Dear Mr. President:
You have a long habit of suggesting that journalists are a bunch of “elitists,” a characterization echoed by some in your entourage. Though we realize that this is part of your ongoing effort to delegitimize our efforts to report the truth of what’s going on in your presidency, citizens none the wiser may accept your nullification of what we do. It’s not even clear to us what you understand about who we are and how we function. This letter, should you read it, is an attempt, in the spirit of your current efforts to bring peace to the world, to sort you and your followers out about us.
Numerous indicators would tell you that we’re hardly elitists.
We don’t inherit our jobs. People get into the Washington press corps through a lot of hard work elsewhere first—building their skills and their clippings. It’s probably the hardest kind of journalism to get into in this country; one cannot do so without a record of excellent work beforehand, often in two or three jobs. Obviously, no one can do that for us. There are no strings to pull. We’re all on our own. Yes, a connection—Dad was a star in the business, say, or Mother is a well-known author—might get you in a door, but if you don’t have solid past work to show it does you no good.
Having a distinguished name, a fabulous connection, is likely to get you nowhere if you can’t think clearly and cannot write. Once in a while I notice a legacy name—signifying the offspring of a well-known journalist—but that, too, doesn’t propel that person into a job in the Washington press corps.
Also, we don’t tend to be wealthy—by far most journalists in Washington come from middle class families, some even from lower-income levels. All they have to go on is their talent. Technically, America has no class system, though we’ve all known colleagues who consider themselves from the upper crust. But we tend to be ignorant about such matters. Some journalists here may have wealth, may have “come out” at debutante parties, but we don’t know who they are, because it makes no difference. We’re a meritocracy.
I don’t intend, Mr. President, to make a disparaging comparison of a sort, but you probably have no idea how hard we work. We don’t have three hours in the morning of “executive time” to do what we want—watch television, make phone calls to friends. And dinner at 6:30? That’s unimaginable. You see, Mr. P, while journalists here have always worked hard, your presidency has pushed them to the limit, starting with your early morning tweets, and often as not ending with a surprise nighttime announcement from the White House or news of a new scandal on the part of one of your appointees.
We cannot anticipate when you or, say, of late, Rudy Giuliani, is going to blab publicly about what you might not realize is big news. We might receive little notice, if any at all, that a cabinet officer or administration aide of significance is about to be fired or is planning to quit or has done so. Or that you’ve decided to make what might be termed a novel nomination. Reporters’ jobs consume them nearly 24/7, and weekends can be hijacked by decisions you make without having vetted a person or an issue, and reporters trying to cover you either have to scramble or are detained in a blacked-out room while you golf at Mar-a-Lago. Some journos I know—the ones who scramble hardest and are most dedicated to covering you as thoroughly as they can—don’t even make weekend plans these days since they assume that something will happen that will cause them to break them,
Lest you and others think our jobs are glamorous, our workdays can be quite frazzling. By far most of us don’t have secretaries to screen our calls, to protect us from interruptions when we’re trying to do our job. The nature of our work is clearly considered of a lower order than that of other professionals. (Yes, we think of ourselves as professionals, even if you, Mr. P, don’t see us that way.) When we’re writing, or on the phone with a source, others don’t consider that “working.” They don’t concede that a mere journalist might need uninterruptible time—unlike when we’re told that the doctor “is seeing a patient” or a lawyer is “in with a client,” or simply, “on another line.” A senator or congressman can be “on the floor,” “in a conference,” or even “meeting with constituents.” Getting through on a phone call to a mere reporter is far easier: We can’t be doing work that’s all that important. Our deadlines aren’t taken seriously. It’s difficult to say that we simply can’t talk at a particular time without giving offense. Ditto with email, which is followed by another one asking, “Did you get my email?”
I think that one of the reasons you don’t understand, or can’t connect with, why we do what we do is that you and journalists have colliding views about the satisfactions of wealth. People don’t go into journalism to make money. We know that if we were to put the same amount of time, or even significantly less, into being lawyers we’d be very rich. Or if we were lobbyists in Washington we could count on pulling down at least $1 million a year. It’s true that some journalists do quite well by making speeches in addition to their regular jobs, but that only happens to the most visible ones—meaning those with regular or nearly regular television exposure. Celebrity is crucial. A speech organizer once told me, “After a speech, people want to talk about who they heard, not what they heard.” Fame from appearances on what you call “the shows” lasts only so long.
By the way, since you own your company (even now) you can’t get fired (I mean from your family business; your job at the White House may be a different matter), but we can get dismissed at any time. We’re subject to changing whims at the top, new editors-in-chief, and especially new owners. Diminishing resources at some once-great newspapers can lead to skeletal Washington bureaus and thinner coverage. (To tell the truth, I, too, have been fired, more than once.) And there’s not necessarily a golden parachute.
So if it’s not for the money, if glory redounds to only a few, if the work is demanding and there’s no real job security, why do we go into this line of work? Mr. P, I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but under the evident and sometimes faked cynicism, we’re patriotic: we want to see our democratic experiment—so far, the longest-lived one in the world—endure. We believe in a certain fairness in the treatment of the country’s citizens, though we may fiercely disagree on how to define that. You see, Mr. P, there is no such thing as a “Beltway media,” who all think the same thing. We get satisfaction from holding government officials to account; we enjoy trying to find out what happened and explaining it to our readers and viewers. We get to keep learning: Some years ago a distinguished New York Times writer (on whom I had a crush) said to me, “To be a journalist in Washington is like being in constant graduate school.” That’s our psychic income, and it can be large. Or small: We can be obliged to learn some things better not permitted to clutter our brains (I can recall a fierce trade fight over something called creeping red fescue).
I’m not for a minute claiming that all reporting from Washington is of the same high quality, or that everyone’s prose is equally lucid. Or that it’s always as deep as it should be, that we catch all the layers of a given issue. We can be what the late Eugene McCarthy once said of political reporters, that “they’re like blackbirds on a wire, and then they all fly off in the same direction.” We can establish false fashions: Consider all the reporters who described Paul Ryan as a deep thinker though he was strongly influenced by Ayn Rand and his budget numbers didn’t add up.
When you call us “the enemy” we know what you’re up to—trying to discredit our work. That might help you with your followers—you’ve shown what a powerful line that can be at a rally. That’s OK, we can take it, but your followers can become menacing, and of course you understand that if any violence is visited on a reporter doing their job it’s on you.
What you don’t seem to understand, Mr. P, is this isn’t about you. We try to find out what’s going on in any presidency and his (so far it’s a “his”) government. We don’t even mind that you provide us with such a superfluity of stories to chase, so many matters to figure out. You keep us going. We always want to know what makes a president tick; that you tick more loudly than any we’ve experienced before only makes you more interesting and challenging to cover. I just hope that I’ve convinced you and yours—if just a little—that we’re not snooty elites. If I haven’t, life goes on.
Yours in loving our country,