Q: HOW DO PEOPLE in Baton Rouge view Washington?
A: The people of Louisiana are extremely politically knowledgeable. They consider politics one of the great sports of the state. Food, sex and politics -- not necessarili in that order -- maybe all at the same time.
Q: Do you think that's because of Huey and Russell Long?
A: To a certain extent, yes. The people see politics as part of everyday life and see the people involved in it as human beings. They don't approach it with a civics-book outlook. Nor do they approach it from the simplistic attitude of it's all good or it's all bad -- they're all crooks; they're all not crooks. Although they seem to tolerate a rather great number of crooks in Louisiana.
Q: I was thinking about the bizarre stories that I did when I was a correspondent -- like one about a congressman who was thrown out of office because he had a heart-shaped waterbed here in Washington. Is Oklahoma the only state that gets weird politicians?
A: You know, the thing that's strange about Louisiana politics is that the people who get involved in some of these bizarre escapades are so colorful and open and direct that a lot of times they're so outrageous, they're charming. And they get away with it back home. I mean, John Breaux goes on these amazing junkets and puts out a press release every time he goes. It's very difficult to do an expose of a congressman's junketing when he's issuing a press release about it. The famous Breaux quote was "I can't be bought," he said, "but I can be rented." They say these things, and south Louisiana not only likes it, they eat it up. When that same quote showed up in The Washington Post, it may have been a less comfortable situation for him.
Q: You told me once that you felt like you were writing into a vacuum. Why?
A: I view myself as writing for a readership in Louisiana that I sometimes worry I don't know well enough. I don't get that reader feedback immediately. I get a letter every now and then, but you don't write some story that hits the street and the next day at lunch somebody talks to you about it. I miss that sense of immediacy and that sense of direct communication with the readership that I'm really writing for.
Q: Have you ever lived in Louisiana?
Q: How do you have any idea, then, what the people in Baton Rouge are thinking or want to know?
A: Well, the paper brings you down there. You also just spend a good bit of time learning something about the economics of the area. It becomes obvious what you cover. Oil and gas. Port activities. Coastal issues. Fisheries. The chief agricultural products -- rice and sugar and, to a lesser extent, cotton, soybeans and dairy. You learn them one by one. You are learning at the same time as the reader. You're doing your term paper that day for the newspaper.
Q: How do you find out what your readers want?
A: All southerners like to think that we have an intuitive sense of what other southerners think. That is probably not true.
Q: Obviously you were hired because of your Washington expertise. A: I had a southern background which I think they thought helped. I can't speak Cajun, still, but -- .
Q: How do you keep from being viewed as a member of the eastern establishment press?
A: I assume that most readers of the paper consider me a local reporter in Washington -- which is basically what I try to be. Whether that comes across to the readership or not I don't know. We did have one letter to the editor one time. I'd done a column about the cost of Washington newsletters. I made the point that this is stuff going out that the taxpayers are paying for. It was certainly the congressman's unchallenged view what his importance to legislation up here was. We got back one letter to the editor who said that I had Potomac fever and that he would just as soon get his news straight from his congressman than having it filtered through an editorial voice. So there are apparently some people who consider me the Washington eastern establishment. With this accent how could anybody consider me the eastern press?
Q: There is a view that people who live in Washington have this strange picture of the world. That we think it revolves around Washington.
A: We do.
Q: How do you cope with that?
A: Unless you are with a paper that brings you home a couple of times a year or encourages you to travel a lot or you have a good dialogue back and forth between your editors, you have the same problem as politicians who stay here in town too much and don't get back home and get increasingly out of touch. That can happen with regional reporters perhaps even quicker than it happens to the politicians they cover because those guys have to go back home. Their livelihood demands it.
Q: How many times do you go back?
A: They bring me down there at least twice a year for a week at a time. They do what I think is terrific. They do not bring me down there to write a lot of stuff. It's a week where I spend my time chatting with editors or other reporters, so that I get it straight again which face goes with what voice. They also encourage me just to float around and talk to local government leaders, talk to people in the community.
I just got back and the kinds of things I did while I was down there was they set up a lunch for me with the governor and his press person and one of our legislative correspondents.
Q: Do you think reporters from The Post, New York Times and other large papers are snobby?
A: No, they're individuals. We call them the homers, and we are the hick press. There are some elitists in those operations and in broadcasting, but most are helpful.
Q: Do you run into a bias from your peers and the people that you cover that somehow you're not as good as someone who works for a large paper?
A: I think the bias you run into is when Joan McKinney from the Baton Rouge paper calls an unknown person somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy and wants to get them on the phone -- a lot of times they might come to the phone quicker if I lied and said I was from The Post.
But regional reporting can be a comfortable job in Washington with not nearly as many of the pressures as what seem to be the professional and emotional toll that I see on major papers -- not so much of the creative tension I've heard some major papers have.
Q: Right. Is pay a problem?
A: Pay is a problem. When I first started, I had a full-time job with one outfit and the pay was not enough so I had to get a second paper as a backup; a great many regional reporters do that. Or try to do it. It just drains you. I felt that my work suffered. When I was working for one paper I wondered what I was missing for the other. And I felt like I was hitting the surface of everything. I now have a company that pays me enough.
