May 1999

Tips on covering the Pentagon

By Marc Heller
Watertown Daily Times

The Pentagon has five sides - and about five people to go through to answer one simple question, if you're not sure where to turn.

So the first rule in dealing with the Defense Department is figuring out who can answer your question or has access to the people with the answer.

This job is made easier with a little cheat sheet the Public Affairs Department keeps. It lists all the public affairs officers and which topics they handle. There's a master list for the Defense Department Public Affairs office and one for each of the services as well. For a copy, you can call DOD Public Affairs at (703) 697-5131.

For a smaller paper, covering the Defense Department can be a bit intimidating. The place has its own lingo (it took me weeks to figure out that "optempo" means how often units deploy) and is filled with journalists who cover defense issues every day - often for publications that don't go much farther than the Pentagon's walls. It's hard not to feel like a foreigner.

That said, there are stories a regional can pursue at the Pentagon. If you have a military base in your readership area, that's a convenient way into defense writing. It may even get people at the Pentagon to return your calls promptly.

Other possibilities: Do you have people from your region stationed over there? Do you have a big defense contractor in your region whose planes are being flown or occasionally shot down? Are any of the defense-related committee leaders in Congress from your region?

Watertown hasn't got much. But it does have Fort Drum, home of the most-often deployed outfit in the Army, the 10th Mountain Division. At the Watertown Daily Times, we're obsessed with the local angle, and lots of people on the base read the paper every day.

The Kosovo story was of immediate interest because almost 6,000 soldiers from the base were training to lead the peacekeeping mission in nearby Bosnia this summer. About 150 were already in Bosnia, so we wanted to keep daily track of the situation.

All kinds of questions came to mind: How were the troops in Bosnia preparing for possible retaliation now that bombs were falling next door? Were soldiers who were training to go to Bosnia going to be sent somewhere else, like Albania or Kosovo? Good questions for Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.

A good question for the local congressman: If the mission's going to cost $6 billion, what are you doing to make sure projects at our local base won't be cut?

As it happened, soldiers from Fort Drum were fired upon the day before the bombing began. And, later, defense officials decided to cut the number headed to Bosnia in half, freeing up about 3,000 Northern New Yorkers to do something else. The Army public affairs office was the best place to confirm the makeup of the force.

As the situation played out, I did a Sunday story on how the Kosovo situation might affect the 10th Mountain Division, or might not, and why.

The American Enterprise Institute and the State Department had enough brains to pick for policy questions, rounded out by material from Pentagon briefings.

You can watch those briefings on television and hope some of your questions get addressed. You can check the transcript later on the Web site, called DefenseLink. Or you can call a spokesman, who may have to get back to you - in a day or two.

But going to the briefings is more exciting (there are free slide shows of the explosions), and you get access to people with more authority. It may not be worth the huge amount of time involved to go every day, but I've found it helpful to go a few times a week - enough to let them know you're really interested, and that you're not going away.

Regular credentials make this much easier. But your editor has to write a letter saying you'll be in the building at least three days a week - which is more often than the two weekly briefings that are routine when there is no war going on.

You can still get in without a regular pass, but - as one of our regional reporters discovered - good luck getting out.

The routine is to go to the Mall entrance and call (703) 697-5131 from a house phone in the lobby. The Mall entrance is about halfway around the building from the Metro entrance. Public affairs people will not escort you from the Metro entrance unless you've got an appointment with someone important, etc. My advice: Take a cab to the Mall entrance so you don't have to walk around the building, at least on the way in.

Another important note: If you had an escort going in, do not try to leave without one. We've heard at least one story about an RRA member whom the guards wouldn't let out because he did not have an escort.

Just like covering anything else, some of the best work is done far away from bureaucrats.

Col. Richard Bridges, who heads the Directorate of Defense Information at the Pentagon, suggests spending time with the troops.

From my own experience doing this in Haiti a few years ago, soldiers and their immediate commanders are much more talkative than flacks, especially if they see you're sharing the ground with rats and other critters, just like they are.

Defense folks will eagerly set these things up, said Richard J. Newman, senior editor and defense reporter at U.S. News and World Report, at a National Press Club forum.

But there's also a stumbling block. Apparenly there's an unwritten rule going around about soldiers not giving reporters their last names, which pretty much wipes out any hope of tracking local people. Use your powers of persuasion.

