[This article originally appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Nieman Reports.]
||What is your salary?
||My salary is $100,000, Sam.
||How much do you make, Sam?
||Well, I make quite a bit, Reverend Falwell.
This Sunday morning television exchange between Sam Donaldson and Jerry Falwell was recounted in an October Washingtonian column by former Senator Eugene McCarthy—a sarcastic piece filled with observations about the self-importance of the Washington press corps. If its members continue to assume the powers and privileges of a new religion, McCarthy argued, they must demonstrate their moral superiority, at least by refusing honoraria and making public their sources of income.
The cover piece of the same magazine is entitled “Money Fever.” It says of Washington, “This is now a rich place, full of six-figure incomes, million dollar homes, luxury cars. Where does all this money come from? Is it blinding us to what’s really important?”
I am uneasy about one segment of Washington’s new rich—the journalists.
Six years ago I moved across the Potomac from Newsweek’s Washington bureau to become the Executive Editor of a group of national weekly newspapers—Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, Federal Times. (Since then we’ve added two titles, Defense News and Space News.) While the 100 reporters, editors, photographers, artists and news assistants who work with me are all covering the Washington bureaucracy, they are part of a workaday journalism world which is far closer to the pay scales and lifestyle of Richmond than Washington.
Some of them will become top-of-the-heap Washington bureau types. But for now they are part of a journalistic infantry struggling to make house and car payments.
I have been struck by the difference in lifestyle and in attitudes of my former and present colleagues. (Not the least of the contrasts is the impressive digging of many of my troops and the stories of substance they turn up about government—often to find their stories picked up and rewritten, without attribution, by the national media.)
I am not the only observer who senses that the Washington press corps has become fat and happy, removed from its readers, listeners and viewers in at least one respect—by income gaps which put many Washington journalists far above the average American. Articles on the subject have been appearing more frequently.
In the past a few of my Washington colleagues had their heads turned by both proximity to power and lots of disposable income. Now this is becoming a general condition which separates a lot of the Washington press from the rest of the country.
A well compensated writer at one of the news magazines told me, “The star system has moved from television to the print media. There were always a handful of stars. Today every major publication and not a few minor ones have stars. These are not necessarily superstars in terms of influence, but simple people who earn salaries close to or in excess of six figures. It’s ironic that even as their salaries have jumped, the influence of print journalists has diminished.
“…Forget about the TV appearances and lectures. Simply by making such huge incomes journalists have less in common with their readers. When you are on the prowl for tax deductions, how can you identify with the average Joe?
“At our place there is always talk about getting more of America into the Nation section. But the ‘big feet’ who draw the big salaries are often pushing inside- the-beltway stories. They are making big bucks, and they have enormous influence over story selection. It’s common for them to push out a piece on Gary, Indiana for an inside baseball piece on Rostenkowski and Dole.
“Journalists who vacation in Europe, stay at posh hotels, and attend dinner parties with the elite have nothing in common with Middle America.”
A Los Angeles Times Poll showed in 1985 that almost half of newspaper journalists but only 18 percent of the general public had incomes over $40,000. The pollsters, I.A. Lewis and William Schneider, wrote in Public Opinion magazine, “What we end up with is an impression of newspaper journalists as something like ‘super yuppies.’ They are emphatically liberal on social issues and foreign affairs, distrustful of establishment institutions (government, business, labor), and protective of their own economic interests.”
I think it’s fair to say, although I can’t prove it, that many print journalists in Washington earn more than Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, governors, mayors, full professors, school superintendents, and other community leaders. It didn’t used to be so.
Is this why journalists have not pressed an agenda that would focus on the economic problems of many Americans—including a generation of immigrants not afforded the same opportunities as my parents and me? Can one be so comfortable, living among such wealth, and not avert one’s eyes and professional attention from the problems of the less affluent?…
“There certainly is a new classification of reporter—the Journalist Performer,” wrote Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. “A lot of them were never journalists, like [Chris] Matthews, [George] Will, [Pat] Buchanan and [Tom] Braden. Some of them were terrific journalists who got bored with the reporting side of it and became mesmerized by the political side. [Robert] Novak is the lead dog there. But I think this Journalist Performer has been the object of parthenogenesis, developing over the last generation or two. Certainly the Alsops, the Lisagors slowly became characters, and it’s not too large a step from character to performer.”
Bradlee asks, “How much real journalism is being done by the celebrity reporters? You and we are doing really serious reporting day after day by reporters whose names are not household words yet, and they probably never will be.”
Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy wrote this: “When I look at the blowhards on television—Buchanan, Kinsley, Novak, Shields, McLaughlin—I enjoy the rough and tumble of it all, but it’s farcical that these guys are journalists. They’re into hootchy-kootchy, carnival antics that get suckers into the tent for the con of thinking that all the gab is what the news business is all about. Koppel isn’t much better. When he has on Kissinger, Haig and almighties like that, which he does in disproportion to the victims of government violence, it’s painful to see how obsequious Koppel becomes….
