Tuesday, December 21, 2004

December 20, 2004

As a journalist I am used to criticism. Some is deserved, some not. But, any reporter soon learns that criticism comes with the territory. No matter how good a job you do getting a story right, you know you are going to piss someone, somewhere off for some reason, real or imagined. So, reporters get used to it.

Maybe too used to it. And, nowhere will you find this more so than among the White House Press Corps. They are always getting bashed from the right and the left complaining they are too hard or too easy on the administration in power. In reality they are neither, and they are both. Above all, they are too comfortable. Let me explain.

Among the White House Press Corps we have a group of reporters who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. Covering the White House is the most important beat they will ever have. And the professional stakes just don’t get any higher. Screw up on this beat and you are toast – back to covering PTA meetings, or worse.

White House handlers know that and use that fear to remind anyone who rocks the boat that there’s a price to pay. A friend of mine who covered the Papa Bush White said he was punished for weeks after crossing the line by writing a story critical of the administration at a particularly sensitive time. The next day he found he was no longer getting the usual heads up on newsworthy events and meetings. And, while his colleagues got juicy background briefings on important developments, he was not invited. Suddenly, a job that was easy got hard. He missed some stories and even the ones he got lacked the depth and quotes others had. His editors were not pleased.

That’s how it works. They don’t kill you with poison or bullets, but with neglect. You are ignored to death.

Does it work? You betchya it works.

Just look at how well behaved the WH Press Corps was at today’s Presidential press conference? Bush has a new press conference rule – no follow up questions. Reporters are told they can ask just one question, no follow-ups. This allows the President to reel off his boilerplate position on an issue and move on to the next reporter, unchallenged. Never mind how nonsensical his answer might have been, or that it might contradict earlier positions – no follow up. Now, you might think that there would be at least one old fashioned, maverick reporter in the crowd who would break that rule in the face of such Orwellian crapola.

Nope. Not one.

"Good reporters.. Sit. Stay. Good reporters… here’s a treat. Barney, show them the Christmas decorations..."

Fear is not the only factor dumbing down the WHPC. There is one other. The men and women who make up this group of journalists are the quintessential media insiders. On paper they appear to be competitors. But where rubber hits the road each day they are co-workers and friends. They each got where they are by working long hours on dull stories for what – a ten-foot cubicle in a grimy, noisy newsroom. Now at the White House these reporters have become one big emotional/professional support group in which they share one key goal – to never (NEVER) have to return to that world.

So, good old-fashioned cutthroat, get-the-story-first-at-any-cost competition has been replaced by something far tamer and, for us on the outside, less illuminating. These reporters respect and empathize with each other. They meet around the water cooler, they go out together for coffee, dinners, parties. The lucky ones get to dish political gossip for a few extra bucks on the cable talk shows. And once a year they get into tuxedos and gowns for the annual White House press dinner where they congratulate one another for the wonderful job they do, mug at the cameras like movie stars and yuk it up as the President delivers scripted jokes poking fun at them.

It’s quite the life.

So, how do we get a White House press corps that cares more about ferreting out what an administration wants to keep secret, than staying in this cozy, high profile job? There is only one way -- treat the White House beat the same way they nuclear workers treat working in a hot zone – when their radiation badges turn red it’s time to leave.

In the case of the White House media outlets should rotate reporters out of that hot zone every 13 months.

Why 13 months?
The argument they use now for keeping reporters on that beat is that it takes time to they learn the lay of the land and develop inside sources. Well, as for learning the lay of the land, unless the reporter has a learning disability, that shouldn’t take more than a month. So I propose that each departing reporter spend a month showing the new guy or gal the lay of the land before leaving.

As for needing time to “develop White House sources,” whose kidding whom? There are only a handful of people in any administration – and especially this one – authorized to talk, on or off the record, with reporters. The quickest way to lose a White House job is to get caught talking to a reporter out of school. Those who are authorized to talk to reporters are not sources… they are political PR people. And, over time, they become friends with the reporters they like. Even when friendships do not bloom White House reporters get to see just what grueling jobs White House staffers have and develop a degree of sympathy for them.

So 13-months in, then out. Such a rule would solve most of the problems noted above and provide an added benefit; it would also give young, eager, hungry reporters a crack at making a name for themselves. If they screw up, they would still be toast, but chances are such reporters would hit pay dirt more often than not. My best reporting was done when I was young and had nothing to lose. The older I got, the more cautious I got. It’s human nature.

Memo to Major Media: When it comes to your White House correspondents do what any farmer knows must be done to get the most out of your herd:

Turn your fat hogs out and let the lean hogs in.

Same Goes Here
Pentagon and State Department reporters should probably also have a 13-month rule as well. Reporters at both those departments also become too entrenched and too chummy with the people they are supposed to be watching for us. Rumsfeld has gotten away with murder – literally and figuratively – as the Pentagon press corps has twiddled.

I listened to President this morning answering a question about Rummy and he said something about how he knew Rummy’s heart and saw how misty-eyed he got when he talked about our young kids (none related in any way to either Rummy or Bush) getting killed in Iraq. Well, not misty-eyed enough to hand-sign letters of condolence to their parents. He left that to a machine. Rummy, it would seem, was just too busy to hand-sign five or ten letters a day to the parents of kids (none of whom are related in anyway to Rummy or Bush – but I repeat myself) who died for his mistakes in Iraq.

Here's the deal with that: When your decisions result in the death of hundreds, even thousands, of people everyday, you either learn not to give shit, or you go mad. Kissinger, McNamara, Stalin.. they didn't sign condolence letters either.. because they didn't give a shit either.

Class Warfare: Housing Front
Working Americans, many who must rely on a full-time job earning the federal minimum wage, increasingly cannot afford the rent and utilities on a one- or two-bedroom apartment in many American cities or large towns. A report released today by a private housing group reported that to afford a two-bedroom rental the typical worker must earn at least $15.37 an hour — nearly three times the federal minimum wage. In only four of the nation's 3,066 counties could a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage afford a typical one-bedroom apartment.

At the other end of the income scale life is only getting sweeter.. and bigger. Bill and Melinda Gates are not having any trouble with housing costs. The Gates $97 million waterfront home outside Seattle features an artificial stream that runs through the property and into the pool.

Credit Card Crack
I have been warning for some time now that the so-called “Bush recovery” is nothing more than a credit generated mirage. That consumers have been keeping the economy from tanking by milking equity from their homes and/or running up unsustainable credit card debt.

So here we are on the eve of Christmas and those consumers are out shooting up one last line of credit crack. The total amount of credit card debt was just over $600 billion five years ago. Today it stands at $800 billion, according to the Federal Reserve.

As credit card balances rise – the average household now with $16,000 in such debt – so too have minimum monthly payments. And, with interest rates going up, payments will get only larger after the holidays. Already 10 percent of those with credit cards say they have missed making their minimum payment during the past six months. Economists say more would be missing payments except that they have figured out how to create their own credit Ponzi by using different cards to cover late payments on other cards, a process that requires them getting more and more new credit cards. (You’ve heard all about “Democracy on the March,” Well, this is “Bankruptcy on the March.”)

The highest levels of stress from debts are concentrated among those who have already reached their credit card limit, those who are unmarried and have children, those without jobs and minorities.

The Fed study showed that those with the lowest levels of stress from debt were Republicans, married people, college graduates and people between age 30 and 49.

No comments: