Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) accused the Washington press corps yesterday of "cheap shot" journalism that focuses more on attacking congressmen for free parking privileges and legislative recesses than one major national problems like "the quality of our air and water, education and health programs."
Obey, in an address to the Western Wisconsin Press Association at Eau Claire, said many reporters - like politicians - are "susceptible to the same temptation, the temptation to overdramatize, to overreach for stories and headlines and, I am sorry to say, pander to popular prejudices."
While attacking congressmen for prequisities and privileges of office, the press seldom mentions, Obey said, all its own free benefits from the government, which amount to "way over $1 million a year."
These include, he said:
Space and equipment in the House and Senate press galleries, including the services of 24 employees to distribute mail, answer phones, make press releases available, keep equipment working plus special door-keepers and messengers, all at a total cost of $592,517 in 1977.
181 free reserved parking places on the Capitol grounds worth roughly $130,000 to the press, based on fees for comparable commerical space.
About 180 free telephones costing the government $23,000 a year.
Semi-private elevators, exclusive press dining rooms, free stationery, and access to the same office supplies, meals and barbers and many other facilities available to congressmen.
Obey said he doesn't mind serious stories about congressional waste, but he does object to the "misplaced sanctimony" of a TV reporter, for example, "who does a three-minute network clip on congressional 'perks' such as free parking without ever getting around to telling his viewers that he himself has a free space on that same Capitol Hill."
Obey criticized the national reporter who produced a drum-beat of stories about the necessity of tough financial disclosure measures for members of Congress but recoiled in shock at the suggestion that financial disclosure for those who write the news is just as important as it is for those who make the news. Doesn't the public have a right to know if a science writer has large holdings in drug company stocks?"
Obey said reporters increasingly tend to emphasize superficial personality stories and trivial revelations of a "titillating nature" at the expense of serious issues.
The Wisconsin Democrat said, "Working reporters have told me that it is far easier to convince their editors back home to make room for stories about the personal live of members of Congress than stories about the misdirection of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the waste of research dollars at the National Cancer Institute, or the immense social consequences of the hundreds of policy decisions found in an appropriations bill for the Health, Education and Welfare Department."
He continued, "One reporter came up to me after filing one of his cheap-shot stories and said to me, 'I know it's crap, but it'll get printed.'"
Obey said that while "cheap-shot artists in the press are in a distinct minority," there is much too great a tendency to distort, to stretch and to emphasize the unimportant.
For example, he said the House is "mismanaged," with many officials having overlapping functions, the computer systems lacking ayone in overall charge, poor coordination of administrative services, an inadequate sick-leave system for employees and an irrational employee pay ststem.
"But are these the stories that get reported?"
"No, What usually gets reported are outdated stories about cut-rate meals" when in fact the House restaurants make money: "free haircuts" although there has been a charge for years; and accusations of a "billion dollar Congress," when in fact many millions of dollars of its budget go to the government-wide printing office, the Botanical Gardens, the U.S. Tax Court and the Government Accounting Office, the watchdog accounting agency.