A veteran press observer looks at the government-media connection
Washington — For the last nine years Stephen Hess has lived in government press offices, prowled the corridors of the Congress, and eaten -- he ruefully acknowledges -- too many lunches with too many reporters. He is now midway through a Brookings Institution project called Newswork, which undertakes nothing less than analyzing and documenting the relationship between government and the press and the ``hermetic'' world in which that relationship operates.
What Mr. Hess has found in his Washington odyssey -- and during his more than 25 years as an operative in the White House under Eisenhower and Nixon, the United Nations, and the US Senate -- has made him a valuable insider himself. The Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal asked him recently to critique the paper's Washington coverage. Terry Eastland, press secretary to Edwin Meese III, requested his advice on how to set up the attorney general's press office.
Hess has watched firsthand from both sides the government-media machinery churning out the stuff that winds up on our breakfast table as the morning newspaper.
He has forged two books out of his ``Newswork'' project: ``The Washington Reporters,'' and ``The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and their Offices.'' A third, ``The Ultimate Insiders: US Senators in the National Media,'' will appear in April; and he is currently toiling over a fourth volume concerned with regional news coverage of the Senate.
While he gives high marks to the people tending the machinery, he worries a lot about the process itself, because it all happens in ``a closed world,'' in which the key figures ``are more and more dealing with each other and understanding each other in a specialized way. The worrying thing is that they see the world in exactly the same way and start to see the same things as important. Their rank-ordering of world [issues] becomes identical.''
His books analyzing this process are not the usual kiss-and-tell memoirs of journalists-turned-press-secretaries-turned-journalists-again that come flooding out of Washington. He gathers his observations through a combination of surveys, interviews, and almost anthropological site studies.
Hess, who has written prolifically for newspapers and magazines, says he set out to study this world ``in a friendly manner.'' And he feels he has gotten special access because, as he puts it, he ``seems to have no ax to grind,'' and is ``not particularly a reformer.'' As a Brookings senior fellow he has ``no incentive to hype,'' nor any desire to trash the Washington media scene.
``Hey, wait,'' he expostulates about the media-government connection. ``It's better, without meaning to be Pollyanna; in some ways it's much better than I went in expecting. The impression of Washington in the world of Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, the world of scoundrels and scallywags, the world of medicine men and mountebanks, is not the world I saw in this government-press connection. It was a world of intelligent people who were limited by all of the factors that always limit human beings.' '
Leaning almost straight back in his his chair in this narrow office crammed with black notebooks, surveys, and files, Hess says he has found ``a very good press corps, people who are serious, intelligent, not frivolous, concerned'' as well as ``press officers . . . who are equally serious, well-educated, concerned, patriotic, what-have-you.''
But put the puzzle together, he says, and you have an insular system that is becoming increasingly self-absorbed.
The biggest problem he encountered among those who operate in this closed system is ``the degree to which they didn't account for, and didn't include, the rest of us . . . alternative positions, other people'' in their deliberations.
The problem is that the same people recirculate the same viewpoints over and over again among themselves.
``If you ask [Washington journalists] who their closest friends are, you find that roughly half of their closest friends are other journalists. . . . That tells you something about the hermetic nature of this world. . . .
``I do think it's very easy, living here, to get out of touch in a very serious way, to truly forget, not notice what are the concerns of people, or just the pressures [they face]; and it probably isn't a good idea for all of us, press and public officials, to stay here indefinitely.''
He concludes that journalists thrive on bureaucratic doublespeak, because it makes them the necessary interpreters to the general public of an otherwise unintelligible language. He worries that ``the emerging professional specialist journalist . . . may become less understanding'' of the views of those who criticize the agency he or she is covering.
``Do you really want your reporter to become a surrogate secretary of state? You may. . . . But if what we need is a lot more, a whole Gestalt of thoughts and ideas and points of view being brought to bear'' on the business of government, we may be heading in the wrong direction, he observes.
Hess's forthcoming book on the media and the Senate -- developed from reams of Senate press releases, statistical analyses of appearances by senators in the news, and off-the-cuff conversations with folks on Capitol Hill -- carries his closed-world theory further. It will point out that the press has unilaterally reduced a 100-member elected Senate to a 20-member body worthy of media attention by restricting its coverage almost exclusively to those few senators -- a practice, he says, that has been goin g on since at least the early 1950s.
For most senators, the only paths to the front page of tomorrow's paper, he says, are to run for president; get involved in a scandal; get on the Foreign Relations Committee (or some similarly ``news-worthy'' body); or assume ``squatters' rights'' by taking hold of an ascendant issue and making it their own.
``What we find,'' Hess observes, ``is that [the media go after] people in leadership positions.'' And it is precisely these power-brokers who comprise the ``20 member'' Senate.
He doesn't interpret this result as the outcome of some master game plan orchestrated from the corporate offices of conglomerate press lords, however.
``The ultimate decisions are being made day-to-day at the level I am working on,'' he maintains. ``I think I've seen how the publisher has lost control to the editor, and the editor is losing control to the reporter.'' It's a situation ``almost destined to produce the Janet Cooke case,'' in which a Washington Post reporter fabricated key elements of a story that won (and lost) a Pulitzer Prize.
These are the dangers the press faces, he says. But they are countered by what he sees as a long rise in professionalism and quality in the Washington press corps.
``It's the best news product that we've ever had at any time in any country. Get out the microfilm [of past newspapers] and turn the crank and you will see it get better and better. I'm very convinced by what I think is fairly objective evidence that . . . people who want to feel they are being fed lies by both the government and the press'' are mistaken.
If the press has a single overriding fault, he observes, it is that it ``makes no effort to explain its own limitations. To that degree, it . . . may create expectations it cannot fulfill.''
By way of illustration, he spreads open a copy of the New York Times and improvises a variation on its famous ``All the News That's Fit to Print'' slogan, saying it should read: ``All the news that a finite number of journalists can gather in a finite period of time from sources, some of whom won't speak to us and others of whom are lying.''
``But,'' he quickly adds, ``you have to realize the wonder'' of a paper like the Times. ``It comes out every day, and it is full of fascinating things.'' It may not be the best of all possible products; but it is, he maintains, the best product we've ever had, and one certainly worth the price of admission.
``I just want to make it clear that we are getting our 30 cents' worth.''