In four decades as a broadcast journalist, with a series of exclusive stories to her credit, Mitchell has acquired rare stature as an authoritative voice on foreign policy, the intelligence community, national politics, the White House and Congress. She was a warm and constant friend to Devroy from the time they both covered the Reagan White House in the 1980s.
2004 Devroy Forum presentation
Thank you, thank you for that far too generous introduction. It is wonderful to see such a large and enthusiastic audience, and I know it is a tribute to Ann and to the legacy that she leaves here. I’d like to say that it’s wonderfully carried on through Karen Kremer, through this department of Journalism, through the terrific scholarship winners. Congratulations to Gina and to all of those who have preceded her.
It is just a great honor to be here tonight to talk about the challenges of journalism, especially in this very complicated world, and to celebrate the work of the very best reporters I’ve ever known bar none. After Ann died in 1997, President Clinton said she made more than one president squirm and viewed her job as to make officials – especially self-important ones – squirm. She had no favorites. She hated hypocrisy wherever she found it. She was relentless and funny and fair and tough-minded and more than occasionally profane. She broke stories that were big-deal stories in Washington. You don’t see very much that’s exclusive anymore in Washington, except you know Bob Woodward’s books, but in daily journalism, you don’t find a whole lot that’s interesting or unique. She broke stories that brought down White House chiefs of staff. Just ask John Senunu and president posters. Just ask Dick Morris. She was bipartisan and nonpartisan in her determination to ferret out uncomfortable truth. Politicians respected her, and they feared her. Friendship, and she was friendly with some of the people she covered, was no shield against her probing wit, her keen mind or her stiletto pen. I can’t tell you how often in the past seven years I’ve thought of what she would be writing about the current situation in Washington. I can only tell you that much of what is now being revealed in these tell-all books would have been instead scooped every day on the front page of the Washington Post by Devroy in real time. Without Ann’s presence to enliven our days, we some how struggle on, covering battles that she would have relished between Colin Powell and Dick Cheney over who will control U.S. foreign policy.
As you can tell from the recent hearings, things are getting very tense in Washington. Indeed, it’s really been brutal in our nation’s capitol these days, and I thought I’d talk about that a little bit tonight. (I’ll) talk about what it means to us as journalists, to you as citizens, (and) raise some questions that I hope will provoke some more questions by you, because I really look forward to the question and answers afterward.
Whatever brief spirit of bipartisanship existed briefly after 9/11 had certainly evaporated. Now we’ve returned to the politics of old, violence, martyr missions, suicide attacks – and that’s only within the National Security Council. … When you think of the people we’ve covered, maybe it sounds very old-fashioned, but the current cast of characters sometimes do seem to fade by comparison to some of the controversies of the Reagan and Clinton White Houses. Maybe I’ve been around Washington too long, but perhaps long enough to know that we are living in an unprecedented time. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for the Cold War. It was a lot simpler back then. We were fighting against a nation as a nation, kind of. Everybody knew who the enemy was, and we watched the fairly extraordinary evolution of Ronald Reagan’s mind as he – with the help of his wife – began to realize that he wanted to look at the detaunt in a completely different way. A cold hide look at the Soviet Union – fairly clear-eyed, in fact – but those first summits with Mikhail Gorbachev were so fascinating. I remember Ann and I and the rest of the White House Press Corps were out in Santa Barbara, as we were very often. We once figured that we were in Santa Barbara for a good year of our lives when you counted up all of the Thanksgivings and July 4ths and Easter holidays and then the endless Augusts, and we use to pretend that we were covering the president of the United States, but, you know, he was 30 miles away at the top of a mountain, and we could only see him with those long-range telescopes – the telescopic lenses that have absolutely been perfected for the space shuttle launches. What was then known as Cape Canaveral and brought to Santa Barbara, first by CBS and then imitated by the other networks, to try to catch a glimpse of Ronald Reagan riding horseback with Nancy. He later joked that he just knew that he could have really played havoc with the minds of the press corps, and therefore with the rest of the world, if just one day he had pretended to clutch his chest and keel over, and at that distance, we all would have been off and running with the latest crisis. But there was one typically relaxed August holiday when yet another Soviet leader Andropov died. In fact, no one knew that he had really died at first. We were desperately trying to find the White House press secretary out there in California, and eventually I managed to confirm it from the National Security Council. They only knew it because the Dusko Doder, then-Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, was clever enough to realize that Moscow radio had changed to funeral music. I mean, if you look at what’s happening now and for all of the flaws in the Russian democracy, it is a whole lot more transparent than it was back then when we were covering the Soviet Union. So getting information was pretty darn hard, but Reagan was once asked why he hadn’t had a summit yet with a Soviet leader, and there had been Chernenko, Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov, and he said, ‘Well, they keep dying on me.’
