Washington, D.C. is a city of museums and tourists, local and federal government, politics and scandals. Washington is also a city of reporters. Lots and lots of reporters. For those who study the media, this credentialed army provides a great opportunity for oral histories and insight. Paradoxically, however, not a lot has been written about those who bring us the news.
Enter Stephen Hess. A Senior Fellow Emeritus (not sure what that is but I bet it takes a lot of work and a long time to achieve it) at the Brookings Institution, and author of the new book, “Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012,” he spoke on Thursday night at Politics and Prose. The Valentine’s Day audience was smaller than usual, but one got the impression we were a close-knit group of news junkies who wouldn’t miss this one for the world.
After writing “The Washington Reporters” in 1981, Hess authored five other books on how the press operates, a series he calls “Newswork.” Drawing on this knowledge and a career that includes Presidential advisor, the author spoke confidently and warmly. He noted this book is the final in the Newswork series. Assisted by his staff of research assistants, he followed up on the 450 reporters he interviewed for the 1978 book. Searching far and wide, they made contact with 90% of the group. 283 responded.
Listening to Hess was immensely enjoyable. As he wove in and out of analyzing the media today and the press of the past (a distinction he makes in his book), I tripped down memory lane - Bruce Morton, Ike Pappas. In the audience were Marvin and Bernard Kalb.
Hess deserves much credit for not falling into the “good ol’ days” trap or pandering to the audience. Although he rightfully noted that some bloggers work without an editor, he praised this method of reporting. Forgive me for the ageism (he was born in 1933), but I thought it rather cool when he used the term aggregators, and understood all the new technologies.
Hess noted that despite the long hours and at times, low pay, many reporters have kept their badges for 40, 50 years. Polls reflect our low opinion of the press right now, but I’ve learned to admire and appreciate the work they do.
I’m off to read his book, which looked great in my preview. And for the record, let me duly note my valentine, knowing how much I love this topic, issued me a special pass to attend the event.