Here's a final word about Pentagon press releases: Useless. Unless you're interested in weapons sales to other countries or high-level staff changes at a particular base, you'll get little mileage out of the press releases.

You can find them on the DefenseLink Web site or have them faxed to you automatically, or both.

Tracking down the locals at war

We wanted to track down Minnesotans who were involved in the NATO mission.

As a first step, I called the Navy's PR office in Washington at (703) 697-5342 and was referred to the regional office in Chicago, at (312) 606-0360. I found the folks there to be very helpful. I gave them my e-mail address and phone number and asked them to put out a notice, asking any Minnesotans who would be willing to be interviewed to contact me.

Nothing happened for three weeks, so I repeated the request, and this time it worked: I got a call from a guy on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who had lined up interviews with four Minnesotans who were anxious to be interviewed. We did the interviews the following day.

It made for a great Sunday story, easy and quick, with these guys talking about how excited they were to be part of the mission, how their moms missed them, how they felt as though they were part of something big. And the Navy even sent us pictures of the guys by e-mail. At the end of the story, we included a line directing readers to the ship's home page.

I'm glad I made the second call after getting shut out the first time.

-- Rob Hotakainen,
Minneapolis Star Tribune

An alternative viewpoint: Covering only the basics on Kosovo

By Pat Howe
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Some thoughts on avoiding the Pentagon.

It started with two simple words. "Think Kosovo," gr owled my editor in Little Rock. He is a man of few words, but I eventually found out that by this he meant, don't write the obvious congressional angles, but instead try to write a few thinky pieces that might get a day or two ahead of the daily story.

Now. I'm not a Pentagon reporter. I don't really even understand the military structure well. When I deal with the military, I go in prepared to be batted around from phone to phone until I finally get somebody who can - or, officially, can't - answer my question. It has always proved frustrating.

So, when thinking Kosovo, every fiber of my body told me to avoid the Pentagon. That's what I did. Although I've written a series of weekenders about the war, I still haven't stepped foot inside the place since the bombs started dropping.

Here's what I did instead:

  • I read the trade publications. My hats go off to Defense Week and Defense Daily as well as Stars and Stripes. Even with every reporter in Washington chasing this story, reporters from those defense publications seem to me to be days ahead.

    From some of these publications, I got a sense of which defense contractors were puffing up their part in the war and which were already positioning themselves for more cash when the appropriators paid the bill.

  • I surfed. I know, nobody needs advice anymore on searching the Internet. But I did manage to find some fascinating sites that, during the early days of the bombing, at least purported to have real discussions among Serbs and Albanians, on the war.

    One,, was a great source of both Serb and Western propaganda as well as in-depth discussions about the sorts of weapons being used in the bombing.

  • I called the retired military experts. There are military experts all over this town. I looked for those who were most recently retired for the freshest perspective of what's probably going on inside Pentagon. After years of having to be circumspect, many of these guys are happy to talk.

  • I went to the hearings. For a while, the administration seemed to be trying to bore Congress into inaction, so they were sending high-level military brass to the Hill every day. I think I got more open access to these guys just attending the hearings than I would have wandering around the Pentagon. But then again, I don't know, because I didn't.

  • I sent e-mail into Serbia. What the heck? I got names and addresses of people who might talk by talking to U.S. experts and academicians. Mostly, this was fruitless - most of my queries were not returned - but I did get some interesting replies from a professor in Belgrade who warned about the kind of psychological effect Americans should expect the bombings to produce in Serbia - defiance, even from the moderates and anti-Milosevic forces.

  • I didn't really ignore the Pentagon. No, I didn't go there, but I did make calls when necessary and I did read the daily transcripts from the Pentagon, Brussels and the White House to get a sense of the official line. All in all, I didn't score any homers but I did end up with a few doubles by "thinking Kosovo" outside the confines of the Pentagon.

    How to pry information out of agencies that won't give you what you want

    By Carl Weiser
    Gannett News Service

    In April, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency told me they would not reveal the exact location or owner of a Delaware Superfund site on grounds they wanted to protect privacy.

    Later that month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development trumpeted a report showing that of 750 public housing authorities rated under a new system, 87 percent were in good or excellent condition. They posted a state-by-state list of "all high performers" on their Web site.