Covering a conflicted administration is tough
That first summit in 1985 in the Geneva was just a grand story, and arms control for me, you know, was such tremendous challenge, because – first of all – it was highly mathematical to understand the various competing proposals and, you know, once you got beneath the surface if it, starting with the president’s first major arms control speech in Eureka College, his alma mater, arguments back and forth between the two sides were rather intense and very mathematical and convoluted. And then there was the Regevac Summit and all of the wonderful White House intrigue and the fights between the Pentagon and the State Department over which approach to take to the Soviet Union. As I said, Weinberger vs. Shultz, but I’ve spoken to George Schultz in recent years, saw him recently in California, (and) talk often to some of the other former Reaganites, and as I say, nothing even compares with the level of enmity – if you will – among these players. The Woodward book has got that right: The dissonance between the competing forces, and frankly, Colin Powell is outnumbered, because the stars are in alignment between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were old colleagues in the Ford White House, and Dick Cheney and Colin Powell even during the first Gulf War were never very close. They got along, because they had to get along, and they were professional colleagues, but not personal friends. So there’s been a lot of tension, and it has had its impact on foreign policy. Not just Iraq, but the early disputes in 2001 over how to handle North Korea, the continual zigzags and our policy toward Iran. So, I’d like talk to you a bit about all of these challenges, because covering this kind of administration is – as I shared with some of you a bit earlier, some of the students – is very, very tough. In the Reagan White House, Ann and the rest of us benefited by the fact that there were three power centers: Ed Meese, Mike Deaver, Jim Baker, somewhat ideologically different, different loyalties, that come from different parts of the Republican Party, and they competed amongst each other for advantage, so they leaked. I’m not divulging any great secret here, but they and their partisans and supporters and subordinates all talk to the press at various times, and it was just terrific for us. You know, we were golden. Well, the Clinton White House, I didn’t cover George Herbert Walker Bush intensively. I did around the margins, but I was the chief congressional correspondent in those years. And when I went to the hill, another great reporter, Tom Pettit – he was our Senate correspondent – and in fact, I think had Minnesota roots. I called from Kennebunkport, where I was covering George Bush during the transition in 1988, the end of ’88, November. And I said, ‘What am I going to do? They’re sending me to the hill?’ And Tom said, ‘Sis,’ – It’s what he use to call me – he said, ‘Sis, you’ve just died and gone to heaven. There is no better beat anywhere than Congress.’ In retrospect, I discovered he was right, because the next four years were so filled with controversy and excitement and scandal that we produced so much news. I mean, it was just a reporter’s dream.
Aspiring journalists: Consider covering Congress
So any of you young journalists, one of my first bits of advice would be to think about covering Congress. It is basically 435 people. So, 535 people all eager to tell their side of the story and all looking for an audience. And once you get the hang of it – and it isn’t easy, because it’s a very complex place and relationships are subterranean – but it is a reporter’s dream. And in those years when I was covering the hill, we had – starting with John Tower’s confirmation as defense secretary, which led to Dick Cheney’s replacement of John Tower as defense secretary, which opened up the back benches, since Dick Cheney had been Republican house leader – for the back benchers to move up and challenge the leaders in the House, and that’s how Newt Gingrich first began moving up, bringing along with him … a whole new breed of House members – far more conservative than their predecessors. And, as you saw this evolution, there was one scandal after another. The Keating Five and the whole Savings and Loan issue, wished by authentically, none of us brilliant reporters had covered in 1988. Both Democratic and Republican campaigns had deep roots, because of the deep pockets of the Savings and Loans, and none of us ever raised that question. I went back and looked at it – It never came up, and as soon as 1989, as that transition took place, immediately we began to see the S and L scandal and how much it affected everything that was going on in our economy. It’s hard to think back at how much of a crisis it was, but it was a very big crisis at the time and required a huge amount, billions of remediation, and it’s a great lesson for journalists, because the issues that we think are going to be important never are as important or rarely are or aren’t always are.
