NEWSLETTER

November 2000

Covering the Clinton Administration

How a regional bureau adapted to the big-time

By Susan Roth
Gannett News Service

When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ran for president, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a Washington bureau similar to that of many other mid-sized regional daily newspapers: one guy working out of his apartment on Capitol Hill.

The guy, Randy Lilleston, covered the Arkansas congressional delegation but rarely ventured over to the White House. Along with other reporters at the paper, he was suddenly thrust into the national pack chasing Clinton and the other Democratic candidates.

Lilleston logged the most miles with the governor, but it became clear when Clinton won that Lilleston would need help.

Husband-and-wife team Terry Lemons and Jane Fullerton, who were relatively new to the paper but ambitious, had worked the phones from Little Rock, producing various stories during the campaign. They moved to Washington and helped organize a new bureau three weeks before Clinton's inauguration.

The trio quickly set up shop in the former Bergen Record office in the National Press Building, with Lilleston covering the White House, Lemons taking over the Hill and Fullerton filling in as needed on both beats.

One of Fullerton's most fruitful early ideas was writing profiles of Arkansans in Washington, both those who had come with Clinton and those already working throughout the government. Though these sometimes seemed like puff pieces to those of us back in Arkansas, they gave Fullerton an invaluable stable of reliable sources and connections between Arkansas and Washington.

Almost immediately, the bureau began what seemed like a never-ending chain of scandal coverage, bouncing from one crisis to another -- Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, Paula Jones, campaign finance irregularities, Kathleen Willey and then of course, Monica, Monica, Monica, culminating in Juanita Broaddrick and impeachment.

Needless to say, it was never dull. And the down times were few and far between. The bureau couldn't count on having lazy days in August or December. Usually, even if Congress was in recess, there was some major news breaking out of the White House, often on Friday afternoons around 5 p.m.

The hard part having to follow the national media -- the "big dogs" with unlimited resources like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and the Associated Press.

Though the bureau hustled hard and maintained a number of good White House and Hill sources, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was just not the first place top officials called when they wanted to get a story out. With Democrats, it didn't help that the paper's editorial page vociferously opposed Clinton and the headlines invariably spun against the White House. Covering the White House also was difficult on a low budget. For instance, most of the regular White House press corps travels with the president -- often, if not all the time. The Democrat-Gazette rarely sent a reporter on those expensive trips, where camaraderie and critical "face time" with the president and top aides make it more likely that those aides will return calls later.

While most big White House stories got great play on page one of the paper, there were times when the editors at home did not understand the importance of a story. Sometimes, when the bureau got a bona fide national scoop, it wound up buried deep in the paper.

But the bureau did get several telephone interviews with Clinton over the years. And the president showcased his amazing memory by calling on Fullerton by her first name at a mid-1999 press conference where she was seated near the back of the room.

"I don't know if I liked that," Lemons quipped.

The job was punishing, and in 1995 Lilleston moved to Congressional Quarterly. Luckily for the paper, top-notch D.C. veteran Kathy Kiely was between jobs because her previous paper, the Houston Post had folded. The Democrat-Gazette snagged her for the bureau chief's job during the important 1995-97 period.

When Kiely left, the paper moved me here from Arkansas. Lemons, who took over as bureau chief, and Fullerton took a long vacation right after I arrived in August -- it seemed like a particularly slow August in Washington. But shortly after they left, I got my first story: the 39-count indictment of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was accused (and later acquitted) of taking gifts from Arkansas' Tyson Foods Inc., among other companies he regulated.

After the end of the impeachment saga, the scandal-starved Democrat-Gazette lost interest in the president and Washington politics, even declining to cover most of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic run for the Senate because she was no longer from Arkansas.

By early 2000, the bureau's future was in doubt. Veterans Lemons and Fullerton had drifted away, he to a public relations job at the IRS, she to full-time motherhood. Uncertain of my job security, I jumped ship in April and Patrick Howe, who had joined the bureau during the impeachment trial, moved back home to Minnesota last summer.

But publisher Walter Hussman finally agreed to staff a two-person bureau. The paper hired Arkansas veterans Paul Barton and Kevin Freking to mop up the Clinton administration and close the circle, returning the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to its pre-Clinton role as a regular regional bureau in Washington.




