The Capitol Hill media:New "bosses' of national politics

Columnists and national political reporters have a unique role in presidential election politics that has almost nothing to do with the general public. As the nation gets larger and the selection process gets more diffused — increasing the complexity and the number of participants — some journalists have assumed a function once assigned to traditional political brokers, the "bosses."

—Stephen Hess in his book The Presidential Campaign, The Leadership Selection Process After Watsrgule (1974).

IS SEN. BIRCH Bayh (D., Ind.) more than a pretty face? Is Fred Harris quixotic? Is Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D., Wash.) liberal or conservative? Is Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D., Minn.) an admirable old Democratic warrior or a windbag?

This is a time when judgments about these and similar questions are being filtered through the typewriters of "some journalists" — the style-setters of the national political press who tell the politicians which candidates are worthy of serious consideration. Columnists and political reporters, Hess reminds us, have "moved from the sidelines to the playing fields. An important columnist whose views are read regularly in Washington and New York is now more influential than the average governor or senator; not because he reaches masses of people, but because he is looked to by politicians as rules maker, talent scout, and adviser. Television correspondents and even anchormen, although better known to the public, play a more passive role, given the characteristics of their medium."

Network news producers are usually so busy with the technical complications of their trade that they rely on the New York Times and the Washington Post for their judgments about the meaning of events. "When you try to work the press on behalf of a candidate," Jackson adviser Ben J. Wattenberg has explained, "you find the way to get the video coverage you want is to get the print coverage you want. Video people take their cues from what the reporters write."

In Washington, one is constantly impressed by the truth of Max Ways' statement: "Top political leaders cannot hear themselves, cannot develop either confidence or self-criticism except as they apprehend what effect their words or deeds have upon the public. A policymaker does not know what he has said at a press conference until he reads the next morning's papers."

So the media sit as a Board of Preview devising the rules by which the contenders for the nomination are rated. Almost always, reporters in Washington (and their editors back in the home office) tend to perceive the meaning of political events in the same way. They echo the opinions of the dozen or so style-setters about what is significant and what is trivial, about who is "light" and who deserves to be taken seriously. Leaders achieve that distinction ordinarily because of the influence of their publications, the wide national syndication of their reports, or their exposure on national television panel shows. Once a collective judgment has been reached, it is considered hopeless for a candidate to remanipulate his image. An interesting test of all this will occur, incidentally, if a candidate like Gov. Dan Walker, who thumbs his nose at the paper-and-pencil press, goes after the presidential nomination.

A surprising number of the nationally influential political reporters either have roots in the Midwest or worked there earlier in their careers. David Broder of the Washington Post is from Chicago Heights, graduated from the University of Chicago, and worked for the Bloomington Pantograph. Unlike most Washington correspondents, who consider themselves culturally deprived if they don't make the Paris and London scene every season, Broder vacations with his family in a northern Michigan cottage. Columnist Robert Novak is a native ofJoliet, attended the University of Illinois, and worked for newspapers in Joliet and Champaign. James Reston of the New York Times attended the U. of I. and married a girl from Sycamore, III. R. W. Apple, Jr., the Times' national political writer, is from Akron, Ohio. Godfrey Sperling, Jr., Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, lived, worked and went to college in Champaign. Loye Miller, national political correspondent for the Knight newspapers, worked for Time magazine in Chicago. Hal Brune, Newsweek's national political specialist, was educated in Illinois and started his career in Chicago. Peter Lisagor, a graduate of the University of Michigan, is an enormously influential personality in Washington, not so much because of his position with the Chicago Daily News as his frequent appearances on national television. Not long ago, actress Jane Fonda was in Washington lobbying against aid to South Vietnam. Upon being introduced to Lisagor, the Oscarwinning performer exclaimed: "Oh yes, I see you on television all the time."

Whether Washington-based reporters who play tennis in Georgetown and vacation in Cannes can reasonably be expected to establish instant rapport with the average American couple who goes to the stockcar races, savors a Big Mac, and dreams of a family vacation at Disney World is, of course, something else again. But it is not because of their lack of personal contact with — or at least memories of — the politics and lifestyle of Midwestern America. 

July 1975/Illinois Issues/223

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