Journalists didn’t question foreign policy
What was not covered in the 2000 campaign? One guess: Foreign policy. … There was barely a question asked. None of the debate questions asked of foreign policy, yet what has consumed this administration and is now potentially going to be the most compelling issue if the economy is in fact on the upswing, and if jobs ever are created in any significant numbers – which is a big if – but if that were to happen, then what is going on in the ground in Iraq could in fact determine how people view this election. Yet, it was never tested of either Al Gore or George Bush in any meaningful way. So here we are. We are in Washington covering the most important issues that any of have ever even dreamed of covering; yet, how many of us are really equipped to cover the complexity of foreign policy in a post-9/11 world? Just a question I want to raise tonight.
Current administration pretty locked down
I remember when I first started covering the White House. Helen Thomas was of course the dean (and) always will be the dean of the White House Press Corps. And I asked her for advice, and she said the first challenge is to figure out when the president of the United States is telling the truth. Now, she said with Lyndon Johnson, the first president covered, it was really very easy. When LBJ kind of patted the back of his head, you knew that he was telling the truth, and if he kind of tugged his ear, you knew he was telling the truth. And if he adjusted his necktie, you knew Johnson was telling the truth, but she said if he moved his lips, so that’s armed, you know with a healthy skepticism. Now a man who’s actually served four presidents, David Gergen, used to tell a story from his perspective when often we were out and about together about a White House correspondent and a diplomat and a counselor to the president all covering a campaign somewhere out here in the Midwest, desperate for a place to spend the night. Couldn’t find a hotel, couldn’t find a motel. Finally knocked on a farmer’s door and said, ‘Can you put the three of us up for the night?’ And the farmer said, ‘Well, I have room for two, but one of you is going to have to spend the night in the barn.’ And the diplomat said, ‘Well, I’m an ambassador. I’ve got to be diplomatic. I’ll make the sacrifice and spend the night in the barn.’ He went off to spend the night in the barn, (and) the White House correspondent, the counselor to the president, settled down for the night. Five minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and it was the ambassador, and he said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I am Hindu, and there is a sacred cow in that barn, and I can’t possibly spend the night with a cow,’ so the White House counselor, lawyer to the president, got up, and he said, ‘I’ll make this sacrifice.’ He went off to the barn, (and) the other two settled down for the night. Five minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and it was the White House lawyer, and he said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m Jewish, and there is a pig in that barn, and I can’t spend the night with a pig.’ So the White House correspondent kind of begrudgingly, slowly got up and shuffled off to the barn, and the ambassador and the lawyer settled down for the night. Five minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and it was the cow and pig. So, we’re not a walk in the park either, we correspondents, and I’m sure that if you’re a wartime president and you’re being pestered by these pesky reporters, you have every reason to think you want to keep operational security and political security and not talk to the press. But we really are getting to a period where we have had very low contact with the people whom we cover, and that is the big difference in this White House. Unlike tedious Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s pretty locked down. There are very few press conferences; cabinet secretaries, with a few exceptions, are not as available as they use to be. But more importantly, the kind of sources that Ann use to develop, deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy – people who worked in the National Security Council and in the budget office, people whose names you never know or read in the paper but who were willing to talk, often as a matter of principle, but sometimes because she was just so indomitable and so relentless. She talked to the high and the mighty, and she talked to middle-ranged person, and she talked to people at all levels of every bureaucracy, and she had sources parked everywhere. But it’s even hard today to find those people willing to talk, because such a premium is placed on morality. Because many of the people in this administration – unlike their predecessor Republican administrations – did not come off the hill, did not come (from) other agencies. They came from Austin, Texas, and their loyalty is to one person, and this is terrific if you’re George Bush. But there are risks, and there’s a downside, even for the president. You keep secrecy, but you don’t have the interactivity. You don’t have interactivity. English professors tell me that’s not a word. You don’t have any interaction, you’re not tested, you’re not testing yourself with questions with people who are bringing you any other points of view. And in particular in this administration, there doesn’t seem to be the kind of constant debating society we used to watch in the Clinton White House. Now we criticized them for that. We talked about the endless debates. I mean, remember the health care process, the budget debates that ended up with pizzas being delivered at 2 in the morning and the president of the United States going over the budget line-by-line? It was a lot more like West Wing, in terms in the kinetic quality of the White House … and there has to be some value in the order and discipline that has been now imposed on this White House. But at the same time, you get the sense of a churning intellectually. You don’t get the sense that people are saying to themselves, ‘You know what don’t I know about this? What other points of view should I get?’ And, in fact, when you look at the national intelligence estimate that was declassified, parts of it were – that was requested from Congress in October of 2002 to talk about – did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? When you look at the way the State Department’s caveats and the concerns by a few dissenters in the Defense Intelligence Agency about certain aspects of these weapons, assumptions were watered down and oversimplified in the final product that went to the president.