Rating the flaks of the Clinton Administration

By Carl Weiser
Gannett News Service

So much of a regional reporter's job depends on getting good information from good public affairs people.

With the Clinton Administration leaving town, I was curious as to the experiences regionals had had with press folks at federal agencies and departments. Here are some of the results from our informal survey:

  • The best press operation: The Department of Energy.

    "April Kaufman at the Energy Department press office is amazing. Not only does she return phone calls promptly and actually BEFORE my stated deadline, but she was always willing to explain complicated issues and give background information on things," said Suzanne Struglinski of Greenwire.

    Newhouse's Mike Magner seconds the motion: "As for the better operations, I'd have to say the Energy Department has almost always gotten back to me in a timely manner."

  • The worst: Environmental Protection Agency.

    "I found the EPA HQ flack staff to be absolutely abominable. Virtually never get to a real flack on first call. Their voice mail is always on. Then when you get a call back, turns out the question I had was in on an issue handled by another flack. Rare that I could get what I needed on deadline. Even on enterprise stories, EPA HQ was of little help. I called them for two weeks running in October for a Superfund story. Never did get an interview," reported Larry Wheeler of Gannett News Service.

    Again, Newhouse's Magner seconds: "The EPA press office has to be one of the worst in Washington. I've had them return calls 2 or 3 days after doing a story, if they call back at all."

    The office, it s eems, treats national reporters far better than regionals. I personally nearly went bonkers trying to get accurate and timely information from EPA's Mid-Atlantic office on a fairly innocuous story.

    There were a number of comments about the White House's regional press operations, which we all know has been basically a black hole. Sometimes the flacks there were "absurdly arrogant," as GNS's Susan Roth noted. Sometimes they made an effort to return calls without actually providing any information. I personally gave up on them years ago.

    A few press folks there stood out for their efforts to help regionals: Elizabeth Newman got kudos, as did Sarah Geggenheimer.

    Also praised: The U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    "Calling there, I usually can be rather quickly connected with the appropriate person within the huge agency who can answer my questions on farm programs. The people there also can usually explain complex issues in plain enough English," said Small Newspaper's Angela Greiling.

    I also found them willing to take the time to explain complex farm programs to me, a Delaware reporter who rarely covers agriculture.

    Michael Kharfen at the Department of Health and Human Services won praise, as did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the Health Care Financing Administration, the Interior Department's Tim Ahern, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    Those getting panned included: Department of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    Some regional reporters said that their experience varied, even with the same flacks at the same agencies. Some found former reporters to be good flacks; others found career department folks to be most knowledgeable and less likely to tell you how to write your story.

    "I spent 30 years covering Washington," said the Milwaukee Journal's Frank Aukofer, "and can count on both hands the really good press secretaries I've dealt with."




    President's Report

    By Carl Weiser

    Another busy month in my oval office.

    Election 2000:
    Wow. I would like to take a minute here and encourage regional reporters to ponder their fortune.

    Many of us have had the privilege of covering three once-in-a-lifetime events - really, once-in-a-century events. Some of us were here in November, 1994, when the Republicans took back the Congress for the first time since 1954. Then in 1998 and 1999 we covered the first impeachment trial since Andrew Johnson, not to mention the resignation of two House Speakers. Now we got to cover an election night so extraordinary and exciting that it will not be topped in our lifetime. And you were there.

    Yes, all these events were incredibly time-consuming and stressful. I know I worked until 4:30 a.m. on election night. Goodness knows what the Texas, Tennessee, Wyoming and Connecticut reporters had to do. But what a gift to a reporter.

    Remember back when you were covering parades in some small town, or checking the police blotter, or making rounds at city hall. And think how few reporters got to be in your position this last week.

    Federal agency sites:
    Speaking of making rounds at city hall, you can almost do that now with the federal government - on the web. There are two good web sites that allow you to cruise through executive branch press releases.

    One is www.govwire.com, which posts the press releases from agencies in one handy spot. It's timely.

    The other is www.editorsweb.org, which e-mails the days press releases to you.

    Unfortunately, they do it the next day. But they identify localities. A typical headline to click on: "Consumer Product Safety Commission: Dolgencorp Inc. (Goodlettsville, TN) recalls 113,000 toy xylophones for potential choking hazard."

