Ballot Box

Minutes of the Media Conspiracy

Last night the central committee of the Media Conspiracy got together at the Caucus Room, the popular lobbyist-owned restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. It wasn’t a formal meeting as such (for minutes of previous meetings click, here, here, here, here, and here), rather a party sponsored by the Sulzberger and Graham families, AOL-Time Warner, Warren Buffet, and TheNews Hour with Jim Lehrer to celebrate the Senate’s passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. And quite a bash it was. Perhaps the most memorable moment came when Cindy McCain burst out of a giant coconut cream cake and sang, “Happy Bill Passage, Mr. We-Wish-You-Were-President” to her husband, a la Marilyn Monroe. Sen. McCain almost fell out of the sedan chair we were holding him up in. Nor will I soon forget the chorus line of Howell Raines, Fred Wertheimer and Sen. Fred Thompson performing that number from the hit Broadway musical, The Full Monty.

Though this was an informal gathering, I think it’s fair to say that all of us had the same thing on our minds. The entire conspiracy is panicked about the profound sense of boredom that is descending on Bush’s Washington like a black cloud. Already, there have been scattered reports of serious topic shortages, column-idea rationing, and pundits seeking refuge at journalism schools. Helen Thomas, who remembers Eisenhower’s second term, told me she thought Bush the Second’s first could be even slower. David Broder, just back from Idaho and Montana where he was working on an “Outlook” essay about the potential spillover effect of California’s energy crisis, told me he thought the White House beat could get seriously dull around the time we finish our source-greasers and first-100-days thumbsuckers. When the revered dean of the Washington press corps says he’s worried about getting bored, it’s triple-shot vente time.

Over by the champagne fountain, the recently retired Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun and Gerry Seib of the Wall Street Journal were sounding even more despondent. Germond was sobbing into that glazed Bavarian tankard he carries everywhere. From what I could make out, he was saying that girl reporters and radio had ruined the White House beat. Seib, shame-faced, admitted that he was working the black market–buying surplus column ideas from Andrew Sullivan for $75 a shot. The two of them perked up a bit when Tommy Boggs, one of the owners of the restaurant, wandered over and handed each of us a Cohiba the size of a baseball bat. Tommy said he was celebrating a windfall. He’d made a fortune lobbying against McCain-Feingold and was now going to save a fortune by not giving soft money, assuming Bush signs the bill.

Rather than mope about how tedious Bush’s Washington was becoming, I thought I’d better talk to some folks at the party who had been through comparable slow periods before. I found Johnny Apple over by the cheese station, where he was trying to get a baked brie away from Haley Barbour, another partner in the restaurant. Once Johnny established control of the wheel (losing only a few toasted walnuts in the process), he was happy to offer some advice. “Courage, my good man,” he said. “You don’t need news–it’s all in the writing.” Johnny referred me to his recent front-page news analysis piece comparing Bush’s masterful handling of the Hainan Island dispute to the way Kennedy dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis. He advised that I emulate his frequent use of such phrases as “fully engaged,” “nerves of titanium,” and “brink of World War III.”

I was just about to ask Johnny why that story had a Lyon, France, dateline when I heard some shouting from across the dining room. Sen. McCain was showing Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Alison Mitchell of the New York Times how to resist torture. I guess he got a little too realistic with the bamboo shoots. It was after midnight by that point, and things were getting slightly out of hand. Sen. Feingold was passing out shots of chocolate milk and at one point nearly smiled.

As I was taking in these shenanigans, Howie Kurtz wandered over, accompanied by his stenographer. Apparently, Howie has recently finished dictating another book, this one on media coverage of media coverage. (I hear the chapter on the Columbia Journalism Review’s reporting on Brill’s Content is especially good.) I asked Howie what he thought about our predicament covering a newsless administration. “Journalists are supposed to report the news, not create it,” Howie said authoritatively. “But you guys can’t just sit around waiting for news to happen,” he said. “Otherwise, how will I be able to write stories questioning whether it’s real news or whether we in the media are merely creating it?”

This sounded like an entirely sensible point to me. But not until Steve and Cokie Roberts came over and joined our little circle did I realize that the first year of the Bush administration has already been largely mapped out! Apparently, members of the Media Conspiracy have worked out an informal schedule for the coming months, designed to keep us all afloat through hard times. 

“Media consortium concludes Gore won Florida in May,” said Cokie.

“First Bush administration scandal in June,” said Steve. 

“Vice presidential health scare midsummer,” said Cokie. “Over by Aug. 1.”

“Supreme Court appointment fight after Labor Day,” said Steve.

“Republican Party schism around Halloween,” said Cokie.

“Foreign crisis after Thanksgiving–done by Christmas!” said Steve. 

I could only marvel at the ingenuity of my colleagues in coming up with these plans–and at their ability to schedule the big news around our vacations, holidays, and important long weekends. Of course, as Howie cautioned us, there are still a lot of details to work out. Do we prefer an influence-buying scandal or a sex scandal? (I’m going to vote for influence buying). Who are we going to anoint as the leader of the disaffected right wing? Paul Weyrich is always happy to lead an insurrection on our behalf, but it’s getting harder and harder to pretend that he represents a movement. Should our foreign crisis be in Iraq or Taiwan? 

The conspiracy will settle some of these tricky questions when we meet to formalize our schedule and apportion tick-tock assignments next week. As I looked over at the dessert table, where Sam Donaldson was somewhat childishly holding George Will’s face down in the remnants of the coconut cream cake, I felt an enormous sense of relief. Apparently, we will have subjects to write about this year after all.