Somebody asked me asked at a forum not too long ago, what would I do if I were running foreign policy, if I ruled the world, if I were queen for a day. And I think, ‘What I would do? What I would change?’ What I would change would not be ideological, because I don’t really have a dog in that hunt, as Jim Baker used to say. What I would change would be I would want more points of view. If I were a cabinet secretary, I would say, bring me 10 people who disagree with you, and let’s have coffee or dinner, or let’s have a meeting, and I want to hear all the dissenters before I decide. That’s what you don’t get a sense (of) happening in this administration. Now, with all this homogeneity, it certainly does make it harder on journalists.
On the bandwagon, headed toward war
And there’s another factor, and I think we should fess up a bit. I think after 9/11, there was a self-censorship that went on in the media. Our critics say that we were too jingoistic – you know, too eager to jump on the bandwagon for the Afghan war and then partly for the Iraq war as well. I’m not sure it was that; I think they’re just, as you look back over the reporting, there was a sense that this was always a new world, and we can be forgiven of that. I speak collectively from my profession. For one thing, we didn’t know how to deal with it. No one did. I don’t know where you all were on 9/11, but I was in the newsroom, and the first plane hit, and I immediately started calling some sources. And before the second plane hit, they said this is terrorism, and it’s Al Qaeda: It’s got to be Al Qaeda. Of course, they knew that there had been the plot in 1995 out of the Philippines to highjack airplanes, and it all began to click, and they also knew because the World Trade Center was – we didn’t know this; I didn’t know this at the time – but that’s where the CIA had their New York office. So they had people in that building, and they were getting real-time information. And you go into automatic drive. You’re reporting. We were reporting on three networks. And before the second plane hit, I was on the air saying that this was not an accident, it was a high jacking and terror and suggesting who the players might have been and what we knew and what we didn’t know, and we were on endlessly. And it was within the next few minutes that they started talking about grounding all flights that were in the air anywhere domestically and sending any final flights to Canada and getting a census of how many planes were out there. We didn’t know how many had been high jacked, and as we’re working on this, I suddenly realized that my husband was in the air approaching Delis. Not in final approaching at all, but coming back from Zurich. (He) … was supposed to land that morning in Delis, and so I called his office, and they said they hadn’t heard from him, and eventually they landed everything domestically. They landed all the incoming flights from overseas and Canada, and we still hadn’t heard anything. It was noon, it was one, finally after these hours of constant reporting and being on the air and inside sort of this knowing what is going on and kind of separating those sides of the brain, they tell me at 3 o’clock to go to the anchor desk, sit down, and Tom would open the 3 o’clock hour by coming to me to recap everything that happened that day. I went up to the anchor desk in the Washington newsroom, sat down, and my cell phone rang, and it was my husband. The pilot had phoned them, because they had run out of landing space in this hemisphere. They had flown all the way back to Zurich without an explanation, just that some for some reason they couldn’t land in the States, and he was saying, 'What is going on in America?' And at that second, the director was saying in my ear, ‘Andrea, Andrea, Tom’s coming to you, are you ready?’ So all I had time to say was, ‘Listen up,’ and I held the cell phone right there on the anchor desk and did a recap, and that’s how we communicated that day. And we were on the air then for seven days without a commercial break on three networks, with not simultaneous, but with three different levels of programming.