    Another similar site currently under construction is www.policymakersforum.com, which collects Washington stories and press releases by subject. Former regional Bob Vitale is working on that site.

    E-groups:
    Our e-group now has 41 members, which is excellent. Some may be wondering how to post a message. The easiest thing to do is to bookmark the home page for the e-group. It's at http://www.egroups.com/group/regionalreporters. Then click on "Post" and type away.

    Event help:
    Our friend, the National Press Club. Julia Schoo, the Club's Director of Membership Development, said the club wants to help our RRA!

    They're willing to join us in putting on events, and possibly giving us free rooms and coffee, which can be surprisingly pricey. Our thanks to the club, and we look forward to working with it.

    Newsletter:
    About a dozen reporters complained they couldn't open the pdf version of the newsletter that was e-mailed last month. Some found it a little fuzzy, because it was scanned in and then sent.

    I'm confident that we will work out the kinks and have a fully e-mailable, and legible newsletter in the coming months. We might try a text-only version, sending it out as a Microsoft Word document. Or if there's someone who knows a better way to do it, I'm happy to hear from you. Contact me!

    As always, let me know of any concerns or ideas you have for the Regional Reporters Association. I can always be reached at cweiser@gns.gannett.com Or better yet, use the new e-group!




    Covering the new guy

    By Jonathan Salant
    Associated Press

    There's a new member of your congressional delegation and your editor has just assigned a profile. Here are some suggestions on how to go about it.

    First, you have a wonderful excuse to get that first interview. Between now and late January, when Congress gets down to work, he or she will be making several trips to Washington. There will be organizational meetings, orientation, house-hunting, office selection, and other official business.

    It's an opportunity to meet the staff as well, especially if the lawmaker is going to keep the press secretary in the district, meaning that you'll need to rely on a different staff member in Washington.

    You may want to follow the lawmaker as he or she goes through the procedures of setting up an office and moving to Washington. Several years ago, I made a deal with a freshman lawmaker in my delegation, James Walsh: I would help him unload his truck (he moved himself) if he allowed me to chronicle him moving into his Capitol Hill apartment. He did and I did. See if the lawmaker is going to move his or her family to Washington or just rent an apartment and go back to the district on the weekends.

    Also take a look at the staff that is being hired.

    Despite the anti-government rhetoric that is still in fashion by some candidates, most winning lawmakers have some government experience in the past. Many were elected officials. They had staffs back home, and may bring them to Washington. They may hire some Washington veterans, giving them instant savvy. They may simply retain the staff of the member they succeeded. Or they may pick some ideological staffers who were working for a think tank or a controversial member, which would provide a clue on just what kind of a lawmaker the freshman is going to be.

    For Republicans, there's a big difference between hiring a former member of Rep. Marge Roukema's staff and hiring a former aide to Tom DeLay who is now working for the Cato Institute. For Democrats, are they hiring staff from the Democratic Leadership Council or Americans for Democratic Action?

    See which committees the lawmaker is trying to get assigned to. Is he or she lobbying colleagues. Few freshmen are going to land seats on Ways and Means, Commerce or Appropriations. If yours gets one of those plum seats, that's a story in itself. But if the lawmaker represents an urban area and winds up sitting on Agriculture and Resources, that's also a story.

    There are some other fun orientation stories as well. For example, there is a lottery where offices are handed out. Each freshman, or a designated representative, draws lots to see when he or she can pick. The highest numbers get the dreary offices on the top floor of the Cannon Building.

    If your lawmaker is the son or daughter of a former member of Congress or a former legislative aide, see if they are making allies with colleagues of their parents or their former bosses. Walsh was helped in his first weeks in Washington by former colleagues of his father, former Rep. William Walsh.

    Since most newly elected lawmakers do have government service, they leave behind a record of performance. Check past votes on the state or local level. Talk to former colleagues of both parties. Talk to some of the key lobbyists, union officials or business leaders who would have dealt with the lawmaker in his or her previous position. The reporter back home who covered the person in his or her pre-congressional days should be able to put you in touch with the right people.

    Also check campaign finance records. The Center for Responsive Politics has analyzed most of the data at www.opensecrets.org www.opensecrets.org, as has the Center for Public Disclosure at www.tray.com. See who the biggest financial supporters of the lawmaker were. And if the lawmaker had an easy race for Congress, see if he or she decided to share the campaign largess with the less fortunate.

