Memories

 

 How Newsweek Washington Worked

 

By Robert J. Samuelson

 

   The style of journalism practiced by Newsweek in its glory years--a period stretching from the early 1960s to the late 1990s—slowly disappeared in my time.

   When I arrived in 1984 as a Newsweek columnist, the bureau was organized along beat lines. There were reporters for the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, economic policy, health care, energy and the environment, education--among others. In this Newsweek was no different from most major news organizations. That's how almost everyone covered Washington. The approach was not perfect.

   The greatest danger was always that reporters would become hostage to their sources and conventional wisdom. Reporters might be too uncritical because they merely reflected prevailing ideas and needed to stay on good terms with contacts. Still, the approach was probably better than any other, because it made reporters highly knowledgeable in their subject areas.

   Learning Curve:  Every story was, in effect, a learning experience.  If you do this for awhile--and you're serious and competent about your work--it's hard not to become something of an authority.

   The reporters in the Washington bureau were certainly that. I don't want to claim that we were "the best" Washington bureau, but I doubt--reporter for reporter--there was any better for many years beginning in the 1960s, when Mel Elfin became bureau chief.  The reporters he assembled and those who continued after his departure in the mid 1980s were a repository of information, insight and even wisdom about much of what occurs in Washington, from the Food and Drug Administration to the Federal Reserve to presidential politics.

  Typical Newsweek reporters came to the magazine in mid-career, usually in their late twenties or early thirties after having proven themselves at a daily paper or wire service. By the time they arrived at Newsweek, they were already seasoned journalists, who had moved beyond the "who, when and where" and could make the connections of what was important and why. That was the role of newsmagazines in their heyday: to bring order to the chaos of daily news stories.

   Cross Talk: As a columnist, I existed on the fringe of the magazine's weekly news cycle. By and large, I chose my own subjects and did my own reporting. But that doesn't mean that I didn't benefit enormously from the bureau's collective knowledge. Far from it. One of the rewards of journalism--it's a form of psychic income whose value is hard to underestimate--is working with like-minded people, who aid your reporting, deepen your understanding, provide different perspectives and stimulate new thinking.

   That was my experience at Newsweek. Often when I began a column, I relied on reporters in the bureau for contacts, background information (reports, studies), and intellectual challenge. For me, this was a huge advantage, and I'd like to think that, from time to time, I was able to reciprocate--that my sources and views helped the bureau's reporters.

   Let me be personal.

  Blabber Mouth: When I became a Newsweek columnist, the magazine's longtime chief economics correspondent was Rich Thomas. Rich, now 81, is almost 15 years my senior. We knew each other slightly from covering the same press conferences, and, frankly, I feared he would resent my presence, feeling--with some justification--that he, not I, should have been named as columnist. He was more experienced and knowledgeable, even if he didn't have a track record as a columnist (I had begun writing one in 1976 for the National Journal magazine and later for the Washington Post). Moreover, Rich was (and is) a compulsive talker. I feared that, once a conversation started, it would never end--and I wouldn't have time to finish my column. This relationship, I thought, was headed for an early crackup.

   It never happened. I discovered you could end a conversation with Rich by simply walking away and, at some point, he would quit following--and wouldn't hold it against you. More important, he was so smart, such a good reporter and so generous with his time, sources and ideas that our relationship blossomed, from my perspective at least, into a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration.

   Info Swap: We traded information and sources; discussed the significance of events and trends; argued over policies; and sometimes conducted joint interviews. Rich invariably had a better sense of the political realities than I did. Again, I'd like to think that I brought something unique to the relationship, though with hindsight it's hard to identify just what that was. But I think the fact that we both respected and supported each other's work had value in itself. I don't think it was an accident that some of my best columns were written while Rich was in the bureau.

  What existed with Rich in a large way existed

for me in smaller ways with many members of the bureau. It was a stimulating place to be, because you were always learning new things, whether from corridor chatter or formal discussions. The bureau's reporters were fully engaged intellectually as well as professionally with their subject areas, and their enthusiasm transmitted.

   Single Source? In my time, I doubt there was anyone in Washington who could speak as intelligently about military matters than John Barry (actually, John--a Brit--could speak intelligently about almost everything, which once led me to joke that the bureau would one day be reduced to Barry.  He would simply talk to the various Newsweek writers in New York and tell them whatever they needed to know to finish their stories).

  If you wanted to understand the peculiar anthropology of Washington--the intersection of personal ambition, political power and the national interest--there was no better authority than Evan Thomas (no relation to Rich), one of the magazine's most prolific writers who performed a stint as bureau chief after Mel left. Bill Cook often spotted energy and environmental trends before many professionals, because he understood the technology, could explain it and saw the wider implications. There was no more insightful political reporter than Howard Fineman, unless it was Eleanor Clift. If you wanted to know about education or the American family, go see Pat Wingert. For health care,

Mary Hager. Working at Newsweek was a constant education.

  All in all, this was a tremendous journalistic resource. I don't mean to imply we were perfect, because we weren't. We made mistakes of judgment and, occasionally, of fact. Some of these resulted from the natural tension between Washington reporters and the magazine's top editors in New York. The reporters gave weight to the messy facts and evidence they'd unearthed; the top editors wanted a catchy and original story-line that might sell.

   Bad Call:  Let me give you a personal example. In the fall of 1998, the world economy was going through a rough time. There had been a financial crisis in Asia; a well-known hedge fund had almost gone bankrupt. Late in the week, I got a call from the top editors: could I write the cover story predicting a recession in 1999. I was reluctant, even though I believed a recession a good possibility. But I knew from experience that economic forecasts often go awry. I hesitated; they implored. I negotiated: well, the cover line must include a question mark. It was, with hindsight, not much of a fig leaf.

   The cover read: THE CRASH OF ’99?  The subhead:  It Doesn’t Have to Happen – But Here’s Why It Might.

   There was no recession of 1999. I was not (and am not) proud of that story.

   The beat system, which helped journalism keep track of government, slowly shrank at Newsweek, as it did at many major newspapers and other traditional media organizations. By the time I left in 2011, it had ceased to exist. The Washington bureau's journalistic competence was reduced to a) politics b) national security and c) scandals. The reporters who remained were good--some very, very good--but they were unfocused.

   Behind the Change: Rich Thomas attributes the demise of the beat system in part to Americans' loss of faith in government's ability to solve problems. What much of government does is less uplifting and interesting--at least as journalism--if it doesn't lead to a happy ending. Instinctively recognizing that Americans felt this way, editors deemphasized beat coverage as being unrewarding. The bigger cause, I think, was financial. As magazines and newspapers became more squeezed, first by cable TV and then by the Internet, cost cutting became an obvious way to maintain profits.

   When Rich moved to an occasional contributor after 2001, he was not replaced. I was stunned: a major newsmagazine without a Washington economics reporter? How could that be? (Though no one ever said so openly, the implicit message to me was that I should shift my columns closer to the news to make up for the gap.) When Mary Hager left, she was not replaced; nor was Bill Cook. As time went by, Newsweek knew less and less about government, because the people who might have known didn't work there anymore.

   History will decide whether this was a loss--or simply a change.

 

Robert J. Samuelson joined Newsweek as a columnist in 1984 and left in 2011.