Nostalgia for novel news
Before September 11th, the most important story on cable news, and yes, on some of the broadcast networks, was Gary Condit and the missing intern. Doesn’t that seem kind of ancient now? In some ways you kind of get nostalgic for those days of tabloid news after you stay up all night trying to figure out competing claims by Israelian Palestinian sources about the latest detour of anything approaching a peace process in the Middle East. I remember traveling with Secretary Powell to the Middle East a couple of years ago when we thought we had some momentum then, a glimmer of hope. Yasser Arafat had come out of his confinement in the Ramallah, and there was a resolution to the stand off in Bethlehem. Colin Powell walked into Ariel Sharon’s house, my cell phone goes off – those cell phones – and it was my colleague at the White House to tell me that Ari Fleischer, then the press secretary, completely disavowed Powell’s bargaining points with Sharon and that the White House had flipped in an opposite direction, thus marginizing Powell with the Israelis and with prime leaders around the world. It was a moment. Events have overtaken clearly even that brief optimism. Only last week, we had First Mobaric of Egypt in Crawford, Texas, who had no heads up from the administration. Two days later, Sharon comes to Washington. The perils of daily journalism. The New York Times has a lead story about the compromise that the administration was going to agree to with Sharon with some modulations that were not completely what Israel had wanted. Of course, that night – the night before the summit in Washington – Condi Rice goes to Sharon’s hotel room to negotiate the final wording of their joint statements, and the State Department and the National Security Council had misread some of the signals from Sharon, who was kind of bluffing and saying he wouldn’t take the trip if he didn’t get everything he wanted, and so The New York Times’ version of the story – it was no longer operative and, in fact, Sharon got far more in that particular negotiation. Now we see the reactions from some Arab leaders. This is either if you take the administration’s standpoint, a very smart way of getting out of a three-year deadlock where nothing was happening. It’s been, you know, praise for a variety of reasons, some political, some substantive, even the other night in a speech by Bill Clinton. But from the Arab perspective, it is of course something quite different: a real policy shift that is shutting off options for any kind of final status agreement, and I’m watching the way it was covered. I was struck by how little really was communicated on many of the broadcast stations. This story was covered in many print journals that it kind of got lost in the shuffle. This is the kind of story that used to be so much larger, and it’s so important to understand fully and somehow doesn’t have the kind of experienced reporting that we see on a daily basis in Washington. I remember when I was the region on that trip in particular, going first going to see Arafat in Amala, and then visiting with Israelis and seeing how their lives had changed and trying to understand the way they had adjusted to terror, the kind of adjustments that we haven’t even been forced to make in our country. And then meeting with a Palestinian family in east Jerusalem, a young man who was going to law school at Hebring University because he said he wanted to understand Israeli law, because that was the only way he was going to be effective as a lawyer trying to gain life for his people. Yet to get from east Jerusalem to Hebring University, they lived within a height line. They lived a couple of hundred yards from the checkpoint, but because he’s Palestinian, he couldn’t go through that checkpoint. He had to detour for miles on foot and try to cross over the boundaries somewhere and hope he wasn’t caught just in order to get to college each day to get to law school. Often is with my experience in Afghanistan in 1998. I think back after all the terror and destruction of the last years and wonder what’s happened to that young man. I wonder what’s happened to two young boys that I meant in Kabul back quite some time ago, and I worry that it’s conceivable that none of those people have survived.
