How Television and Bernie Swain Changed—Some Would Say Ruined—Washington Journalism

By Jack Limpert

The Washington Post has a nice piece today about Bernie Swain, who 35 years ago left his job as an assistant athletic director at George Washington University to start the Washington Speakers Bureau and is “now cozily ensconced in his home in Nantucket.”

The Post picture caption says, “Over the decades, Bernie Swain’s Washington Speakers Bureau has represented former presidents, Cabinet members, business executives, public figures and sports legends.”

In fact what got Swain started was getting speech appearances for journalists. It began with Steve Bell, an ABC-TV news anchor. Other prominent Washington journalists quickly followed: Hugh Sidey, Carl Rowan, Robert Novak, Rowland Evans, Mark Shields, Jack Germond, Fred Barnes, and many others, most of them print journalists.

Swain was on his way to making millions and to help change—some would say ruin—journalism.

The saga of how Washington journalists got rich started with print journalists doing great work but not making much money.
In the 1970s, while editing the Washingtonian, I often paid good reporters at DC’s newspaper bureaus to do freelance pieces. They wanted to make extra money and get added visibility and the Washingtonian was happy to help. The newspaper names who wrote for us included Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, R.W. “Johnny” Apple of the New York Times, Jack Germond of Gannett, Hays Gorey of Time, Ernest B. “Pat” Furgurson and Fred Barnes of the Baltimore Sun, Simon Winchester of the Guardian, Stu Loory and Tom Foley of the Los Angeles Times, Dom Bonafede, Robert Samuelson,  and Richard Cohen of National Journal, Monroe Karmin of the Wall Street Journal, Maureen Dowd of the Washington Star, Walter Mears of the Associated Press, and many others. It was a win-win for the writers and the magazine.

Then in the 1980s came the television shows featuring Washington’s print journalists as talking heads. First there was Washington Week in Review on PBS, followed by The McLaughlin Show, Inside Washington, and many others.

I got the first clue to how the television shows were changing journalism from Charley McDowell, the shrewd and funny Washington correspondent for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and one of the regulars on Washington Week in Review. He was writing fairly regularly for the Washingtonian and in about 1981 I called with a story idea that was right up his alley. This time I didn’t get the usual enthusiastic response.

The piece was going to be about 2,000 words and he asked, “How much?” I think I told him $1,500, a good freelance payment back then. His response: “Jack, I now get at least $1,500 when I give a speech. I’m not going to work two weeks on a piece for you when I can make that much in less than a day giving a speech on a college campus.”

Bernie Swain and the Washington Speakers Bureau had become an important part of the journalistic equation. Print reporter gets regular TV appearances, gets speech bookings, mostly on college campuses or trade association meetings, and makes a lot of pretty easy money. And, some would argue, spreads himself too thin to continue to do great reporting.
In August 1983, we captured the change in a Washingtonian piece written by British journalist Henry Fairlie: “How Journalists Get Rich: And Why That Money Is So Corrupting.” Also worth reading on the same subject: “The Buckrakers,” a piece by Jacob Weisberg in the January 27, 1986 New Republic.

The Washingtonian’s digital archives don’t go back to 1983, but here are the main points from the Fairlie piece:

The primary activity of Washington is no longer the government of the country through its political institutions; it is now the sustaining of the illusion of government through the media and in obedience to the media’s needs and demands.

The people of the media are today the wheelers and dealers. Point to any others so skillful of using the machinery of Washington, and so protected from any public challenge or scrutiny.

The media compete in size with the political community—the 100 senators, the 435 representatives, and their staffs. This explosive growth in the media community has taken place simultaneously with the similar inflation of the legal profession. In such numbers, both are parasitic. No capital can long remain true to itself with two plagues whose common symptoms are cynicism and cant.

The media are not just an extension of journalism. That is why the term had to be invented. The media trade not in substance, but in celebrity. The celebrity at the top is bought, and sells himself, for large sums. He is not selling any work. He is selling only himself.

The effect of this on the profession is obvious. Fewer and fewer young journalists are willing to be and to remain just good reporters. It is not the reporters who get lifted to this celebrity; and we as readers begin to overlook them.

Television is only a step to the real goal, the lecture circuit. There is the big money for utterances that require a minimum of thought or creative work. The fundamental principle 0f the lecture circuit is simple: to make much the same speech to organizations that wish to hear much the same thing.

The effect on Washington is that, trading in celebrity, the media trade also in the wealth surrounding the celebrity. The very profession that should be the acid, relentless critic of the affluence and cynicism of Washington is now the most ostentatiously affluent and cynical profession in the city.
So it was first TV, then Bernie Swain, and then the siren song of why spend so much time reporting and writing when you can get rich talking.


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