- - Wednesday, September 26, 2012


By Stephen Hess
Brookings Institution Press, $26.95, 216 pages

You wouldn’t be reading this newspaper if you didn’t have a yen for news about politics and the craft of political news-gathering. So this is a timely book for any respectable news junkie’s shelf.

Thirty-four years ago, Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess conducted a study of 450 news reporters who covered various aspects of Washington’s political scene from the White House to Congress, to the Supreme Court and the myriad agencies. That study was turned into the prize-winning “The Washington Reporters,” which was published in 1981 and became the first volume in a series of five subsequent studies of how journalism is practiced in this world capital, including government press officers, congressional staff and foreign correspondents.

What this accessibly written and evocative book is, then, is the final installment of those studies. It answers the question of what happened next to those 450 reporters who at the time represented the A-team of national news reporting and whose impact on the American public’s awareness of important political events cannot be overstated.

Using a team of researchers from Brookings and George Washington University, Mr. Hess has tracked down 283 of those reporters he first interviewed back in 1978. Some of them have drifted as far away from Washington as France and Australia.

A snapshot of the group in 1978 is revealing. A large cohort of the older reporters was still almost exclusively made up of white men who had come to journalism when it was still a working-class occupation. But things were changing. Twice as many of the total group was made up of younger reporters who had graduated from journalism schools. There were a rising number of women who still faced formidable hurdles in gaining reporting and editing jobs but they were no longer exotics in an all-male environment. Still, minority groups remained just a fraction of the number of the total.

Also what was changing was the nature of news-gathering. The expansion of television news from its traditional 15-minute summary by the three main networks meant greater visibility for broadcast reporters and made national media stars out of the likes of Ted Koppel, Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Herb Kaplow and George Herman.

There was turmoil in the print media as well. Washington had been blessed (or cursed) with three daily newspapers when I first arrived as a reporter in 1967. The tabloid Daily News soon was folded into the afternoon Washington Star, which in turn shut its doors, leaving the city with one daily until the founding of The Washington Times in 1982. In the meantime, my old alma mater, United Press International, descended into a series of takeovers, but has been supplanted as the alternative to the Associated Press by more specialized newswires such as Reuters and Bloomberg.

Not surprisingly, such impermanence has taken its toll on the 450 original practitioners of the craft that Mr. Hess interviewed 34 years ago. What is surprising is just how many of them stayed with the job for a lifetime.

As Mr. Hess conducted his follow-up survey, “We created three categories: Those who left journalism before 15 years (‘dropouts’); those who were journalists for 15 to 29 years (‘transitional journalists,’ or TJs); and those who remained in journalism from 30 years or to more than 50 years (‘lifers’).”

What Mr. Hess discovered is that roughly 13 percent of the 450 were dropouts, roughly a quarter more hung on for a dozen years or more before moving to other careers, but a whopping 64 percent made a lifetime job out of Washington reporting.

Here lies what I respectfully suggest as the theme of the next round of surveying and consideration that Mr. Hess and his team need to undertake. The remarkable stability — one would almost say level of job security — in what is by its nature a highly competitive field raises alarm bells.

If mainstream journalism is viewed with increasing skepticism by the general public — and it is — then one might argue that while the reporters have stayed the same, the story they need to be reporting has changed dramatically. Most visibly, that change of story has been from the almost total emphasis on political process that existed when I began in this town 45 years ago to a greater hunger for insight into what is happening in the complex arena of economics.

What once had been relegated to the back business pages is now of front-page concern to most citizens. The specialization of financial reporting services — again, Reuters and Bloomberg and a host of other online services — requires an equal specialization and expertise from the men and women who do the reporting.

Nowhere is this stasis in reporting focus more painfully and dangerously evident than in the coverage of the current dismal campaign for the presidency, during which both candidates are viewed by their media style and polling numbers and not by the content or lack of it in their proposals for governance by a news crew lacking the background to report on such complex issues.

Whatever happened to the Washington reporters of 1978? Apparently, not enough. But this book by Mr. Hess is a great place to start thinking about where we go from here.

James Srodes covered Washington economics for United Press International, Businessweek, Forbes, Financial World and the (London) Sunday Telegraph.

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