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Don't Mind Me. I'm Just Doing My Job

By Paul Farhi
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page B02

Reporters who cover the White House are accustomed to being spun by administration officials. The modern presidential toolbox includes carefully rationed press conferences, say-nothing spokesmen, dead-of-night releases of unfavorable news, and phony "town hall" meetings composed solely of sycophantic supporters. More recently, government agencies have issued fake-news videos and secretly contracted with two pundits to promote the administration's policies on education and marriage.

But now the art of press handling has evolved into actual manhandling. The Bush team has expanded the use of "minders," employees or volunteers who escort journalists from interview to interview within a venue or at a newsworthy event.

It's not an entirely new phenomenon -- the Clinton administration baby-sat reporters from time to time -- but the president's inaugural committee took it to new levels of silliness during the various presidential balls. Several reporters covering the balls were surprised to find themselves being monitored by young "escorts," who followed them from hors d'oeuvres table to dance floor and even to the bathroom.

I was among those who was assigned a little friend. Or to be precise, I was monitored for about half of the inaugural party I was covering for The Post. For the first couple of hours of the Independence Ball, I roamed the vast width and length of the Washington Convention Center hall dangerously unescorted.

I had arrived early to get a head start on mingling among the roughly 6,000 people eating and dancing to celebrate the president's reelection. Unaware of the new escort policy (it wasn't in place during the official parties following the 2001 inauguration), I blithely assumed that in the world's freest nation, I was free to walk around at will and ask the happy partygoers such national security-jeopardizing questions as, "Are you having a good time?"

Big mistake. After cruising by the media pen -- a sectioned-off area apparently designed for corralling journalists -- a sharp-eyed volunteer spotted my media badge. "You're not supposed to go out there without an escort," she said.

I replied that I had been doing just fine without one, and walked over to a quiet corner of the hall to phone in some anecdotes to The Post's Style desk.

As I was dictating from my notes, something flashed across my face and neatly snatched my cell phone from of my hand. I looked up to confront a middle-aged woman, her face afire with rage. "You ignored the rules, and I'm throwing you out!" she barked, snapping my phone shut. "You told that girl you didn't need an escort. That's a lie! You're out of here!"

With the First Amendment on the line, my natural wit did not fail me. "Huh?" I answered.

Recovering quickly, I explained that I had been unaware of the escort policy. She was unbending and ordered a couple of security guards to hustle me out. I appealed to them, saying that I was more than happy to follow whatever ground rules had been laid down. They shrugged, and deposited me back in the media pen.

There I was assigned a pair of attractive young women, who, for the next hour or so, took turns following close at my heels. I thought about trying to ditch them in the increasingly crowded hall, just for the sport of it, but realized it was pointless. They never interfered with my work. I found I was able to go wherever I wanted, and to talk to whomever I desired. The minders just hovered nearby, saying nothing. They were polite but disciplined, refusing even to disclose their full names or details about themselves. (My Style colleague, Peter Carlson, inquired of his minder, "How did you get to be an escort? Do you work for an escort service?")

Their civility didn't ease my suspicions. At one point, one of my escorts -- Amy -- told me we needed to return to the media pen. Aha, I thought, I must have seen something or talked to someone I shouldn't have. In fact, Amy apologized and explained that she just needed to find a relief minder because her feet were sore from all the walking around.

By about 10:15 p.m., long after President Bush and Vice President Cheney had made their perfunctory appearances, a supervisor waved off the escorts and told them to go home.

Free at last! Feeling like a citizen of some newly liberated country, I immediately walked across the room to confront my cell phone snatcher. I told her what I thought of her media management skills -- at which point she ordered me thrown out again. I talked my way out of that, too.

I know: It's hard to work up a lot of sympathy for reporters trying to cover a party. I don't feel particularly sorry for me, either. But this isn't really about me. It's about . . . you.

Consider that the escorts weren't there to provide security; all of us had already been through two checkpoints and one metal detector. They weren't there to keep me away from, Heaven forbid, a Democrat or a protester; those folks were kept safely behind rings of fences and concrete barriers. Nor were the escorts there to admonish me for asking a rude question of the partying faithful, or to protect the paying customers from the prying media.

Their real purpose only occurred to me after I had gone home for the night, when I remembered a brief conversation with a woman I was interviewing. During the middle of our otherwise innocuous encounter, she suddenly noticed the presence of my minder. She stopped for a moment, glanced past me, then resumed talking.

No, the minders weren't there to monitor me. They were there to let the guests, my sources on inaugural night, know that any complaint, any unguarded statement, any off-the-reservation political observation, might be noted. But maybe someday they'll be monitoring something more important than an inaugural ball, and the source could be you.

So I have a suggestion: If I must have an escort, let me choose my own. My wife would be delighted to help her country.

Author's e-mail: farhip@washpost.com

Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Post's Style section.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company