Q: Let's talk about the press gallery. The gallery is kind of a home for people who work out of it, isn't it?
A: Yes. There's also a lot of ethical questions raised about it -- the question of private business use of taxpayers' facilities.
Q: The private elevator marked for press.
A: It also is somewhat cantankerous.
Q: The Senate dining room where you don't have to wait for a seat.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q: Free paper and envelopes and an answering service. But aren't those vital to a small newspaper?
A: I have worked for one newspaper that I felt, if they closed down the gallery operation, or they began charging true market value for occupation of that space, it might become so expensive that particular paper -- which didn't intend to spend a lot of money on news anyway -- would close their Washington operation down. The paper I work for presently, I do not think that is true.
Q: Do you think there's a caste system in the press gallery? Remember Doonesbury ran a cartoon once about the White House. You always looked to see the badge to see where the reporter was from before you decided whether to say hello or not. Do you run into that from Baton Rouge? Is it separated by small paper, medium paper, big paper?
A: I find the press gallery, after you've been in a while, operating like one big city room. People come by regardless of organization if they begin to identify you with a certain region of the country. They know, a lot of times, who you work for before they know your name. They begin throwing out bits of information. "Hey, I heard a guy saying something on the floor . . . ." I find that that happens among regionals and from heavyweight folks. I don't think there's a real caste system operation up there. There's some big-paper, small-paper frictions that come up every time we go around to electing a standing committee that runs the place.
Q: From your experience, how are journalists at running a bureaucracy?
A: Pretty rotten. Reporters are all deadline creatures. We were the people that didn't do our term papers until the night before in college. For the same reason we're all pretty lousy running a bureaucracy like the press gallery. Which is why they have a professional staff.
There's a standing committee rule which is greatly misunderstood that says you cannot hold a gallery card if you are engaged in paid promotion, lobbying and advertising. This is a question that involves whether the standing committee should even exist. Congress wrote the rules to keep out lobbyists, a very admiral goal. Congress did not want to get itself, I assume, in politically embarrassing First Amendment problems of deciding who was a reporter and who was a lobbyist. So Congress created a committee of reporters to make that decision.
It sounds fine, but as a legal matter this committee of reporters is an arm of the Congress and there is some question about the ethics or the propriety and the arms length relationship there. You're elected by reporters but you are an arm of the Congress. You are doing Congress' work as a legal matter.
Q: There was a problem with the reporter who posed as a congressman?
A: Right. And the Standing Committee decided that that clearly doesn't involve anything that has to do with paid promotion or lobbying. That involved a question between the reporter and his publisher in terms of how he goes about gathering the news. Or the reporter and Congress. The Standing Committee took a hands off on that.
Reporters basically consider themselves very ethical people. They are very sensitive to criticism of their profession. They are very, very sensitive when they think another reporter's conduct has somehow cast a shadow over the performance of everybody else. There are some people who would dot every "i" and cross every "t" about an ethics code. I took the view that it's pretty dangerous for reporters to be writing ethics codes. That, to me, may get to the point where it's collusionary. I certainly wouldn't have a committee that in effect is a legal arm of the Congress writing that code of ethics.
Q: But congressmen have to go through that process.
A: That's right.
Q: So we have a double standard. It brings up do we operate under a different standard than the people we cover?
A: Yes. We aren't the people we cover. We are a business that has entirely different operating standards and business standards than the Congress which is not a business and has entirely different operating standards.
Q: There have been stories about (a Wisconsin reporter) refusing to wear ties.
A: Yes. We don't have a dress code for men any more. It went out with energy conservation. That was always policy when I was chairbroad, as they called me.
A: It's a pretty feisty little bunch in that press gallery.
Q: Tell me about the toilets.
A: The toilets, sir, (laughing) are one of the vestiges, those hangovers of sexism at the congressional press gallery. The men had six johns and we had one, and there was an awfully long line in that place, like the Cap Center. I think that Don Womack, the previous superintendent (of the Senate press gallery), realized the women were serious about the problem when I suggested we could convert the men's room into a unisex facility by simply putting up full length doors on the stalls. He decided it was time to expand our facilities.
Q: Isn't there a plaque in there?
A: They got a door plaque they were gonna put up in the women's room to call it the McKinney Memorial John. Which I promptly ripped off and took home. CAPTION: Picture, Joan McKinney, 35, has been the Washington correspondent for the Baton Rouge, (La.) Morning Advocate and State Times since 1979. Before that she worked simultaneously as a Washington correspondent for the Charleston (S.C.) News & Courier and the Shreveport (La.) Journal. She initially (CHECK?) came to Washington from her native Greenville, S.C., in 1971 to work as assistant press secretary for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, (D-S.C.).
Like many Washington correspondents for newspapers that do not maintain an office here, McKinney operates out of the Senate Press Gallery, a small chamber adjoining the Senate where reporters have access to desks, typewriters and telephones. In 1978, McKinney was chairman of the standing committee of correspondents, the elected body of reporters responsible for the press gallery. By James K.W. Atherton -- The Washington Post