BOB GARFIELD: Tension in the Washington press corps is not confined to the relationship between the media and the government. It's also internecine, as a century of technology has altered the definition of who exactly is a journalist in the first place. In his new book, Reporting from Washington, US Senate historian Donald Ritchie documents the sometimes awkward evolution of the capital's press coverage, an evolution complicated by the profession's ability via the credentialing process to cling to the status quo.
DONALD RITCHIE: Washington is very unlike most other capitals around the world. In other countries, the government decides who is a journalist and who gets a press pass. Here, in Washington, it's the reporters who judge who is legitimate reporter and who should be credentialed, and this goes all the way back to 1880, at a time when lobbyists were infiltrating the press gallery, posing as journalists, trying to get information ahead of the news in a sense, because they knew it was valuable, and when some journalists were moonlighting as lobbyists. The journalists felt that this was the politicians' fault - they were letting everybody into the press gallery. So around 1880, the leaders of the Washington press corps went to the speaker of the house and the chairman of the senate rules committee and said "We will take over running the Senate press galleries and the House press galleries, and accrediting the proper reporters into the galleries," and they established rules of, you know, what it takes to become a reporter, and they published them in the congressional directory, and then they scrutinized each of the credentials that came up. They elect a Standing Committee of Correspondents.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the advantage of this is that the press can keep government agents and lobbyists out of the press galleries essentially posing as journalists when they have other agendas to pursue, but the disadvantage is that it can become a kind of de facto guild while reporters get to, to limit the pool of who gets to call themselves a reporter.
DONALD RITCHIE: Well, very naturally, a reporter will define a reporter as someone doing the job that he is doing. So a daily newspaper reporter would decide that, to be a legitimate reporter, you have to report for a daily newspaper. And that eliminated all of the black reporters, initially, because they worked for weekly papers. And that mainstream daily newspapers were not hiring black reporters at that stage. But they also required that you had to file your reports by telegraph. That eliminated all the women, in the 19th Century, because they were writing society news for the most part, and they were sending theirs by mail. It went from 20 women reporters in 1880 in the press galleries to zero women reporters after that, and it's really not until the Second World War that enough men leave to go fight the war or cover the war that jobs finally opened up for women in the press galleries.
BOB GARFIELD: Membership to this elite corps was not only based on race and sex; also by medium. It took a while for radio reporters to become part of the club. Tell me about that.
DONALD RITCHIE: Well, the first radio reporters showed up on Capitol Hill in the 1920s, but they couldn't get into the press galleries unless they also reported for a daily newspaper - therefore met the criteria that the reporters had set. That was fine initially, because the first radio reporters were newspaper reporters, so they were just sort of doing it on the side. But, once you got into the 1930s, and you had reporters who were just reporting for the radio, well, they couldn't get into the press gallery. So, in 1939, a correspondent in Washington named Fulton Lewis, Jr., went to the Congress and said "If the press gallery won't let us in, you have to create a separate radio gallery." And since, of course, the politicians want to be covered, they said "Fine," and they created a radio gallery. And that was the beginning of a trend in which we have separate types of galleries, depending on the technology for which reporters work, and nowadays, we have a whole new form of media that's developing, and it's encountering the same kind of resistance.
BOB GARFIELD: No blogger gallery, eh?
DONALD RITCHIE: Right. Not yet. But I wouldn't be surprised if someday there wasn't an electronic gallery that would somehow admit or decide who actually among the bloggers is a journalist. The concern, of course, is that every 14 year old with a modem and a web page could put in for press credentials, and the press galleries feel that they'd be overwhelmed, and the question is, you know, who is - who is actually a journalist, who is really a lobbyist, who is involved in a special interest group as opposed to actually trying to objectively cover the news? And they have not yet figured that out. They're doing it on a case by case basis. There have been some lawsuits to try and get the galleries opened up. But the, certainly the recent incidents at the White House is a very good example as to why they need to scrutinize these applications very carefully.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk about that Jeff Gannon episode for just a moment. And he was a reporter for a right-wing online news website called Talon News, but it came out that he was more or less a mole for the Bush administration, although there's no direct connection that's been established so far. Does history offer us any other examples of moles operating from within?
DONALD RITCHIE: Every presidential administration in modern times has accommodated people that they felt would be sympathetic in the press corps, because those are the people who will ask the easy questions at the press conferences, and those are the people, of course, who are reaching a constituency that the administration hopes to get.
You can go back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt when he found day passes for Walter Winchell, who was sort of the Matt Drudge of his era. He was a gossip columnist from New York who used to say he turned mud into gold. He was probably the most popular columnist of the 1930s. More people read his column than read, for instance, Walter Lippman, and his radio show was extremely popular, but he really wasn't a journalist in the traditional sense, and he couldn't meet the criteria to get a press pass, according to the Standing Committee of Correspondents.
But the White House always found a reason for him to get into President Roosevelt's press conferences, because in those days, he was very sympathetic to the Roosevelt administration.
Other administrations haven't necessarily brought in people from the outside, but they have known that there have been people in the press corps who are more sympathetic than others, so beleaguered press secretaries look around for those people to call on and at the right particular time.
President Kennedy used to call on May Craig, who was a woman correspondent, a very short woman who wore very flowery hats to attract the questions. She would get called on because the president knew she would ask eccentric questions of him, and then he could get a sort of a wry answer back that would get a laugh and that would diffuse some of the tension from some of the more serious questions that were coming in.
So presidents and press secretaries are definitely looking for allies out there in the press. Most reporters, of course, don't want to be identified as an ally. They want to be seen as an independent. But there are some who clearly see themselves on a mission to, to promote whichever administration happens to be in office at the time.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Donald, thank you very much.
DONALD RITCHIE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Senate historian Donald Ritchie's new book is Reporting from Washington: A History of the Washington Press Corps. It's available from the Oxford University Press. [MUSIC]