The New York Times--and More
By Mary Hager
My 20 plus years of life in the Washington Bureau, for me and many others, involved a constant struggle to get our reporting past the preconceptions of New York editors. Guided all too often by the gospel of the New York Times and its echo in the intellectual buzz of Manhattan, some editors were sure that they knew and understood more about what was happening in Washington than those of us who toiled in the bureau to report it.
One of my favorite examples involved the late John Lindsay, a Watergate reporter extraordinaire. Lindsay wrangled the first exclusive interview with White House aide John Dean late on a Friday afternoon at a secret location in Maryland. Dean, trapped into lying for Nixon in the Watergate scandal, had gone into hiding to consult attorneys and figure out what he should do. Lindsay returned to the bureau and filed his scoop for the week's Watergate lead. But when he came in Saturday for the read back, the Dean interview wasn't even mentioned.
An irate Lindsay and bureau chief Mel Elfin called New York and demanded to know why. The answer was something like,, "Well, if it is such a big deal, how come I didn't read about it in the New York Times?" Elfin and Lindsay in the end were able to get a hedged and muted version of Lindsey’s huge scoop into the magazine that week. But it was close call, and our story actually raised questions about Dean’s veracity. Dean, who had orchestrated the cover up, wound up as the key witness against the President.
The Source: For the "back of the book"--science, medicine, energy, space, environment, basically everything not big "P" political--one could all too often anticipate New York's Tuesday query assignments for the coming week by reading the Times Monday and Tuesday. These queries were predictable to the point of asking us to interview the same people quoted in the Times.
But sometimes the Times was way off base, even wrong. One Times medicine/science reporter, in particular, was notorious for selectively using findings and taking them out of context to promote his story into play onto page one. When my reporting didn't back up the Times, I needed a reputable source and sometimes several directly to refute the Times. Otherwise the New York response was equally predictable, something like, “But the Times says. . . . "
No Help: Shortly after I joined the bureau, Mel Elfin held a meeting to assure his troops that he would go to bat for them if there were problems with New York. Several weeks later I did have a problem when the caveat, buried at the end of a three-column medicine story, effectively dismissed the findings because the study involved was small. I thought the caveat should be higher. I made my case with New York and lost, so, remembering Mel's vow, I went to him. [I found over the years that Mel was pretty stalwart. But this time, no luck. "Fight your own battles, Hager,"
he told me. I lost that one, but didn't lose them all, and over the years developed a good working relationships and friendships with editors and writers in New York, among them Melinda Beck, Sharon Begley, Susan Denzer, Jerry Adler, Aric Press, Matt Clark, David Gelman, John Schwartz, and Tom Morganthau, to name just a few. But there were times when New York myopia prevailed. Two examples--and these date back to the 80s-- showed it doesn't always pay to be ahead of the curve. In one case, New York turned down a story on a new government study showing a growing trend toward obesity in the U.S. The other rejection was on a story of a government study showing America’s kids were becoming increasingly unfit. Neither of the trends was possible, the powers in New York said at the time.
Big Beat: My wide beat covered a wide number of interesting personalities such as Dr. Koop, the first famous Surgeon General, Al Gore, Robert Gallo, celebrity head of NIH, Dean Ornish helpful congressional aides, a few whistle blowers, and a number of eccentrics like the "sea turtle man" who called periodically to pitch stories about sea turtles. It even included covering President Reagan when he went to Santa Barbara and no one else wanted to go. I felt it the best in Washington, maybe anywhere, and I always hoped no one else would figure that out.
Not all of my memories involve New York. One of my favorites involves ultraconservative James Watt, Reagan's first Secretary of Interior. We were doing a "whose land is this?" cover. It was to include a Q and A with Watt on his philosophy of public land management. Watt, an advocate of private property rights, had been an easy target for the press, and he didn't want to do it.
Taped Out: I explained what the cover was about and what role his Q and A would play, but it took several weeks to get him to agree. Even then he was wary, so when I started the interview, four tape recorders were lined up on the table. I had one, his press secretary had one, and Watt had two. Minutes into the interview, Watt called a halt and asked us to turn off the recorders.
"You are not one of them," he told me. I must have looked baffled because he then explained, "You actually asked me what you said you were going to ask."
I was stuck in Washington using the phone to do what I considered backbone reporting for the cover. This was explaining which agencies were responsible for what lands and why, the number of acres involved, how much was wilderness, and so on. But reporters from other bureaus were on-scene in places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Everglades and Yellowstone. At the last moment, I was sent to Glacier with Watt for the rededication of the Going to The Sun Highway and a cover photo shoot. The Secretary and I helped carry the photographer's equipment and later he went out of his way to make sure I had transportation to the ceremony and then back to the airport.
Turf Wars: Most stories I worked on didn't involve reporting from other bureaus. I, however, was probably guiltier than most of stepping into other bureau's territory. I
usually called the bureaus to let them know. Sometimes it didn’t work. During a follow up story to the Challenger, I placed a call to the Virginia office of a former astronaut, then interviewed him by phone when he returned the call. Afterwards I was the target of an all-bureau memo sent from Houston, suggesting I "should be disemboweled by the gods of Newsweek for egregious turf treading." My sin: I did not realize that my Virginian call had been returned from Houston.
And the memories keep flowing:
*Listening for hours over a period of weeks to Augusto Odone (who worked down the street at the World Bank) with his heavily Italian-accented English to pull together the threads that eventually became the story of Lorenzo's Oil.
*Prince Philip, after a back-page interview about his work with World Wildlife, asking why I was reporting about conservation, not fashion. A big smile and "conservation is more important" was the only way to answer;
*Then Bureau Chief Evan Thomas suggesting my reporting needed more "edge," followed almost immediately by a call from an environmental group informing me I had received their "Balance in Journalism" award for the year. (New York Times environmental reporter Phil Shabecoff won it the previous year, so I was in good company.)
* In California for the first landing of the Space Shuttle, riding a bus with a very nice lady, who happened to be the wife of newly-named editor Bill Broyles. This led to invitation to a dinner with Broyles and Otis Chandler--and a frantic search on a Sunday to find something appropriate to wear.
*Realizing how small Washington really is when my daughter Mary (now Executive Producer of Face the Nation and still asked if she is the Mary Hager from Newsweek) worked with bureau alums Gloria Borger and David Martin at CBS. She gets tweets from my EPA whistleblower source, Hugh Kaufman. My other daughter Anne works with Ken Burns at WETA, and ran into some of my own long-time sources during his opus on the National Parks.
Epilogue: I had worked for several years as a stringer in the San Francisco bureau of Newsweek before moving to Washington, where, on contract, I finished writing two presidential commission reports. That done, and looking for work, I visited then-Bureau Chief Mel Elfin, who informed me the Washington bureau didn't use stringers.
A few weeks later, though, Mel called to ask if I could fill in temporarily for Mary Lord. I did, and the following week Bill Cook asked if I had applied for Ev Clark's job. Ev, who had returned to the NY Times, covered science and medicine. I applied.
Welcome to the big time. The week before, doing a piece for Addiction Research Journal, I had called the press officer for the National Institute on Drug Addiction and he hung up on me. I now called him from Newsweek and he treated me like his best friend.
Mary Hager joined Newsweek in 1978 as science and medicine reporter and left in 2000.