Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Baquet Ban On Attending Press Dinner Excessive

New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet's decision to tell his reporters not to attend the annual White House correspondents' dinner is in my view excessive and counterproductive.

Baquet explained to the New York Observer, "I think we need to start sending a signal to the public that journalists and the people we cover have a polite but adversarial relationship."

I fear the only message he is sending is that the press won't enter into friendly relationships with anyone, and this is no way to report the news.

The fact is that the relationship between the news media and the politicians and government officials they cover in Washington in particular, but elsewhere in the country as well, has become poisonous. The press is not trusted and often for good reason. And the press, in turn, doesn't know who to trust either.

In the recent Libby trial in Washington, there was extensive testimony taken about the multifaceted relationship between reporters and the people they cover. If these relations are not, to some extent, friendly, the quantity of the information forthcoming is reduced, and the degree to which reporters know they can trust what they are getting is minimized.

As a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times on campaigns ranging from the presidential to local, I had multiple friendly relationships with the politicians I covered. The result was that I think my reporting was usually fairly accurate. Often, in "insiders" stories, I was able to quote, without identifying sources, what was really going on in campaigns. Often, Democrats and Republicans criticized themselves, and told what was going on behind the scenes and these reports often ended up in my stories. It was far more revealing than quoting independent political experts who often don't know what they are talking about, as is often done today.

Among the stories that friendly relationships allowed me to report. was that Evelle Younger had run out of money in his race against Jerry Brown in 1978 , that Gerald Ford had decided to skip campaigning in California against Ronald Reagan in the 1976 primary, that Eugene McCarthy would not endorse Hubert Humphrey until the very end of the 1968 presidential race and then only very tepidly, that Jesse Unruh felt the campaign against Humphrey was lost on the first night of the Chicago convention, etc. etc. etc.

Cooperation and tips from City Council President John Ferraro in the drive to secure the 1984 Olympics enabled me to report news that blocked what would have been an unsatisfactory deal between Mayor Tom Bradley and the International Olympic Committee at the
Athens meeting of the IOC in 1978, and the result was Los Angeles eventually got a much better deal that protected the taxpayers from undue expenses for the games. Ferraro once remarked of me, "Reich would report adversely on his own grandmother, if it meant getting a story." This was true. He knew me well.

My friendships during my Olympic assignment extended to Communist bloc officials from Romania and East Germany. This allowed me to accurately report that efforts to prevent a Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games had been stymied, when both L.A. Olympic president Peter Ueberroth and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch were saying falsely they believed the Soviets would come to the Games. They didn't.

Since the IOC and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee were both closed organizations whose meetings were very largely secret, much of the reporting I did was from hotel bars, late at night, particularly in the bar of the Lausanne Palace Hotel, taking advantage of the nine hour time difference between Los Angeles and Lausanne, Switzerland. When, during brief periods, IOC officials including the President, Lord Killanin, would not talk to me, I got reporters who were stooges of the IOC to place my questions, a tactic which turned out to be quite successful. I always stayed in the hotels the IOC stayed in, and attended every IOC party I could, even often taking my young daughter with me.

In politics too I never passed up a chance to dine with, fly with and socialize with those I covered. That enabled me to do my job. I sometimes flew to Los Angeles from Sacramento on his airplane with Gov. Ronald Reagan. It was a free ride, but it also was a fount of news, and it didn't compromise me in the least. The Times would have paid for my transit if I hadn't flown with the governor, but in these cases, I was sitting with the governor and was the recipient of many confidences. The Times readers benefitted.

There is no secret, I am an admirer of Dean Baquet. After he defied the squalid Tribune Co. cost cutters last year and was ousted for his stand as editor of the Los Angeles Times, I picked him as my "journalist of the year."

But in trying to cut off social exchanges between his personnel and the Washington scene, in boycotting the White House Correspondents dinner, Baquet is making a mistake. He is cutting off his nose to spite his face, and it is necessary for more than one friend to tell him so.


I certainly agree with the L.A. Times editorial this morning saying the Police Commission should wait to support William Bratton for another five-year term as Police Chief until a complete investigation is completed on the police riot last week in MacArthur Park. Bratton, who was not there, has reacted well to what happened, apologizing for it and calling it the worst police action he had confronted in his 37-year career. Still, as the Times says, what happened in the park raised the question just how profound the changes Bratton claimed to have made in the culture of LAPD with his policies of transparentcy and accountability have actually been.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"that Jesse Unruh felt the campaign against Humphrey was lost on the first night of the Chicago convention, etc. etc. etc."

Wasn't the campaign against Humphrey also lost because of the delegate fight that took place? Southern white Democrats did their best to make sure that black delegates could not get credentialed, and therefore seated on the floor. It was the Dixiecrat's last stand, and the last time a convention held by either party had so much open acrimony. Now, it's all very dull and prefunctory.

5/10/2007 4:19 PM  

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