In the 10 years he has represented the First District of Wisconsin in the House, Les Aspin has had unusual success in getting coverage by the country's leading newspapers. In an effort to discover the secret of his success, Washington Journalism Review managing editor Katherine Winton Evans interviewed Aspin. This is exerpted from the Review's June issue :
Q: You've had remarkable success in getting stories in the press. How do you do it? What is your formula?
A: There are two kinds of stories -- the source story and the information story. A source story is news because of who said it. If Ronald Reagan says he's in favor of changing the way we index social security that's big news. If a congressman says it, that's not news, except maybe back home. At home, a congressman is a source story. At home, he doesn't have to be saying anything particularly new. He's laying out a position, establishing where he stands on a bunch of issues. But no congressman is a source story story in Washington. Even chairmen of powerful committees, except on a hot topic that happens to be in their committees, are not source stories.
Q: How does a congressman make news?
A: If a congressman were to go out on the steps of the Capitol and set himself on fire, he'd probably get on the evening news, but otherwise it's really hard. If a congressman does something really bizarre -- takes an absurd position or gets involved in ABSCAM -- he'll get his name in the paper, but that doesn't help him. If a congressman is going to get on the wires of in The New York Times or Washington Post, he's got to do something very different, put out something that wasn't there before -- either more information, or a different point of view. So you have to anticipate a little bit. You can't take what's in the headlines today and do a report on that because by the time the reporting is finished, the story will have moved on. You've got to be able to anticipate where the story's going two weeks ahead. Editors do it all the time. They say, "Where's this story going?" Then they assign somebody to go out and write it. A story is like a sailing ship -- it can only stay on one tack so long. You've just got to know when it's going to come about and anticipate where it's going to make the other tack and be there with your report or your speech.
You send these reports to the home papers but they don't understand what you're saying. Indeed, there are not more than half a dozen reporters who understand what you're saying. Hell, I don't know how many readers of The New York Times understand the stuff, but the Times and Washington Post write the stories for the aficionados -- of the defense business, for example. This operation is all aimed at them.
Q: And what does having the aficionados appreciate you do for you?
A: You're trying to influence the debate on the subject. You're trying to anticipate where the story is going, but you're also trying to push the story in a certain way. Take the MX. You're trying to change the focus of the debate among the aficionados who are going to influence the size of the defense budget, the shape of the defense budget, the posture of the United States, etc.
Q: Describe what you do with a press release.
A: You've got to release it on slow news day -- Monday. The press release has to go out Thursday by 2 o'clock, with a Monday a.m. embargo. I remembered sitting with Hubert Humphrey on the floor of the Congress before a state of the Union message, and he said, "Say, I was just wondering how you get so much press. How do you get your staff to work on the weekends?" And I said, "What do you mean, work on the weekends?" "Well, you always get those stories to come out on Monday." I said, "No, no, no, you don't understand. The staff doesn't like to work on the weekends. Reporters sure don't like to work on the weekends. You've got to get the press release out on a Thursday afternoon, so the reporters get it Friday morning, and can write their Monday story and go away for the weekend. You've got to have an embargo time on the press release." Hubert Humphrey didn't understand that -- the a.m. release and the p.m. release and the embargo for the 6 o'clock news. If it's a really slow news day and you get two minutes on the evening news, it's all a plus. Of course, if World War III breaks out, you're not going to get it in the paper. But you play the percentages, and it works.
Q: What about press conferences?
A: I've never had a press confer.
A: I've never had a press conferece. I don't think press conferences work worth a damn. You can't control the way the story comes out. Somebody will ask a cockamamie question and that will be the story. If you're an "information story." it's hard to get it across in a press conference. A well lobbied study and press release are worth 20 press conferences. You write the release, call up the people who you want to be sure are writing. Before they've read it, you call them to tell them it's coming; after it comes, you call them again, and give a little more information than is in the press release. If you know a particular reporter has a certain interest in one suspect of it, you try to hold a little of that back. Give the reporters a little of the thing you know they are interested in -- a little twist for them put in down in about the third or fourth paragraph. Those are the techniques. But the main part is to be able to anticipate where the story is going.
Q: What is the relative political importance to a congressman of television coverage of newspaper coverage, wire services, magazines?
A: Well, TV is the best, I suppose, but it's also the hardest to get on. I think a good wire story is really first because it is possible to do. Second is a good story in something that matters . . . The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post. Not because that carries back home but because it establishes bona fides with the people who it's important to impress, the community that you're dealing with . . . the defense community, or the economics community.
