Magazine article American Journalism Review

News Blues at the Pentagon

Magazine article American Journalism Review

News Blues at the Pentagon

Article excerpt

Very few Washing ton players could lay claim to handling the press better than Les Aspin. Vaulting over several senior colleagues to grab the House Armed Services chair in 1985, "Les," a everyone called him, went from junior congressman to senior statesman while treating reporters with disarming respect. He returned phone calls, held press conferences at countless stages of the budget process, did interviews on short notice, hired media-savvy staff and hosted cozy breakfasts where he remembered reporters' first names.

But now he's running the Pentagon and no one, except perhaps his boss at the White House, has had a rougher start with the press. Lack of access to top figures, favoritism, stonewalling, arrogance and shoulder shrugs in answer to routine queries, all led to a bitter protest last spring. The result was the formation of the Pentagon Correspondents Association, a rare beat organization among the individual egos of the Washington press corps, created to address Aspin's new press strategy.

Reporters are quick to blame the astonishing turnaround on Vernon A. Guidry Jr., an Aspin policy adviser on Capitol Hill who now has a similar job at the Pentagon after a troubled start as Defense's top spokesperson. On issues ranging from Aspin's health and the taxpayers' bill for the entourage that accompanied the secretary on a brief vacation in Venice, to the armed services' embarrassingly uncoordinated rush to be the first to announce a policy allowing women in combat cockpits, Pentagon public affairs appeared to be rudderless, obstinate, even contrary.

What really galled the press was that the wisecracking Guidry used to cover defense for Baltimore's Sun. "This is all very ironic, considering his background," says the Los Angeles Times' Melissa Healy, who recently left the Pentagon beat to cover environmental policy. "I sense that he didn't even anticipate our questions."

And that attitude filtered down. John Tirpak, a senior editor for the influential newsletter Aerospace Daily, asked uniformed public affairs officers a routine question: What hardware would weapons manufacturers be allowed to lease back from the military to display at the Paris Air Show in June? "Up until two days before the event, there was no answer," he says. "Vern's attitude was, |You're reporters and shouldn't have to rely on PA [public affairs].' Our answer was that for questions like the Paris Air Show, we shouldn't have to do investigative journalism."

Nor do beat reporters appreciate unfair competition. When the Sun's Rick Sia discovered that the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times and Wall Street Journal had received "callouts" for a private briefing on Aspin's heart condition (since addressed with a pacemaker), he tried to protest. …

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