    I called to get the lost of "low performers." They wouldn't release the information because "those scores are not official."

    In both cases, without filing lawsuits or waiting for FOIA requests to be processed, Gannett was able to get the information.

    Here are some tips for dealing with recalcitrant agencies:

    • Be polite. This is not personal between you and the flack.

    • Call the head of public affairs. You'd be amazed at how quickly lazy low-level flacks respond when you've called the chief of public affairs or even the Secretary's office.

    • Don't simply write a story saying the agency is keeping information secret: Do some research. I called environmental lawyers, including lawyers for polluters, to find out how common it was for EPA to keep Superfund landowners' names secret. I called environmental groups in Delaware. None had ever heard of such a case. On the HUD story, GNS' Billy House called Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, who oversees HUD. He was outraged, and gave us great quotes. By coincidence he had a HUD hearing the next day, where he berated HUD officials.

    • Keep at them. Call every day, record the time and responses. Build that paper trail.

    • File a FOIA anyway, in case none of this works.

  • Zremski awarded Nieman fellowship

    Jerry Zremski, a reporter for The Buffalo News and the Regional Reporters Association's 1997-98 president, has been awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University for the academic year beginning this fall.

    Zremski, a Washington correspondent for the News since 1989, plans to study the impact of government policy on aging "Rust Belt" economies.

    "I'm really thrilled," said Zremski, 38. "I really feel like I need a break from the daily grind, and I can't imagine a better way to take a break than this."

    Created in 1938, the Nieman program is the oldest and most prestigious mid-career program for journalists from around the world. Zremski was one of 12 American journalists chosen for the fellowship for the coming year; 12 foreign fellows will be named later this month.

    Few Washington regionals have been named as Nieman fellows in recent years. Alan Ota of the Portland Oregonian was the last regional to get a Nieman, in 1993-1994.

    Zremski said a series he did last year, using federal data to illustrate how the upstate New York economy had failed to take part in the nation's economic boom, was a key reason why he got the fellowship.

    "In my interview at Harvard, that series was the main topic of discussion," Zremski said. "This just proves that it's a good idea for regionals not just to cover their congressmen, but to use all of the vast amount of data we have access to here as a basis for telling stories about our hometowns," he said.

    Zremski said he plans to return to Washington upon completing his fellowship.

    President's Report

    Another era comes to an end

    By Christine Dorsey

    My last president's column. Yes folks, it's true. I'm passing the baton to someone new who will inundate you with e-mail, hassle you for submissions to the RRA newsletter and harass you for not paying your dues on time.

    I think every president says this when he or she steps down, but I'll say it again: (what the heck, it's still my column) I had no idea what I was in for when I signed up for this gig.

    Of course, not every president has faced a 10th anniversary. "Hey, let's collect all the best clips from the last DECADE and put them into a bound volume." Whose crazy idea was that, anyway? (Probably mine.)

    I'm proud to say that with a lot of help, I successfully played host at one of RRA's biggest, and in my opinion most important, events. Not only did we celebrate the fact that an all-volunteer association of reporters has managed to stay alive for 10 years, but we took a serious look at where the regional beat in Washington is headed.

    Nothing stays the same, and that goes for regional reporting as well. Technology is c hanging the way we report the news, the speed and accuracy with which we report it, and even what we choose to report. To sit back and not consider how to keep up with and keep tabs on what that means to us as Washington journalists is just plain ignorant.

    So, once again, I thank all of you who attended the 10th anniversary celebration at The Freedom Forum last December.

    Moving into its 11th year, RRA has made many advances, thanks to the 1998-99 board of directors. Our most prized accomplishment, in my opinion, has been using our e-mail list as a regular tool to keep in touch with members and quickly get regionals information they can use on the job.

    The use of e-mail is ever evolving, and when my predecessor, Jerry Zremski, organized the list, we were hesitant to use it too often. When I took over, I was careful to pass along only a select few items. But members e-mailed back thanking me for the information. And as we all have signed on to various e-mail distribution lists, it has become apparent that e-mail is truly the most efficient way to get the word out quickly.

    Now, our e-mail list is in demand by agencies, press secretaries and even the White House. Because of this, RRA passed a resolution this year to never give out our e-mail list or database. I felt it was important to make it our policy. However, like any policy, there was an exception.