Q: What about television? You obviously like to get on the evening news. Does that happen very often?
A: Occasionally, if we've got a really good story that's heavy in the Post and Times, and it's a slow news day, television news will flash your picture up and give you 30 seconds. But the stuff that I do is not television news. There are no visuals connected with it. It's very indepth news which is easily compressed. It doesn't move, and the problem is, in TV, if it moves, it's news and if it doesn't move, doesn't wiggle, there's nothing to see.
Q: Is your membership on the Armed Services Committee helpful in alerting you to relatively inside staff that makes news?
A: Sure. You're there you're attuned to where the debate is and when it's going. Witnesses are coming. You're reading the papers. You're reading the Pentagon clips. It's very easy to see where that story is going, what the insiders are saying. You get an idea from what somebody at a hearing said. You think that may be true, but you can't just say it because you are not a source story, so you go out and get the backup for that statement. If you know that a story's coming, you just keep going at it and going at it until they do print it. For example, I heard early that Litton Industries Pascagoula was making a mess of the shipbuilding, so we started sending our release. We'd sent them over to The Washington Post and The New York Times . . . to John Finny, who was them covering defense for The New York Times. We just kept sending and sending. Finally, the story started to break, and all of a sudden John Finney came over to the office with a fistful of old releases, saying, "What do you know about this stuff?" If you're there when they decide to do that story, then you're there with your stuff.
Q: Does anybody in the Pentagon do this kind of selected placing of stories, say on the MX? Is anybody over there doing the same thing?
A: Oh, yeah. They're planting stories. The whole operation there is a very different thing. They don't want their names on the stories. They're playing bureaucratic ball games. They're not really trying to influence the public. They're trying to influence the decision-makers.
Q: Do you find other members of Congress are jealous of your success in getting stories in the press?
A: I think it's got a negative connotation to it. That's why you can't do it a lot. Probably even the amount I do overdoes it. If you play an insider's legislative game, your name never appears in the paper, but that's kind of a dull existence.
Q: Does the perception of you as a politician with a national press, and a national reputation, hurt you at home?
A: No. I think it helps a little, but you've got to do a lot of other stuff to get reelected. . . Frankly, not very many people in the district read The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Q: What have you been able to accomplish in Congress with your good press techniques that you might not have without it?
A: Influence the debate. Even if you're a subcommittee chairman or a full committee chairman, at the end of the process the question is, what difference have you made? That question is not easy to answer. That's why a lot of congressmen get involved in projects back home. Because at the end, there is a building that has gone up. Had you not been there, that building would never have gone up. The basic problem in this town always is, what difference did you make? The answer is you make a difference in inverse proportion to the size of the issue. A very small program, you can get on top of and ride -- make it do this or that. If you want to get involved in the big issues, your impact is very hard to measure.
Q: What press release of yours got the most attention?
A: We've done serious studies like the ones about military retirement pay, for example, or comparisons of the projected shipbuilding budgets with the number of ships that actually got built. But the ones that got the most attention were the funny ones. The classic was the one we did that riled up all beagle owners. The Army was conducting poison gas tests on beagle puppies. We were made at Eddie Hebert at the time, so we thought the way to really do him in was to send out a press release saying that Hebert [then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee] was the guy in Congress who could stop the gassing of beagle puppies. Gee, I went down there in Hebert's office and they were wig deep in bags of mail . . . I mean, just sacks of mail. Boy, there're some dog lovers out there. We finally changed the law, got an amendment on the floor. Even Hubert Humphrey got into the middle of it.
Q: Could anybody have found out that the army was using beagles to test poison gas?
A: Yes. That was no big deal. Somebody on my staff came across it in a report. Then there was the story about the Phalanx missile that was supposed to be an automatic anti-ship missile. The Phalanx was supposed to lock on and fire automatically. They were out testing it -- not an actual firing, but a simulated firing -- and the Phalanx locked onto and sank the USS Hollister and Santa Barbara Island. It was great! The GAO report dryly said, "Considering that the Phalanx is to be used as part of a multi-ship fleet defense, the implications of the test are really quite serious." We really had fun with that. . . . We said in our press release, "With missiles like these who needs enemies?" We got great press.
Q: Do you think there's something special about Wisconsin that produces politicians who are good at getting press attention?
A: I don't know. I used to work for Bill Proxmire and I guess that's where it all started.
Q: Do you ever leak a story without your name attached to it?
A: No. There's no benefit in that. Who needs that?