Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 24, 2014

“The New York Times is nicknamed Pravda in the State Department, so obviously you need to read it every day.”

Don Campbell’s guide to the craft that is reporting in Washington, DC.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorDon Campbell
Length233 pages
Book Rating6

Unlike the next book I’m going to review, Inside the Beltway is a nuts-and-bolts guide to committing journalism—print journalism—in Washington, DC. Don Campbell covers the various basic kinds of beltway reporting and follows each section with a list of resources.

The number one concern of the new beltway journalist is making contacts. Campbell describes DC as “a company town”, but it’s a company with constantly shifting lines of authority. It is very important to build contacts before the contacts are needed: once they’re needed, everybody wants to talk to them.

The reporters who get their phone calls returned in even-numbered years are the ones who phone you and have lunch with you in the odd-numbered years.

By the time the primaries and caucuses begin in February, much of the fun of covering a presidential campaign is over for print journalists. With the arrival of television crews, campaigns become a blur of photo opportunities and inane press conferences, a battle of TV ads and expectations, upon all of which the voters have the audacity to intrude briefly every week or so.

Campbell gives equal treatment to records searches and archival research as he does to making contacts and knowing people, but,

…Washington is a town of networks within networks within networks, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s crack investigator Edward Pound: “People are more important here because connections—who you know, whether you know the right lawyers in town, the right investigators—that’s more important in Washington than records.”

Washington is a town of egos, and most people’s egos exceed their grasp. This is true both of reporters and of candidates. “The best political reporters are people who like politicians,” but when reporters are assigned to a candidate, it naturally gives them a vested interest in that candidate. Not only do they tend to start to like the candidate, but the candidate’s success is their own success.

More and more politicians see presidential characteristics in themselves. A growing army of political consultants see fame and fortune in encouraging such self-deception in the politicians. A corporal’s guard of full-time political reporters, despairing at life without a weekly fix, stands ready to be romanced. Scores of other journalists gather on the fringes, convinced that the next campaign will be the one in which they will break into the big leagues. Would the candidates begin campaigning so early if the reporters weren’t out there waiting for them?

One of the most prominent and most constricting beats is the White House. With the executive power vested in one man, covering that beat means getting on at least a superficial friendship with that man.

The added attractions, of course, are the opportunities to be called by your first name by the president of the United States, to accumulate presidentially autographed photos to show your children and grandchildren, and—in recent years—to use the beat as a launch pad for getting on television talk shows, which in turn gives you a shot at making after-dinner speeches for big fees.

You feed them, and they feed you.

But when you’re covering the president, you’re subject to the restrictions of the job, which means that you can’t go anywhere without permission. No one gets to wander on their own when the President is nearby!

The first thing you have to learn to live with while covering the White House is the security system. Most of the time, you’ll be confined to the White House press room. (On the road, you’ll be confined to a roped-off area or a press bus.) You can’t go beyond the press office complex without an escort and an appointment. Bonafede refers to it as being “hermetically sealed” in such a way that the president could declare war a hundred feet from the press room and there’s no way you would know it unless the White House wanted you to know it.”

Contacts, as ever, are important:

“The White House is a monolith,” echoes Newsday’s Friedman. “Security confines you to the press office. For everything else, you need an appointment. And in order to get an appointment, you’ve got to get a telephone call returned. So you’ve got to cultivate the source or be persistent. You’re at the mercy of when the phone call will be returned.”

When you report on the abyss, the abyss reports on you. Or something like that. For example, on covering the Supreme Court, Campbell writes that:

After a few years on the beat, Court reporters seem to take on the demeanor of lawyers and judges. They impart a sense of propriety and sobriety that would be entirely out of place in the White House press room or on a presidential campaign plane.

One of the best ways to get the dirt on some person or some issue is to make contacts among the lobbyists circling that topic.

Along with reporters and political consultants, lobbyists have been a major growth industry in Washington since the mid-seventies.

Campbell doesn’t talk about whether this is good or bad, it just is, and part of the nuts and bolts of reporting in the beltway is to deal with it.

The biggest problem with this edition of the book is that some of the technology is out of date. Dial-up databases are just coming online in 1991, so he talks about resources such as DIALCOM. There is nothing in here about the Internet or the web—the web didn’t even begin to exist until two years later.

But it isn’t just the technology that’s out of date. Campbell maintains a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, but like any journalist he has his biases; even those are out of date. For example, he complains that moderate Republicans are nearly extinct. After Republicans passed comprehensive immigration reform! In a few years those extremist Republicans would even pass a major gun control act.

But while some of his technology and biases are showing their age, the ideas in this book—research, verify, and build research networks—are not out of date, though, unlike his moderate Republicans really do seem to be nearly extinct today.

And since Washington remains a growth industry, the need to report on it continues.

“There’s a saying in journalism that all good reporters are investigative reporters. True, but that doesn’t mean that all good reporters are good investigative reporters.

Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting

Don Campbell

Recommendation: Worth reading

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