Let’s try term limits — for reporters

Washington correspondents are too cozy with the powers that be. Send ’em home after 12 years.

April 09, 2010|By Ed Goodpaster

Don't roll out the bandwagon just yet, but they are talking again of putting a limit on the terms of members of Congress.

As The Sun's Paul West reported last week, if the anti-government lust falters and they can't throw all the rascals out in next fall's election, there appears to be increasing sentiment for at least putting a cap on how long they can do their rascality.

The idea has of course come up before, and each time the Washington legislative establishment has flicked it off its shoulder. Put your money on that happening again. Incumbents will keep coming back, and Congress will continue to look like a federally funded assisted living center.

But there is another way to make the future less certain for what one term-limit backer called "these entrenched men and women who enjoy lives of luxury wholly insulated from the consequences of their major policy failure." Put the service-time restraints not on the lawmakers but the men and women of the media who cover them.

There is no guarantee that a fresh set of eyes every so often would change the way Washington looks, but it has a chance of changing the way voters look at Washington's public servants. In short, a little less "entrenchment" on the part of those who observe them might be a good thing.

Concerns about Washington reporters getting too cozy with news sources have been around forever. Abraham Lincoln had his favorites among the hundreds of newspaper correspondents who showed up to cover the Civil War; Franklin D. Roosevelt called them by their first names and laughed with them; some went swimming with John Kennedy in the White House pool; and Henry Kissinger charmed several Washington news veterans into embarrassing expressions of that coziness over a recorded telephone.

But over the past three decades, technology and never-ending news cycles have ballooned the Washington news community and watered down its focus. Being first is now job one, a probing eye on the growth of the K Street lobby behemoth and various congressional malfeasances left somewhere behind. And, as with the politicians, few correspondents choose to go home once they have sniffed the high-octane Washington air.

And why not? The money can be good, you can take the kids to the vice president's Halloween party or the White House Easter egg roll and drink with the stars at The White House Correspondents' dinner. You even have a chance to do some good in a national spotlight.

Soon, it is home. You are there to cover "them." But "them" turn out to live next door, go to the same church or bar, car pool for the same kids sports team

For years I have had this dream, that the nation's journalism community would agree on a way to minimize that blending. The way the dream goes, if you are picked to go to Washington, it's for 12 years, just like the lawmakers.

And — a crucial extra — you must take your knowledge of how Washington works back to the organization or community that sent you, a practice not uncommon decades ago when Washington's news bureaus were heavily newspaper outposts.

So, here, for the fun of it, is how some recent Washington media royalty would have been spread around the country if the dream ruled and they went back to places that started them on their road to Washington.

For the late columnist Robert Novak, the capitol's "Prince of Darkness," it would have been Joliet, Ill., and the Herald News there. One of the Fox News "Beltway Boys," Morton Kondracke, could have sat at the next desk there while Mr. Kondracke's partner, Fred Barnes, would go south to the Charleston, S.C. News & Courier.

The late, legendary Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" is one who started his news career in the capital, but on the basis of almost-continuous expressions of affection for his origins, he would have gone back to his beloved Buffalo; The Washington Post's David Broder would be off to his first newspaper, The Pantagraph, in Bloomington, Ill.; Newsweek's Howard Fineman to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

For NBC's Andrea Mitchell, it's back to Philadelphia radio, and her buddy Chris Matthews would turn his "Hardball" style loose at the San Francisco Examiner. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd is also one of those home-grown models, who over the years has just moved from one D.C. ZIP Code to another. (This comment has no political or professional connotation, but you can't do much about her.)

As for intermarriages of the Washington breed, dream officials ruled they can choose between two communities. For Al Hunt of Bloomberg News and Judy Woodruff of CNN, that would mean Wayne, Pa. (and the Philadelphia Bulletin) for him and Atlanta ( CBS TV) for her. Authors Cokie and Steve Roberts both started their journalism in Washington, so they would be asked to pick between family homes: Bayonne, N.J. (him) and New Orleans (her). Any bets on that one?

As with the politicians, it isn't going to happen. But, as in my dream, it could bring a regular freshening of the Washington air. And you wouldn't have to change the Constitution.

Ed Goodpaster is a former national editor of The Sun and was an editor in Washington for The Sun, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. He lives in Baltimore. His e-mail is edgood1@verizon.net.

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