“The best reporters and columnists are those who regularly get into the community—its soup kitchens, literacy programs, schools—as volunteers. That way they stay in touch with those on the margin. Which often enough is where the crucial news is to be found.”
Hodding Carter III sent along a five-year-old Wall Street Journal “Viewpoint” he had written noting that it “understates how strongly I feel about the subject.” The top journalists, the column said, “move in packs with the affluent and powerful to Washington (just doing their job, of course), then swarm with them in summer to every agreeable spot on the Eastern seaboard between Canada and New Jersey. When any three or four sit down together on a television talk show to discuss the meaning of current events, it is not difficult to remember that the least well paid of these pontificators (in whose rank I occasionally fall) make at least six times more each year than the average American family.”…
Stanley Karnow, the author and former Washington Post foreign correspondent, finds the quest for celebrity status more corrupting than the money. “Reporters, who are supposed to be detached observers dedicated to digging up the truth, have become show biz stars. As a result they have allowed themselves to be co-opted, and can no longer serve as investigators or critics of those in high places. Sam Donaldson may sound defiant at news conferences, but he is merely acting the part of the tough journalist. He is playing a role, and everybody knows it. Nobody takes him seriously and thus he reflects the fact that nobody takes the press seriously.”
Karnow notes that most news about foreign affairs and other complex subjects gets to Americans by way of newspapers and not television, but that television is important because it is “validating.” A syndicator told him his column would be helped if he could get a slot on a talk show. He gets few invitations and small fees when he lectures on subjects about which he has written books. TV anchormen lecture on the same subjects to packed houses. “It used to be that you derived authority from being in print,” Karnow said. Now television gives what you have written credibility.…
“I see two problems in Washington journalism,” says Lars-Erik Nelson, Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News. “This city has no white working class, no industries, no factories.… The normal stresses of American life are barely visible here and apply mostly to a black population on the other side of town.… The real change is the professionalization of everything in journalism. Political reporting is now a full-time beat, four years out of four. The New York Times has a guy who does nothing but arms control. The Washington Post has a guy who does nothing but campaign finance. The Los Angeles Times has a diplomatic correspondent who only does the Middle East and another who only does the Soviet Union.… Too often, they are intelligible only to the people they cover. Sample New York Times page one lead: ‘Arms Negotiators Agree on New Counting Rules for Aircraft.’ Leading the paper! Others plunge into investigations that are not intelligible to anyone at all.
“Prediction: You will see even more punditry. Television has supplanted newspapers for bringing basic facts to the American people.”…
Finally, many of my correspondents took exception to the suggestion that Washington journalists as a group were among the well-off. “Certainly a sizable group of journalists in this town are well enough off to be legitimately called an income elite,” wrote Ben Bradlee. “The average national reporter at The Washington Post, few of them ‘Performer Journalists,’ makes more than $55,000, probably very close to $60,000 now. But I don’t know how really elite that makes them. It sounds elite as hell when you think of the days when reporters weren’t paid at all well.… Certainly the status of journalists has changed enormously. It’s okay now for your daughter to marry one.”
Richard J. Maloy, Bureau Chief of the Thomson Newspapers, puts in a strong word for the great number of hard working reporters who “are part of a very large subculture in the Washington press corps,” the regional reporters. “First of all they are talented or they couldn’t cut it. Secondly they are journeymen for the most part and are paid at or near the top of the AP scale which is the benchmark for this town. AP scale for a journeyman everywhere is around $36,000, and the differential for Washington means a journeyman here makes $40,000. Is that so much that it separates a reporter from his readers? I don’t think so. Steelworkers in Lorain, Ohio make that. So do automakers in Detroit. So do GS-12s in Washington.”…
Stanley Karnow said, “I don’t think it’s a matter of journalists becoming an income elite. After all, Izzy Stone was always relatively comfortable. The real danger is the feeling of self-importance among many reporters.
“In 1971 when I returned home after years abroad, the National Editor of The Washington Post said to me: ‘There are 25 members of the Post national staff and 25 members of The New York Times Washington bureau and we are the most powerful people in America.’ What hubris!”
Hubris is what I’m talking about. I agree that, like my own staff, much of the underclass of Washington journalism is still struggling financially and professionally. I worry about the message they get from the top names in Washington journalism. Fame and fortune have not helped the quality of reporting from the capital, nor the political analysis. In a somber piece on “the brain dead politics of 1989,” author Kevin Phillips commented that “cerebral atrophy also means to afflict the nation’s opinion-molding elites. The pundits are not providing great insights, and the pollsters help nurture Washington’s paralyzing ambiguities.”
This is not the golden age of Washington journalism.
James S. Doyle, a 1965 Nieman Fellow, is a Vice President of The Times Journal Company of Springfield, Virginia, and Editorial Director of the Times group. In 1969, he joined The Washington Star as National Correspondent; in 1973, he became special assistant to Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor. He served until the end of the trials. His book, “Not Above the Law,” was published in 1977.