitol Hill appearances lavish coverage and making his young "Raiders" well-known Washington characters. Journalists became fellow crusaders; no longer just scribes for the first draft of history, they were becoming protagonists in their own right. When Nader began appearing in newsmagazine surveys as one of the ten "most influential" people in America, the press that worked with him shared some of that glory.

During the same period, the "New Journalism" elevated the humblest and most ephemeral of literary forms to the status of literature. Journalists would now be able to "express themselves"--be somebodies--and even Truman Capote was doing it. Then came Watergate, in which the personas of two Washington Post reporters merged with those of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Journalists were the heroes in the slaying of an evil president. Describing the filming of "All the President's Men" in the Post newsroom, Sally Quinn observed in her Style article, "Lights, Cameras . . . Ego," that the actors were awed by the journalists, not vice versa.

Just 400 of my close friends

When Franklin Roosevelt was first courting the press, few would have guessed that half a century later one of the three or four best invitations in town would be an evening with a Washington Post editor and a former social reporter--namely Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. "If Ben and Sally gave a party of their cleaning lady," says one veteran observer of Washington society, "everybody would want to come." At a party this January for two reporters, Elizabeth Bumiller of the Posts's Style section and her husband Steven Weisman of The New York Times, the guests packed into the $2.5 million Bradlee-Quinn mansion included the Michael Deavers, the James Bakers, and the Richard Darmans.

It's gotten so that journalist socialites compete openly. "We put on a hell of a good Christmas party," brags Jack Nelson, whose entertainment budget is generous. "Everybody in town knows that the L.A. Times puts on a good Christmas party." (Deaver and Baker were among last year's guests.) Since L.A. Times reporter Sara Fritz is president of the Washington correspondents' association, the bureau offered to pick up the $30,000 tab for the group's recent dinner at the Hilton.

The elite of Washington journalism, including Nelson, annually celebrate their own importance at the Gridiron Club dinner. Traditionally, top editors and bureau chiefs would orchestrate an off-the record evening of skits and laughter attended by their publishers and suitably high-ranking administration officials, Congressmen, and lobbyists. In more recent times, the heavyweight correspondents have come to dominate the Gridiron festivities, and it is to their invitations that the White House staff responds. The Post Style section unfailingly provides detailed coverage of the event, even though its reporter is made to stand outside the banquet hall, where she scrambles for quotes from the celebrity journalists in attendance.

In 1982, Nancy Reagan indicated the importance of the Gridiron dinner when she chose the event as the spot to launch her counterattack against her image as a rich bitch. Mocking her media persona, Reagan performed in her own skit, dressed in Salvation Army cast-offs and singing an original number called "Second-Hand Clothes" (to the tune of "Second-Hand Rose"). It was not the sort of performance our First Lady would put on for social inferiors, and participants observed that Mrs. Reagan was noticeably nervous during rehearsals. "It was a tribute to the press," says Sheila Tate, then Mrs. Reagan's press secretary, "that Mrs. Reagan cared enough about them to do that, and that she went to their own forum."

These days, however, you don't even have to be the Gridiron to attract that kind of attention. When The New Republic last year threw itself an elegant black-tie affair at the National Portrait Gallery in honor of its 70th birthday, it turned out to be a Very Significant Bash. The party was covered by The New York Times and led the Style section. The Post accorded the glitzy event gargantuan headlines and photographs but teased New Republic Publisher Martin Peretz between the lines: "Martin Peretz hugged Gary Hart. Then Martin Peretz hugged Henry Kissinger. And there you have it." In addition to Hart and Kissinger, the 400-person guest list included Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, Eugene McCarthy, Jerry Brown, and Barney Frank.

Ambience is one of the move visible signs of the new social status of journalists. Where once reporters pecked away at their Royal manuals in dark cubby-hole offices in the old National Press Building, many now toil in bureaus bordering on the luxurious. It would be hard to distinguish Time's new bureau on Connecticut Avenue from the law firms that occupy the rest of the towering marble and glass building, except that the magazine's pink labyrinth of thick carpets and sculpted greenery is, if anything, more elegant.

The L.A. Times's new 32-person bureau was designed with entertainment in mind. It includes a magnificent brass wet bar in the conference room, above which are photographs of the dignitaries who have supped there. (Sandra Day O'Connor posed for a group shot with the women reporters of the bureau.) "We used to use styrofoam cups," Nelson recalls. Now, Ridgewells, an upscale local firm, caters with real china.

Tracking the elusive gaffe

The implication of the social ascension of the capital's press corps are far from pernicious. Many reporters are perfectly capable of earning good salaries, attending fancy parties and digging hard for tough stories. More secure in their status, reporters here no longer stand in awe of the powerful people they cover. The days of Roosevelt's "Giggle Gang"--the reporters who sat in the front row at his press conferences and laughed at all his jokes--are probably gone forever.

But the evolution of the journalist socialite also has the potential of taking a toll on the news product. The symptoms are sublte but real. Reporters and editors who see themselves as part of the Georgetown elite risk drifting out of touch with the rest of American life--and their own readership. Ben Bradlee has been an inspirational leader in the Post newsroom, but as one veteran Washington reporter points out, "The question is, where does Ben Bradlee get his car fixed? Does Ben Bradlee know where Ben Bradlee gets his car fixed?" Given Bradlee's lifestyle, the reporter ask, "How can he identify with average people anymore?"

"One's impression," Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the early seventies, "is that 20 years ago the preponderance of the 'working press' (as it likes to call itself) was surprisingly close in origins and attitudes to working people generally. They were not Ivy Leaguers. They are now or soon will be. Journalism has become, if not an elite, a profession attracted to elites. This is noticeably so in Washington."

As pay scales escalate, as newsrooms fill up with prestigious specialists on foreign policy and the money supply [see "Insideritis," by Stephen Hess, p. 28], reporters naturally become more remote from the people who read or watch the news. "You find more people who have PhD.s from Harvard in Slavic languages and don't keep a flask in their desk drawers," as Richard Cohen puts it, almost wistfully.

Cohen admits he's not comfortable with his status as well-known Georgetown guest. "I know it's the only way the town can function, but sometimes I feel like picking up my fork . . ." he says, stabbing an imaginary fellow dinner. Ambivalent though he is, Cohen still uses "a recent Washington party" as the social context for some of his columns.

According to Cohen's familiar view of "the only way the town can work," a crucial place to get your administration and State Department sources relaxed and talking is in someone's comfortable living room, during the cocktail hour. This is where "inside" information changes hands. Several dangers, however, arise in this setting.

First, journalists can be seduced into participating in relatively insignificant political turf battles involving their fellow party-goers. Mary McGrory, another Post columnist, calls journalist-source socializing "calculated." The fact is, a lot of "inside" insight consists largely of high-ranking officials' grinding their axes in hopes that their reporter friends will plant them in a competitor's back. What makes juicy gossip on Saturday evening too often makes page one or the op-ed pages as "analysis" Monday morning. Conversely, any number of accomplished reporters and commentators--David Broder, for example--manage to avoid fancy socializing without suffering from a noticeable lack of "inside" information.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with getting a helpful tip from a friendly assistant secretary of Defense just because you meet during a fancy social hour. But what he's likely to reveal will rarely be the whole story, or even the most important angle. The great recent advances in reporting on complex topics, such as military procurement, stem in large part from reporters, many based in Washington, picking themselves up and traveling to the test ranges to see if our guns and tanks really work. Across a wide range of subjects, the best Washington sources are the mid-level congressional staff members and frustrated agency bureaucrats, most of whom you will not find at the choice parties.

A second cause for worry is what might be called the Agronsky & Co. syndrome. As valued guests at Washington social events, journalists come to view their every passing thought on the "news behind the news" as worthy of wide attention. Jennifer Phillips, a well-known Georgetown hostess whose family is connected with the Phillips art collection, explains that "if something like Bitburg happens, you just can't wait to get with a group to analyze it and figure out the implications. It makes for a wonderful, exciting social atmosphere."

"We're the Marco Polos of our day," quips Hugh Sidey. Any dinner guest who seems to know who really wears the pants on the White House staff or what the Geneva arms control negotiators do in their spare time is likely to be a welcome adornment to Mrs. Phillips's salon.

Such chattering has actually been elevated to a journalistic form all its own--the Agronsky-style Washington talk show. Eminences of the trade sit around and trade speculation on the administration's latest public relations blunders and who's likely to run for president in 1992. Frequently, the same pointless navel contemplation goes on in the news pages and on the networks as well. Michael Kinsley of The New Republic calls it "gaffe-ology,"--and he's right in arguing that it's of little interest to those outside of journalism and government--certainly few people outside of the Beltway.

In the end, this may be the worst result of reporters becoming social bigwigs: the press tends to get boring when it sees itself as too important. One Washington hostess told Vanity Fair recently, "You've got the Washington Post Style section, and you use that to write about yourself and your friends. You can tell yourself you're setting the tone for Washington, and I suppose in some ways you are. You're famous because you write that you're famous. This is off the record, of course, because I have to live in this town."
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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