Reporting right now is dangerous
Reporters are also on the front lines. Initially, during Antipoda, we lost an extraordinary number of reporters, because of the rules of engagement or the lack of rules of engagement, but it was clear that for one particular period the Israeli defense force was without question targeting Western journalists, and of course we know about the risks in covering anything in that area as far as terrorism from the other side. And now just last night in Grenich, Connecticut, there was a scholarship fund to raise money for the children of David Bloom, my colleague and friend who we lost in Iraq during that amazing three-week march on Baghdad. We have lost journalists just last week – several Arab journalists in Iraq in the crossfire or possibly in fire from coalition forces. It is a very, very dangerous job right now. Our own people in Baghdad we hope are hunkered down. There was pool for Jetta Fullujah yesterday. It was shot by an NBC cameraman, a friend of mine shooting for all of the world media. He was the only cameraman there, and when I thought that Maurice was shooting those pictures, and I saw the incoming and how he was at eye-level with the Marines as they were shooting back at the insurgents, you know, my heart was just pounding at looking at that footage. His wife is our Burbank bureau chief, and they had been through so many wars together. She was in Baghdad all during the war for us – and then Daniel Pearl, full of life and an expectant father carefully, eagerly pursuing a story and then unknowingly being a quarry for those brutal killers. Just a word about journalists in far more dangerous places who don’t work for U.S. media: In the past years, in Belaruse, President Lukashenko ceased equipment from media organizations and froze their bank accounts. In Burma, the government still owns all electronic media and print publications. There are places around the world: Columbia, where we have lost so many brave journalists; Turkey, where people are still in jail. There is an organizational committee to protect journalists, which has a Web site which tracks all of this, and I commend any of the young reporters to follow this and to be supportive of those who speak out in favor of preserving freedom and expanding freedoms of the press around the world. I think at this stage in our public life its just really important to honor these men and women and to think about them and to try to figure out what we can do to track the complexities of these crises to our readers and our listeners even as we are frankly inhibited by the very violence that we are there to cover.
No room for laziness in journalism
We no longer in this kind of world have the luxury to be lazy or ignorant. Not as citizens, and not as journalists. The stakes are just too high. When I ask people in the CIA what they are worried about, they’re worried about another incident, they’re worried about the one that they don’t defend against. The Saudis disabled five suicide car bombs in the last 48 hours and missed two – and those were the two that blew up. Covering this kind of issue is enormously complex; I, as any other journalist in Washington and in New York at the U.N., have questions that I ask myself almost everyday about the WMD issue. All of us were covering some things that we could not check out independently. All we could do was talk to the U.N. inspectors, talk to independent experts, talk to the state department, the CIA, get as many sources as possible, try to create a contextual story, try to put as much as texture in it as possible. But the bottom line is that we were captive of the information we were being given from official Washington and, as we now know, pretty demonstrably, even from David Kay, my colleague, it isn’t there and perhaps never was. But if you ask yourself what George Bush and others must have been asking themselves who know ... Saddam Hussein would not have disclosed everything that he had and answered all of the U.N.’s questions transparently in order to get the sanctions lifted and be able to earn of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue? Since he didn’t, one had to assume he was hiding something, and there is a rational case to be made for the assumptions they made. What isn’t so rational is whether or not the intelligence was distorted; they still have to be proved whether or not they massaged the evidence, whether or not they believe what they wanted to believe to fit, whatever their preconceived notions are.
The 24-hour news cycle is challenging
Now we know from the testimony of the 9/11 hearings and from allegations in Clark’s book and Bob Woodward’s book that it is very, very tough for daily reporters to write that first rough draft of history, especially in an era of relentless 24-hour cable news. In a moment of crisis, how do we balance our hearts and our brains, how do we figure out who is telling the truth and is not? That is the challenge of journalism. That is the challenge for experienced reporters. I’d like to say that we never made mistakes, but we do. I’d like to say that in the hurry to write these stories on deadlines that we don’t miss key pieces of evidence, but we do. There had been times over the last couple of years when I think that we’ve relied too much on official sources precisely because we haven’t been able to get far enough in the field. But as we gather tonight, I have to share with you my feelings. Despite all of our inadequacies, we have an amazing, amazing responsibility and an amazing privilege to be in the front row, to witness these events, to know the nation gets its information about what policymakers are doing and not doing from us. It’s a challenge that we do, I think, try to meet with as much dedication and purpose as we can. We have, you know, a lot of privilege under the First Amendment, and no protection could be more fundamental to our work. But with that privilege also does come responsibilities, so finally, tonight I want you to just share with me some thoughts about things that I think we could do better.
