The Not-So-New Washington Journalism Establishment

By Jack Limpert

Chris Matthews once said, “I would argue for a higher position for myself,” referring to the Washingtonian’s quadrennial look at Washington’s journalism establishment. In 1973 I wrote the first of those pieces, and from 1973 to 2009 we picked a new journalism establishment every four years after the presidential election.

That first one actually bounced off an article that Karl Meyer, a writer for the Washington Post, did for Esquire in 1964. I described Meyer’s piece this way: “Meyer’s article concentrated on the organizations important to Washington journalism, focusing mostly on the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club. The truth today is that none of the organizations is important: The National Press Club is a white-elephant luncheon club patronized by public-relations types and very few of Washington’s top journalists; the Gridiron Club membership of the so-called 50-top reporters has more seniority and pomposity than quality.”

I added: “Not as significant but more fun is the wryly named Political Writers for a Democratic Society, started by Jack Germond, Jules Witcover, and several other political reporters. It meets in the evenings in someone’s home and invites the political guest for dinner and drinks. The emphasis is on the drinks, and the night presidential candidate Ed Muskie appeared he displayed his fatal twin tendencies to drink too much and lose his temper.”

I then wrote about how television was changing the journalism establishment, singling out David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, and Bill Monroe.

I said the Washington Post was the city’s most important newspaper, adding that 10 years earlier it would have been the Washington Star.  Singled out from the Post were Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, Herblock, Howard Simons, Richard Harwood, Philip Geyelin, Hobart Rowen, David Broder, Maxine Cheshire, and Nicholas von Hoffman. From the New York Times there were James Reston, Clifton Daniel, and Russell Baker.

Among the columnists named were Joseph Alsop, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Richard Strout, Stewart Alsop, Art Buchwald, Jack Anderson, Hugh Sidey, James J. Kilpatrick, Joseph Kraft, John Osborne, and Carl Rowan.

Miscellaneous power included Mel Elfin, the bureau chief for Newsweek; Henry Brandon of the London Times; and Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor, who organized and hosted two or three breakfasts every week that brought newsmakers together with reporters.

Mentioned from the wires were Helen Thomas of UPI and Frank Cormier and Fran Lewine from the AP. From the out-of-town papers: Allen Otten of the Wall Street Journal; Robert Boyd of Knight-Ridder newspapers; and Jack Germond, chief of the Gannett bureau.

I wrapped up by including “Simeon Booker, who covers black news for Ebony; the National Observer, which is getting livelier and has two first-rate political reporters, Jim Dickinson and James Perry; U.S. News & World Report, which collects facts in the dullest possible way; and the Washington Post’s Phil Casey, who does such a nice job of covering the zoo.”
Of the TV people, Marvin Kalb continues to do interesting television work, and recently I ran into Roger Mudd—he looks as distinguished as ever.

Of the Posties, none are left. When I was a Congressional Fellow in 1968 in the office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the two phone calls that would cause panic were from Maxine Cheshire and Jack Anderson. Cheshire was a Washington Post  gossip columnist but also a great reporter; Anderson’s scoops appeared in thousands of newspapers.

Russell Baker lives in Virginia and will turn 90 in August; his two memoirs, Growing Up and The Good Life, are wonderful books.
Coming up: What the top journalists in 1973 thought was wrong with journalism.

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