House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) was none too pleased the other day when his hometown paper, the Peoria Journal-Star, ran a front-page story on how his chauffeur-driven limousine receives low-cost gas from a pump in a vacant lot near Capitol Hill.
Michel was so upset, in fact, that he banned the offending reporter from his office, and his press secretary, Missi Tessier, announced she would no longer respond to his queries.
The piece was penned by Edward T. Hearn, a reporter for States News Service, which provides Washington coverage for small and medium-sized papers around the country. Hearn was following up a Washington Times report about the pump that provides dollar-a-gallon gas to members of the Democratic and Republican leadership, who are later reimbursed by the government.
Hearn played up the local angle, noting that Michel has "a comfortable stretch auto and a personal driver named Willie Fobbs, who can visit the E Street gas pump any day of the week and fill the limo at taxpayer expense."
Tessier says the story was "of very dubious news value" and unfairly "insinuated" that Michel had done something wrong.
"The story said that members of the leadership used official cars filled with official gas for official business," Tessier said. "To which I would respond, so what?"
Leland Schwartz, editor of States News, says Michel's office is overreacting. "When they calm down and think about our coverage of them for more than a decade, they might decide to talk to us again," he says. "If they don't, we're still going to cover the congressman. We're not going to vaporize because of this.
"This is not uncommon on the Hill. You blow up their Thursday afternoon and they get angry and this is their way of striking back."
The gas story did not play too well in Peoria. The Journal-Star editorialized that such benefits insulate lawmakers from the daily travails of their constituents, then ran a follow-up story on Michel's banning of Hearn. "It was a stupid thing to do," says editor Thomas F. Driscoll. "I think all stories about congressional perks are news, and this one in particular, because of the gas situation, is of high reader interest."
Tessier says there are no plans to physically bar Hearn from Michel's news conferences. "The Capitol is a public place and my boss is a public figure," she says, "and if the guy's going to show up, he's going to show up." Shaggy Dog Story If man bites dog is news, the Trentonian has escalated the genre to a whole new level of controversy.
The strange flap began in August when the New Jersey tabloid published a story about a 75-year-old man arrested for allegedly having sex with a Doberman pinscher. This prompted a local public relations man, John V. Spinale, to question the story's propriety in a letter to publisher H.L. Schwartz III.
Schwartz wrote back that he too was "shocked" at the story, adding:
"I have very little to do with the editorial content of the newspaper, which I consider to be totally out of control.
"Gale Baldwin, the editor, is the person responsible and I suggest you try to arrange a meeting with him. (Good luck. I'd like to meet with him myself occasionally, but he's never here except when decisions need to be made about sensitive stories and then he shows up just in time to make the wrong decision.)"
Spinale received another letter from Baldwin, blaming the publisher: "The only time we see him is when he comes in to order pictures of scantily clad women into the paper, or the irresponsible headlines you see on page one."
Schwartz says the dog story created a storm -- radio jock Howard Stern "got hold of it and went bananas" -- and that he and Baldwin decided to have a little fun at Spinale's expense.
"I was going to write him a nice letter and I got carried away. ... I thought it was funny as hell," Schwartz says. Baldwin says he found Spinale "pompous" for "telling us how to produce our newspaper."
Spinale, alas, was not amused. He calls his treatment "very shabby" and "an inspiration to all the it-ain't-my-job people in America."
"I don't think it was a joke. They just ducked it. They'll write anything to sell papers." Spinale says he later got Schwartz on the phone and was told, "Look, if you don't like it, don't buy the paper."
The publisher describes the incident as a one-time indulgence. "I'm not in the habit of jerking readers around gratuitously," he says. Media Morsels Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt (R) has added a new twist to the campaign practice of airing misleading snippets of a newspaper headline about an opponent. Hunt's campaign concocted a fake headline for its latest commercial against Democrat Paul Hubbert, former head of the state teachers' union.
In the ad, a newspaper story is briefly superimposed over Hubbert's face, with the headline: "Hubbert Kills Hunt's Education Reform Package." But no such headline was ever published; it was electronically pasted above a story whose fine print is about the Postal Service.
Hunt spokesman Terry Abbott says the headline was "a dramatization" of Hubbert's stance and is not misleading "because it doesn't state in the ad that it was an actual headline." In fact, Abbott says, Hubbert used the same technique in the Democratic primary campaign.
But Hubbert aide Michael Tucker says the earlier ad featured a blow-up of a newspaper subhead that was actually published, whereas the Hunt camp "manufactured a fake headline to prove a false point" ...
One sign of the financial woes at Dow Jones & Co. is yesterday's announcement that the Wall Street Journal is boosting its newsstand price from 50 to 75 cents. A less publicized harbinger is the recent directive that reporters spend no more than $200 a month taking sources to lunch. Those who generally eat a sandwich at their desks are joking about selling their "lunch rights" to hungrier colleagues ...
Weary reporters in the Senate press gallery decided last week to tune out the marathon speechmaking about restrictions on the National Endowment for the Arts and tune in "Murphy Brown" instead. They found an unsavory conservative commentator debating Candice Bergen. "If some guy wants to dance naked with a pig on the steps of the Capitol and call that art, don't expect the taxpayers to pay for it!" he declared in an attack on the NEA. A groan went up from the assembled throng.