It's a Scandal

By Tom Shoop

May 1, 1999

As the seemingly endless Monica Lewinsky scandal faded away early this year, two groups breathed sighs of relief: White House officials and Washington reporters.

Clinton administration leaders had obvious reasons to celebrate the end of the scandal. But reporters were no less thrilled to see the whole sordid affair sputter out. After all, it's no fun being scourged for months on end as a bunch of creepy, gossip-mongering purveyors of smut.

Indeed, by the time Monica jetted off to London to peddle her tell-all book, the Washington press corps had developed a new story line: The public was "scandal-weary," hungry for substantive reports on issues like Social Security reform and stories on the management of federal programs.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this theory.

First, the jury is still very much out on whether the public is really sick of scandals-especially sex scandals. A good many people had to be lying when they told pollsters they were tired of hearing about the Lewinsky affair and impeachment. Ratings shot up for cable TV networks that provided round-the-clock coverage of the scandal. Web sites couldn't keep up with people trying to download the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Several weeks after the Senate failed to impeach the President, Barbara Walters' chat session with Lewinsky garnered a whopping 48.5 million viewers.

Second, even if Washington reporters decide to give people what they say they want rather than what they actually watch and read about, it's by no means clear that the coverage of government will improve. Reporters may turn away from sex, but it's unlikely they'll stop focusing on scandal.

That much was clear at a March conference for reporters on "Government From the Inside," sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government. Current and former federal officials gave the assembled media types all kinds of advice about improving their reporting on government in the post-Monica era. But most of the feds appeared to have resigned themselves to the media's obsession with scandal in reporting on agency operations.

"They want to cover airplane crashes, not airplane landings," said G. Edward DeSeve, former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. "It's a fact of life."

James Hinchman, principal assistant comptroller general at the General Accounting Office, said officials at his agency had long since given up on seeing thorough, nuanced pieces on its reports. "Do I wish Tom Brokaw would give 15 minutes for a balanced report on a financial audit?" Hinchman asked. "Sure. I'd watch it, my wife would watch it, but not many other people."

Hinchman spoke about GAO's efforts to encourage journalists to dig deeper, giving them access to the agency's experts on federal operations. In response, Brooks Jackson of CNN had only one question: "How can we get more anecdotes?" To sell stories to editors, producers, and ultimately viewers and readers, Jackson argued, reporters need tales of government rip-offs.

Virginia Thomas, a former aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, admitted that Hill Republicans begged GAO to come up with "hooks" for its reports. She expressed dismay that GAO's work earlier this year on overlap and duplication in some federal programs had resulted in just one shopworn anecdote about the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration both inspecting pizza.

The problem is an unwritten rule in Washington reporting that hooks for stories about government must be negative. "I've tried for years to do stories about agencies winning awards, and have been told, 'You want to write about something government is doing right?'" said Frank Greve, a Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers.

Another participant in the seminar, Eric Fehrnstrom, has seen government and the media from both sides. After covering the Massachusetts State House for the Boston Herald, Fehrnstrom said he went "from bomb tosser to bomb catcher," taking a job with Joe Malone, the former Massachusetts state treasurer. In the process, he learned a lesson many Washington reporters could benefit from. Bureaucrats, he found, are people, too, whose jobs often involve struggling with very serious issues that the average citizen would prefer to ignore.

Journalists who are assigned to cover these people, Fehrnstrom said, should take a cue from sports reporters-reporting not just on spectacular failures, but on stunning successes as well. "If I had it to do over again, I would spend more time looking for heroes," he said.

For reporters willing to take this approach, help may be on the way. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, is coordinating a new program, "Understanding Government," to provide grants for substantive reports on federal agencies. The reports should "explain what an agency does, asking whether it's worth doing and how well it's being done, describing the agency's culture, and portraying its heroes, villains and typical employees." The program will grant three awards of $15,000 each for reports of magazine article length, and one $50,000 award for a book-length report. For more information, contact Understanding Government, 5025 V Street, Washington, D.C. 20007. Applications are due June 15.

By Tom Shoop

May 1, 1999