Moving Forward at the Press Club?

By Friedman, Roger | American Journalism Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview
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Moving Forward at the Press Club?

Friedman, Roger, American Journalism Review

He casually dismisses the suggestion that he is a crusader for a responsible media. But Douglas Harbrecht takes journalism's reputation seriously.

And as the newly elected president of the National Press Club, he finds himself in a position to do something about it. Harbrecht, Business Week's Washington news editor, ran unopposed and was inaugurated in February.

Reaching a younger generation of newsies and shedding the veneer of an "old boys' club" are among his goals, says the 46-year-old Harbrecht, who might be chided by club elders if they knew he had romped naked in the mud at Woodstock.

Some members say Harbrecht was propelled to victory in part by a large 64-member voting block from McGraw Hill, Business Week's parent, and another 11 votes from Scripps Howard.

And some members, particularly ones who joined long before the electronic media were even a blip, aren't exactly Harbrecht's fans. "I have been in the club nearly every day for 15 years and until a meeting [on January 23], I had never seen his face," says Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief Douglas Turner. "I had no idea who he was, what he wanted for the club or even what he looked like."

Harbrecht's not the first to ascend to the presidency without working his way up through the club, says Heather Ann Hope, 29, a member of its board of governors and a staff writer at Congressional Quarterly's House Action Reports.

"He's never chaired a press club committee, and I think that's a concern for a lot of members," says Hope, straining for diplomacy. "It's an unfortunate development, but it's getting to be more and more common."

Lack of time logged in committees is not the only complaint. Turner, who says he was "absolutely creamed" in a run for NPC president nine years ago for being too controversial, was irritated by Harbrecht's seeming disregard for and insensitivity toward some members at the January meeting.

Several older members -- including five or six past presidents -- wanted to return the controversial "Phryne," a painting of a nude woman, to the lounge wall, where it had hung for more than 50 years until it was moved to storage during club renovations in the mid '80s.

Some club members say the painting has become the "Confederate flag of the press club." To older members, it serves as an identity marker. To others, including Harbrecht, it hearkens back to times when the painted woman was the only female allowed in the club.

Harbrecht says there were not enough members present to allow a vote on the painting's placement.

Others weren't so sure the painting's supporters came up short. "He ignored several members who have meant a lot to this club -- just dismissed them out of hand," says Turner.

Harbrecht, who seems more concerned with consumers' opinions of the press than with members' opinions of him, responds: "Let me be known by the enemies I have made.

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