This Month

The newsmen were loaded with questions about his plans, but the New York Herald Tribune’s Bob Donovan shot first. What had the President to say, he asked, about an article in the current Atlantic Monthly by Chemist Bradley Dewey charging White House suppression of a report on the Bikini atom bomb tests?

Harry Truman paused, then said that Mr. Dewey must be mistaken — that seems to go with the name. Everybody roared; the show was on. (Time, December 13, 1948)

News reporting in the nation’s capital must be delightful work. The reporter asks an apt question, gets a brush-off, and everybody relishes “the show.”Naturally, he must face some competition, and the fast tempo of writing big news of this kind and getting it on the wire is fatiguing. One can imagine the whole crowd pelting to the telephones; the genial rivalry over who will be first in print with the “no comment" or the “nothing to say" flash that the interviewers have just wrested from some reluctant statesman. It’s still a devil-may-care calling with a queer fascination of its own; full of risks and variety, the impact of great events at their very inception—or initial suppression.

In a small bureau, where one man may have to carry the whole Washington assignment, the pace is headlong: now to the Treasury, where the first “don’t quote me" of the day is gleaned; again to the Pentagon for one crackling turndown after another; next an “off the record" luncheon speech at the National Press Club by a visiling dignitary. Afternoon continues the high adventure.

Back at his office, the news hawk finds a terse telegram from his paper: “You beat the A.P. by half an hour on Snyder’s refusal to comment on income tax boosts. Congrats,” But there can be no letdown, no easing of the quest. The BOOSTS. are already trickling in for the President’s press conference. Now the room is full, and even the foreign press reporters feel the tension. Pencils poised, the correspondents await the first shrewd question and the robust disclaimer: No, the President does not wish to say anything on that one. Appointment of Daakes? Nothing at this time, later maybe. Nothing about the budget, or the Cabinet, Pittsburgh-plus, the miners, or tidewater oil wells. The pencils fly. Notes become voluminous. Excitement mounts when the President allows himself to be quoted directly: “ I haven’t decided.”Appreciative laughter, end of interview, mad scramble for the telephones.

Then, off to the Russian Embassy nobody home. Senate Finance Committee Chairman — won’t talk. Attorney General no statement. And always, the inexorably moving hand of the clock. Never forget that newspapering is forever a race against time.

These are, of course, the high spots of the Washington beat. Beneath them, solid foundation at all times and especially on days when no big nothing-to-say stories are breaking, is the handout, the canned “statement” which eliminates tiresome questions by the press and saves much of the time wasted in interviews. Where the small papers can maintain only one representative in Washington, the larger bureaus have sizable staffs, some to gather brushoffs, others to receive handouts.

Many of the correspondents in each category are specialists, expert through long service on the job. A man skilled in Treasury turndowns, for instance, might not even know where to go to be refused by the State Department “spokesman,”etc., etc.

Today’s Washington newsman bears little resemblance to the uncouth old-time reporter who went out and pestered officials with questions. There was certainly no old-timer around when the President wrote Bradley Dewey off as “mistaken,”to spoil the fun by posing the next question: — ” Wherein?”