Jewish World ReviewOct. 7, 1999 /27 Tishrei, 5760
needs more skunks
Aaah, this is the life. Come to the Capitol, ingratiate yourself with reliable government sources, pound out spoon-fed stories, sidle up to the President a few times a year at lavish schmoozefests, and take home free doggie bags full of planted puff pieces to last a lifetime. These dreams can come true for the nation's aspiring media scribes if they follow one simple rule: Never, ever, ask "rude" questions when people in power are serving your meal.
Paul Sperry, Washington bureau chief of Investor's Business Daily, bravely broke the rule last week at an invitation-only White House picnic/jazz concert with reporters, their families, and President Clinton. While shaking hands, Sperry had the audacity to ask when Clinton's next formal press conference would be. Sperry also pointed out that the public still had questions about the Chinagate campaign fund-raising scandal and noted that FBI agents had just testified before Congress about Justice Department stonewalling in the probe of shady Clinton donor Charlie Trie.
Clinton went postal. Photos of the exchange between Sperry and Clinton show that the president's face turned redder than barbecued Cajun shrimp. He railed for ten minutes, jabbed a menacing finger at Sperry, cast aspersions on the FBI and Republican Party, and called the reporter's questions "accusatory." Clinton fumed that "not one person" had brought up the campaign finance debacle in his trips around the country.
Clearly, the president spends too much time insulated by the traveling Beltway press. Sperry's Los Angeles-based newspaper received more than 800 calls and e-mails from supportive readers coast to coast. Sperry was nervous, he said, but persisted despite getting taunted and sprayed with presidential spittle.
Clinton's froth-mouthed tirade on the South Lawn received print coverage outside the Beltway, led by a detailed eyewitness account from reporter James Grimaldi of the Seattle Times, who called it an "extraordinary exchange." Criticism came from the Seattle Times, Investor's Business Daily, Wall Street Journal. Muckraker Matt Drudge, Fox News Channel, and the Washington Times, also followed up with reporting.
Yet, here in this town full of media ethics experts and dime-a-dozen worrywarts, no one asked whether it's appropriate for White House journalists to bring their families to dance and dine with the President on the Democratic National Committee's dime. That's right. Barry Toiv, deputy White House press secretary, informed me on Monday that the celebration was a DNC-subsidized event. The White House helped the DNC compile the media invitation list, according to Toiv.
The DNC, however, denied footing the bill. As of this writing, both offices were still "double-checking" - with each other, no doubt - on the funding source of the lavish shindig.
The only heat that came from inside the Beltway was directed at Sperry, not the sputtering president or the greasy-fingered journalists. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart blacklisted Sperry from any future social events and reportedly called the inquisitive journalist a "Class A Sh-thead." Think-tank quotemeisters Norm Ornstein and Stephen Hess both suggested that it was rude for Sperry to ruin the ambience.
"It's out of line when someone doesn't know how to act at a party," huffed Lockhart. The sycophants and stenographers took their cue. Bob Franken, CNN congressional correspondent, chided Sperry for violating establishment etiquette: "Part of the way we do business -- in fact, have lives here in Washington -- is to socialize to some degree, and in this particular case, frankly, I think that the reporter made a mistake." John S. Day, a Bangor Daily News columnist based in D.C., decried Sperry's "bad manners."
Susan Page, White House correspondent for USA Today and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, told me: "Speaking for myself, and not for the organization, I think reporters have the right to ask questions of the president anytime they want. Of course, the president also has the right to ask whomever he wishes to the social events he hosts."
This isn't about rights. It's about the responsibilities of a supposedly independent press. This isn't about social etiquette. It's about the ethical propriety of journalists accepting free dinners and entertainment from the people they cover. Toiv, the deputy White House press secretary, was unaware of any journalist who offered to reimburse the sponsors of the soiree - or bothered to ask who they were.
These elite members of the Beltway press corps investigate myriad conflicts of interest from Newt Gingrich's book deal to the Clintons home-loan arrangements. They champion disclosure and accountability, but treat their own truth-seeking colleagues like skunks at a picnic.
A free press needs journalists who are willing to raise a stink and ruin
appetites. That's hard to do with mouths stuffed, belts loosened, and
senses dulled by the intoxicating fumes of
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