Press Box

“Hello, Howie Kurtz? This Is Rewrite.’

What the Washington Post’s media reporter should have written.

In the old days—we’re talking as early as the 1920s or so—reporters covered trials, riots, fires, elections, and other varieties of breaking news by scribbling their notes and battling their way to a telephone. There, pushing back their pork pie hats, they’d connect to their newspaper’s switchboard and holler, “Hello, sweetheart? Get me rewrite!” and spew everything they knew to a wordsmith on the other end for transformation into a readable news story.

Newspapers still employ rewrite guys, but with such tools as computers, modems, and the Internet at every reporter’s fingertips, they’ve become a vanishing species—which is sort of too bad. The gremlins on the rewrite desk not only excelled at interpreting the reporters’ mad barkings into English, but they often helped explain the meaning of the story back to the reporter for amplification.

Had a rewrite guy visited, say, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz’s Page One Sunday piece, “Journalists Not Loath To Donate to Politicians: Media Companies’ Policies Vary Widely,” before publication, he might have improved Kurtz’s copy.

Citing Federal Election Commission records, Kurtz reports that more than 100 journalists and executives at major media companies have given money to political campaigns in the last five years, and some of these donations violated company policy. As the story approaches the jump, Kurtz has busted only Republican donors, except NBC chief Robert Wright, who covered his bet by giving to both parties. But as you turn the page and read on, the great majority of the donors flagged by Kurtz are reporters giving money to Democrats.

Let’s go to the tote board. Not counting double-donor Wright, just nine of the media employees earning a Kurtz reprimand gave to Republicans. Of those nine, four are company executives, one an editorial writer (the Wall Street Journal’s Melanie Kirkpatrick), and four are news-side journalists, including a food writer at the Los Angeles Times. Of the 19 Democratic donors, only one hails from management, one works as a food writer, and one as an opinion journalist (CNN’s Paul Begala). The rest cover business, sports, politics, the arts, medicine, legal issues, technology, travel, publishing, etc. One nonconformist, New York Times reporter Barry Bearak, gave $250 to a Green Party candidate.

Upon hearing Kurtz’s notes over the phone, one imagines the rewrite guy pshawing the angle:

Look, kid, I know you got a big scoop here, but the story isn’t journalists’ reluctance to give money to politicians, and it ain’t the fact that media company policies vary, as you put it in your hed and subhed. The real story is that most of the media people you nabbed in your database dragnet gave to Democrats! And that the overwhelming majority of the guilty are reporters! Doncha see? Let me write you a lede that says something meaningful, like, “A Washington Post survey of campaign donations indicates that when reporters make campaign donations, they’re more likely to give to Democrats.” From there the story writes itself. Put in a call to Bozell over at the Media Research Center so he can gloat, and call that Alterman guy, who’ll say something like, “This doesn’t prove the press corps is left; it proves that they’re Democratic centrists—except for Bearak, of course, who is a working-class hero.” If you feel the need to pad the story, write that executives who give money are more likely to donate in their class interests by cutting a check to Republicans, but dumb it down for the average reader. Now, leave me alone so I can rewrite my story about the 12-car pile-up on the Beltway.

Kurtz’s database dump confirms my findings from a similarly informal study. A decade ago while working at Washington City Paper, I dispatched an intern to pull the voter registration paperwork on what I considered to be the top 20 editorial employees at the Washington Post. All but a handful were registered Democrats, and if memory serves me right, there were many more registered independents than Republicans. I phoned one of the Posties and asked why he’d registered Republican. Well, he said, every year my wife and I flip a coin to determine which one of us registers Democrat and which registers Republican so we get all the political brochures in the mail: This year I lost the toss.

What explains Kurtz’s reluctance to suggest the obvious, besides the absence of a rewrite man? He must think that either 1) everybody already knows most prominent reporters are Democrats; or 2) that his data is too anecdotal to generalize. Which is it, Howie?

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Do you suppose Howie donated money to the Revolutionary Communist Party? Send your speculations to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)