By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006
They traffic in whispered gossip, charming the big shots, working the party circuit. They gravitate toward boldface names who make good copy. They reward sources who cooperate and can be rougher on those who don't play the game.
Seedy scribes for the New York Post's Page Six?
Couldn't the same description fit Washington's elite journalists?
No one is suggesting that a Beltway reporter would ask a source for $220,000 to keep bad stories out of the paper, as the Post's suspended gossip writer, Jared Paul Stern, was caught doing on videotape in conversations with Beverly Hills billionaire Ron Burkle. Not only that, while Stern was seeking money for his own punk-preppy clothing line, many Washington reporters are decidedly wardrobe-challenged.
But despite its loftier reputation, the Washington press corps hasn't exactly been drawing rave reviews in recent years. Its members stand accused of the following:
· Acting as a conduit for bad information from high-level sources, such as in Judith Miller's stories on Iraq's WMDs, which, as it turned out, were nonexistent.
· Getting too cozy with administration sources and retailing their version of history, a charge sometimes leveled at Bob Woodward.
· Pulling their punches with the White House because of concerns about losing access.
· Meeting secretly with the president while taking a vow of silence about the off-the-record chats.
Now, some of these complaints are overdone -- there's not much access to lose at the White House, where even favored reporters don't get many leaks (unless President Bush is secretly doing the declassifying) -- but, well, gosh, perhaps there's a grain of truth here.
As Burkle wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "This source game is not only played on Page Six. It is also played for high stakes on Wall Street and in Washington."
Don't most journalists try to seduce sources into sharing secrets, with an implied bargain of fair-to- really fair treatment? Don't most journalists tell reluctant sources that it would be a shame if they refused to cooperate and their side wasn't told? Haven't a few Washington journalists favorably profiled an official who might be useful on their beat?
In short, is it really all that vast a distance from the TriBeCa nightspots prowled by Page Six writers to the Georgetown cocktail parties and Gridiron dinners where Washington reporters might sniff out news?
"When you think about it," writes blogger Jeff Jarvis, "how much really separates celebrity gossip from Washington coverage? Rumors, blind items, schmoozing, tips, paybacks, grudges, parties, lunches, leaks, hidden agendas, corruption, sex. "
Of course, Washington journalism is way above gushing over Angelina Jolie (unless she happens to be talking about her U.N. work) or Geena Davis (unless she's portraying a female president) or George Clooney (unless he's producing a show on K Street lobbyists).
And D.C. reporters would never stoop to the "blind items" that populate Page Six ("Which TV anchor was seen canoodling in SoHo with a woman not his wife . . . ?"). When they do it, it's "senior officials who declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters and because they enjoy taking potshots at the opposition without being named."
What distinguishes capital journalism is a much greater seriousness of purpose. Last week, Page Six wrote: "Word is that Star and the National Enquirer may be put on the block soon. Either way, editorial director Bonnie Fuller -- despite protestations -- may be out of a job anyway." (The next day, Page Six said that American Media has "full confidence" in Fuller and that "company reps also assured us that, contrary to our speculation yesterday, Star and the National Enquirer will not be put on the block.")
By contrast, the New York Times cites a GOP source in saying the new White House chief of staff "wants Mr. Bush to replace the Treasury secretary, John W. Snow," while The Washington Post says that "the most prominent name discussed for possible replacement is Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who has often been rumored to be on the way out." A much better class of rumor, no?
But there is little question that some New York gossip writers get better freebies. Stern told USA Today that he accepted a hotel junket to the Bahamas and often got free use of cars in exchange for favorable mentions. Page Six Editor Richard Johnson got a free trip to the Oscars and a fabulously expensive bachelor party at the Mexican estate of the producer of those "Girls Gone Wild" videos.
And Washington reporters? A free screening at the Motion Picture Association of America? Unlimited hors d'oeuvres at a Capitol reception? Watching Condi work out on the road?
The temptations are endless.Lone Ranger
After a quarter-century in the journalistic shadows, Murray Waas is getting his day in the sun.
The freelance investigative reporter has racked up a series of scoops. He's been cited by New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Paul Krugman. And New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls him the new Bob Woodward.
But Waas -- whose blog is called Whatever, Already -- doesn't toot his own horn much and only reluctantly granted an interview. "My theory is, avoid the limelight, do what's important and leave your mark. . . . If my journalism has had impact, it has been because I have spent more time in county courthouses than greenrooms," he says.
When journalists are seen as pursuing stories to get "television appearances or million-dollar book contracts, it becomes much more difficult for us to play our role."
Waas is currently attached to National Journal, but over the past decade he's written for the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, the Nation, the New Yorker, Salon and American Prospect. By staying independent, Waas says, he may benefit from the "lack of bureaucracy."
Ten days ago, Waas broke the story of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby saying President Bush had authorized him to leak classified information about Iraq in 2003. (Waas got a tip that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had revealed the information in a late-night court filing; the New York Sun beat him online by a few hours.) This, in fact, confirmed Waas's February scoop about Libby's account.
Waas also reported last month that presidential adviser Karl Rove had cautioned other White House aides in 2003 that Bush's reelection prospects would be damaged if the public learned he had been warned that a key rationale for the Iraq war had been challenged by other administration officials.
Last year, Waas disclosed that Libby had told prosecutors that in 2003 he met with Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter, and told her about CIA operative Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald cited the Waas account in a letter to Libby's lawyer that set in motion the waiver springing Miller from jail on contempt charges.
Once a teenage legman for columnist Jack Anderson, Waas is intense, speaks just above a whisper, and has a knack for prying information out of prosecutors, as he did during Kenneth Starr's probe of Bill Clinton. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1993, with Douglas Frantz of the Los Angeles Times, for reporting on clandestine U.S. efforts in Iraq. Says Frantz, now the paper's managing editor: "He's a dogged reporter with an amazing capacity to get sensitive documents."Inside Job
In his forthcoming book "Public Editor #1," a collection of his columns as the New York Times ombudsman, Daniel Okrent says that some of his best sources for apparently questionable journalism worked at the paper:
"Sub-editors would rat out desk heads, Washington bureau reporters whispered sourly about national editors and the hard news types threw roundhouse punches at articles featured on the cover of the Sunday magazine."