Decorum and Accountability: In Defense of the Press Corps

What if one day, you woke up, got ready, went to work and then the president of the United States called you and your entire profession “the enemy of the people?” Are you an anarchist working in a terrorist bomb-making backroom? Or, is your job to ferret out facts and write news stories about local government, financial market news, legislation, war, medical breakthroughs, education, technology or human interest, etc?

Why did you want to grow up to become an enemy of the people? Perhaps you were a natural-born skeptic, a curious problem-solver, a precocious storyteller or an aspiring detective inspired by the likes of Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew. Maybe you always knew you wanted to be a reporter. Maybe you loved American history and learning the Bill of Rights. Maybe you went to journalism school (college or graduate level). Perhaps you love writing and all of the above. Maybe you are skeptical about potential abuse of power by government officials. How is any of that unpatriotic?

Well, it is not. Unless you are writing anything but glowing reviews of The Donald. I deploy that moniker because I remember the New York tabloids in the 1980s eating up how President Trump’s first wife, Ivana Trump, called him that. Trump played the tabloids like a piano, creating a larger than life persona that exaggerated his success and portrayed him as a glamorous ladies’ man. I don’t remember the financial press or Wall Street types who lived in my hometown talking about him in any serious manner. He marketed himself very well over the decades to news outlets, including CNN, that enjoyed apparently easy access to the real estate marketer extraordinaire. He seemed to always be available for a phone interview.

Now, he is a public official and not just any public official. Somehow, he did not get the memo that in the United States, the press are actually constitutionally given the right to question the government (see the First Amendment). Why? Because this is not a monarchy. This is not a totalitarian state. This is not a theocracy. The Founding Fathers wanted to ensure the people – and the press by proxy – could seek redress against the government. Simply put, public officials are required to be open books when it comes to the people’s business and held accountable for wrongdoing, mistakes or murky situations.

Case in point: flash back to 2000, when a forest fire threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons are designed. The fire itself was started as a controlled burn by the National Park Service but raged out of control. In the fire’s wake, a couple of computer drives from the Los Alamos lab went missing, prompting understandable outrage, including on Capitol Hill. Then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a Democrat who had served New Mexico in Congress faced the heat, especially after declining to testify at a Senate hearing on the matter while an FBI investigation was ongoing. Republicans were joined in their ire against the energy secretary by the late Sen. Richard Byrd, the long-serving West Virginia Democrat.

Still, Richardson showed up for a previously scheduled speech on energy efficiency at the National Press Club and was besieged by an enormous press scrum in a side room. Realizing I wasn’t going to be able to get in a question about anything I covered (such as energy legislation, power markets and regulation), I moved to the side of the growing mass of reporters and cameras. While everyone else was jockeying for position, I happened to notice the secretary in a tiny space between the ballroom where he had given his speech and the ante room full of fury. He was poring over a notecard, which I presumed held his talking points. For a moment, I felt bad for the man.

He stepped out and the shouting began, including a cameraman screaming for the official to stand on a mark taped on the floor under the lights and booms. He stuck to the answers he had already disclosed and kept his sentences short. The shouting of questions incredibly intensified. A reporter with a French news agency asked a question in halting English and Richardson saw his out, politely encouraging the question “en français.” Suddenly the secretary and the Frenchman were going back and forth in French, leaving the bulk of the Washington reporters in the dark. He then left. By the way, the missing drives were found in the lab.

Did the shouting lack decorum? Hmm, well, the topic was missing nuclear secrets, so I’d say the shouting of questions was legit. And being a professional politician, the energy secretary withstood it.

By contrast, I recall an incident, also at the press club, that was wholly inappropriate.

I was sitting next to a young man in the press balcony when he started screaming obscenities at then Vice President Dick Cheney. Guess what? The vocal menace was not a reporter. Somehow, he had slipped by the Secret Service who had been checking our credentials and bags. A few seconds into the curse storm, a couple of agents whisked the pipsqueak out of his seat and floated him over the real reporters and out the door.

Most of the time, I didn’t have to shout at anyone because I covered a specialized beat, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and related topics. News with a broader audience attracts more press, more cameras, network coverage and shouted questions (see Richardson example above). Even during the Enron debacle, the California/Western energy crisis and endless, widely covered perennial hearings on comprehensive energy legislation (see Energy Policy Act of 2005), it wasn’t hard to get access to officials for questions. But, when you get in a scrum surrounding a public official, you need to be assertive or you have no chance of getting your question out.

One time, a “shooter” (TV news cameraman) pushed his boom over me and demanded I get out of his shot while I was standing in front of Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., as she was about to address the press outside of FERC, an agency that typically drew about a dozen regular reporters. Having done a TV news internship in Washington, I respected his needs, so I stooped down and raised my recorder to capture her remarks. I didn’t need to ask my own question at that moment and was relieved the senator was not male because it would have been really awkward to kneel before a male senator. That would lack decorum, but if I needed to in the moment to hear an official on an important story, I would do it.

It’s a reporter’s job to ask questions, not to make politicians feel comfortable. Another time, I covered a press conference in the House of Representatives gallery with fuming Democrats. They were besides themselves, blaming the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee for not doing enough (purportedly) to look into the California energy crisis. On my way out of the Capitol, I happened upon Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who happened to be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He was giving a tour to a small group of constituents. He saw me and, like many, many members of Congress in those days, turned to take a question. I related what the Democrats had been saying about him and he gave me a pithy comment: “Bless their hearts.”

Now, basic decorum is an important part of the job too. When President George W. Bush appointed new members of FERC, one was a gentleman from Texas named Pat Wood III. The first time I addressed him as Commissioner, he said, call me Pat. I stuck with the title. Soon enough, he was elevated and I always called him Mr. Chairman. I wasn’t being obsequious or just observing protocol. It just seemed weird to call an official by their first name if and when I needed to ask tough questions. Given FERC was awash in policy controversies (some with certain regions, namely California, the Pacific Northwest and the South, and others with state regulators, including a case that went to the Supreme Court), there was ample opportunity to ask tough questions. And Chairman Wood answered them.

It would be more productive for politicians and reporters to resume that kind of dialogue. And, it would also be good for the president of the United States to stop calling the press the enemy of the people.