    In 1998, Thomas Reynolds of New York, running for an open seat but facing no serious opposition in a heavily Republican district, contributed $100,000 from his campaign account to the National Republican Congressional Committee before being elected to Congress. Reynolds was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House Rules Committee.

    And in early December, candidates must file their post-election finance reports. This will let you know what they spent during the final three weeks of the campaign. More importantly, it will let you know if special interests who guessed wrong and didn't support them during the campaign are trying to ingratiate themselves with the victor after the election. Of special note are the interests affected by the committees that the new freshman is appointed to. In 1994, after Nebraskan Jon Christensen was named to the Ways and Means Committee, insurance companies that had supported the Democrat he ousted quickly sent post-election $5,000 checks to his campaign committee.




    The Plum Book and other guides to help reporters covering the presidential transition

    By Suzanne Struglinski
    Greenwire

    If the "too-close-to-call" theme of Election 2000 stories are losing their appeal, you might want to examine what impact the absent space in the White House may have on your area.

    The "transition process," the period between the Clinton and the president-elect's administration is in limbo right now. What was once an 11-week period, carefully mapped out to some degree is no on hold until the Florida decision becomes final.

    Paul C. Light, head of the Brookings Institution Presidential Appointee Initiative says that for each day the new president is not named, it may be one week longer until the new administration is firmly in place.

    That means positions in your home state may be in limbo as well, from Department of Interior field representatives to Department of Transportation regional administrators. Many of these positions will be political appointments -- folks who likely are pretty anxious for the presidential transition to begin. The formal process began with the Presidential Transitions Act of 1963. This allowed the General Services Administration to pay for costs association with a new administration starting work prior to its actual takeover, meaning after inauguration.

    The transition headquarters, waiting to be filled with staff, is at 1800 G. St NW. The office, which used to be used for Y2K planning, remains empty until the president elect gets named. June Huber is GSA's director of presidential transition support.

    Here are two great resources to help you track the transition and get a better grasp of what is actually at stake:

  • The Plum Book:

    Released Dec. 8 by the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, the book lists the 7,000 jobs that need Presidential appointment. Close to 1200 of these need Senate Confirmation. Officially called the book on "U.S. Government Policy and Supporting Positions," the book is divided by department or agency and the greatest part is that there is a category by state within each section. Not all of the positions are in D.C.

    Find it at www.gpo.gov/plumbook/2000/index.html

  • Brookings Institution Presidential Appointee Initiative: It's director Paul C. Light, has been quoted extensively in all forms of media. He is extremely knowledgeable on th e subject and easy to talk to, however be prepared to be quick and to the point with your questions. Check out www.appointee.brookings.org.


    RESTIVE REGIONS

    Sergio R. Bustos, a New York regional reporter at Gannett News Service, is switching assignments. He is now a Southwest regional reporter, writing for the Arizona Republic (newly acquire by Gannett), the Tucson Citizen and the El Paso Times in Texas.

    Doug Abrahms recently joined the staff at Gannett News Service as a regional reporter. He came to Gannett from Communications Daily, where he covered the FCC and telecommunications industry. He also covered the FCC and Congress for Bridge News and the Washington Times, high-tech Washington-area companies for the Washington Business Journal, the SEC for States News Service, and various beats for the Port Arthur News.

    Maureen Groppe will be joining the Gannett as regional reporter for Indiana beginning Nov. 27. Maureen has been Tribune Newspapers' Washington regional reporter for Arizona since 1997. She was Thomson's regional for a group of Midwestern papers from 1995-97. She previously worked at Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report and for newspapers in South Bend and Kokomo, Ind.

    Ellyn Ferguson of Gannett's Indiana papers, will take over a new beat that will include papers in Illinois and Michigan. Brian Tumulty will report for Gannett's Wisconsin papers.

    Bill Straub of the Cincinnati Post/Kentucky Post has been promoted to an as-yet undetermined national beat at Scripps Howard News Service.

    Jack Torry of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Toledo Blade Washington Bureau has left that job to work at the Columbus Dispatch Washington Bureau.

    Got news? call Jessica Wehrman at (202)408-2705 or send it to wehrmanj@shns.com




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