Technology has transformed the business
In the almost four decades that I’ve been in this business, I’ve watched it be transformed by technological change, particularly the Internet. We’ve made our deadlines constant while instantly expanding our opportunities to improve and to update our reporting. We now have the tools to provide a lot more background than we ever did. But in this brave new world of 24-hour news, I think we ought to periodically (take) time out to think about how we are using these new technologies and whether … in fact the technologies are getting the best of us. Recently in California some friends of mine were talking politics, and we were talking about how poisonous the atmosphere has become in Washington. And, to be polite, I didn’t ask them about their rather unique way of choosing governors. Certainly, we have seen a change in the level of civil discourse, since talk radio evolved into cable talk on television, and it’s often been said on cable television, I think we do blur the lines between news and commentary. I think it’s confusing to our viewers. It’s confusing to ourselves. When I go on one of these talk shows, and I try to walk this fine line, sometimes you go over the edge. And often other people on beats, on important beats, just pontificate with their points of view and think they can then go back to the north end of the White House and be perceived as straight talkers about the news, when they’ve just been mouthing their opinions on another cable channel. Now in fairness to us, we’re actually covering a very different environment during the last two decades, as I experienced when I covered Congress. We’ve seen confirmation fights of the nominees and both parties become virtual warfare; you might call it the political equivalent of mutually assured destruction. We’ve gone from grand jury investigations to impeachment hearings, and we’ve ridden the wave of scandal to cable television ratings fortune. But ever since former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan once asked, 'Where do I go to get my reputation back after he’d been cleared of an investigation?' I think we need to occasionally hit the pause button and remind ourselves of first principles.
So, in closing, let me ask just a few questions. Is it fair to recycle rumors for which we have no proof, simply because they’re on an Internet Web site? Does a story automatically become fair game just because the target is forced to deny it? How many correspondents have two sources before they go on the air? How many have one source before they go on the air? How about crediting the competition? Back in the Reagan years, if we got beaten on a story at 6:30, I would start speed dialing between 6:30 and 7 to try to get someone to confirm it, and if I could, we would go on the air, and John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw would say at 7, 'NBC News has confirmed the report on CBS News.' You would credit the competition for the cool scoop and then share it with your viewers once you knew it to be fact. Now, if something from the wire, people just rip it and read it and go on the air without checking it out – and certainly without attribution. And just as multiple sourcing seems a bit punked, The Washington Post recently reminded us in its Outlook section that we become entirely too lazy about anonymous sources. Anonymous sources are necessary on occasion – especially when you’re covering intelligence and you’re covering some of these complicated secret diplomatic issues. But we have to try to give our audiences and our viewers, our readers, more information so they as consumers can assess the reliability of our sources. The Post announced it was setting tougher standards and revising its guidelines to attribution, and I think it’s a useful example. The start of the general election campaign is not a bad time to refocus on how to make our sourcing more transparent and our stories more honest. These are serious times. For the past two years, we have struggled to find truth among competing claims about war and weapons and terror connections. In my memory never has our coverage of foreign or domestic policy been as important or as difficult. We owe it to our viewers in our profession to lower the decibel level and just make sure we get it right.
Journalists should be aware of their power
Finally, an insight from a very smart woman, a woman whose quote is in your program, talking about Ann, my friend, the late Meg Greenfield from The Washington Post. In her book, Washington, published posthumously, she wrote, 'It’s safe to say that for all our vanity and cockiness about our constitutionally protected role, few journalists have much appreciation of the enormous impact we have on the lives of those we write about. We don’t recognize that a consequential heavy weight presence we can be when we enter into their communal lives misunderstanding some project that is very important to them, ridiculing that decision they reached at some local council meeting.' Meg went on to write that she was not recommending that we become a bunch of civic boosters or sob sisters, to use her words. Only that we try to be more aware of our effect on the lives of our subjects. Meg was a tremendous example of an editorial writer who was fair and witty and funny and also died much too young. David Broder described Ann Devroy similarly as the most dogged, determined, complete reporter any of us ever saw, in Broder’s words. So, I thank you for inviting me to honor my friend tonight. There was never anyone better; we never needed her voice more than we do today. But she certainly is an inspiration to me everyday, and I hope – I know – also to all of you. Thank you very, very much.