    We gave the e-mail list to the White House. The RRA board set up a meeting with the White House press staff to discuss ways to improve their service to regional reporters. The e-mail list was one solution, and I believe it has worked.

    I've come to realize that one of the best ways RRA can be of service to its members is to constantly find ways to can make regional reporting a premier beat.

    The best way I know how is to share ideas. I'm a broken record on this, but there are a whole lot of reporters in town who've been at this longer than I have, and I can certainly learn a thing or two from them. So can the rest of the membership.

    The newsletter has become our best tool for sharing ideas. I encourage all of you to offer a story idea or two on occasion to help fellow regionals freshen up their coverage of Washington.

    RRA has lots of possibilities. But we are limited by time and energy. That's why I again owe many thanks to my board for sticking with me through a year full of scandal, presidential impeachment, war and disasters.

    I could not have done this job without the great ideas of all my directors, and their willingness to turn those ideas into newsmakers, workshops or newsletter stories.

    And finally, thanks to all of you who have e-mailed me with suggestions or just a kind comment about the e-mail list or an event RRA has sponsored. It means a lot to me to know our work has made a difference to you.

    I truly have enjoyed my term as president of RRA, but it's time for me to get back to work. See you on the Hill.


    Ann McFeatters, the former White House correspondent and national politics reporter for Scripps Howard News Service, has become bureau chief for the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette bureau.

    A reporter in Washington since 1969, she made the switch April 5. She replaced Pat Griffith, who has retired.

    Gannett News Service has several new reporters:

    • Stephen Power, a former Dallas Morning News reporter, is now a correspondent for GNS. Stephen, a Virginia native, did Washington internships for the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal before moving to Dallas. Stephen will cover the Northwest for papers in Oregon and Washington.

    • Donna Leinwand, who will cover Alabama and North and South Carolina. Donna is moving from the Knight Ridder bureau where she covered for papers in Florida and Mississippi.

    • Gregory Wright has also joined Gannett. Gregory comes from Bridge News, where he was the senior agriculture and trade reporter. He has also worked for Knight Ridder Financial News and the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal.

  • Clyde Weiss, correspondent for Donrey Media Group's former California papers, is leaving the company to become a writer/reporter for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He has been a regional reporter for Donrey's Washington Bureau for 14 years.

    After Donrey sold its majority ownership in 12 California papers in April, Clyde took over the Hawaii beat for the company's two Big Island papers in Hilo and Kona. The beat also includes coverage for Donrey papers in North Carolina and Washington State, as well as environmental and other issues for Donrey's flagship paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal.

    Donrey reporter Christine Dorsey will take over the western beat. The bureau plans to hire a reporter from within the chain to cover the Arkansas/Oklahoma/Texas beat.

    -- Pat Howe,
    Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

    Got news? call Pat Howe at (202)662-7690 or send it to

    Board meeting minutes -- May 3, 1999

    President Christine Dorsey announced that RRA's annual election will be held Monday, June 14, at the National Press Club at noon. The election is a week after the board's scheduled monthly meeting.

    After harassing board members repeatedly in recent weeks, Dorsey announced that Jennifer Maddox of Scripps Howard News Service has decided to run for president. Lita Baldor of the New Haven Register has also agreed to seek the vice presidency. No other candidate came forward as of the meeting. Vice President Carl Weiser plans to take off for eight weeks of parental leave this summer to care for his new baby and does not plan to run for office.

    Only 18 of the Regional Reporters Association's "Guide to Covering Washington," published in 1996, are left. The board discussed options that include updating and reprinting the guide as well as putting a full copy online. Board members agreed to begin researching costs and other issues necessary for publication.

    Treasurer Maureen Groppe of Thomson Newspapers reported that 118 members had paid their dues thus far, putting RRA ahead of its June 1998 pace. RRA is still 32 people short of its paid-membership goal for the year.

    The board agreed to accept an invitation from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse to hold a demonstration of the pay-service for RRA members. RRA would host the event but is not endorsing the service associated with Syracuse University.

    The board also discussed plans by the Regional Reporters Educational Foundation to co-sponsor an employment seminar designed to help regionals know their options and land that next job.

    Jim Rosen of the Raleigh News & Observer updated the board on a FOIA seminar.

    The next board meeting is scheduled for June 7 at noon.

    April 1999 Regional Reporter

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