Covering the Home Team

For an as-seen-from-the-outer-lobby inside account of how Stephen Breyer came to be nominated to the Supreme Court, the place to look was the “bulldog” edition of last Sunday’s Tribune, the one for sale Saturday by noon at the local Jewel.

“Breyer: A safe choice for Clinton” was what Washington bureau chief James Warren calls “inside baseball.” But this account was barely a scratch single. Here were dutiful answers to dutiful questions: Why Breyer? Why not Bruce Babbitt? Why not Richard Arnold?

Warren woke up Saturday and asked himself, who cares? He recalls thinking, “OK, say this was the politically most expedient choice. OK, I’ll agree with that. But it might also be a terrific choice!” If Breyer was politically untouchable because everyone he’d ever met vouched for his integrity and intellect–well, maybe that was the news that mattered back in Chicago.

So Warren asked reporter Glen Elsasser, who’d written the bulldog story Friday night with William Neikirk, to come back to the bureau Saturday and make some more calls. For the final edition the article became “Intellect, quiet manner characterize Breyer,” a graceful examination of the nominee’s personal and judicial history, and the politics behind the appointment dropped to the bottom of it. When we talked to Warren this week and asked him what’s changed in the five months he’s been running the Washington bureau, the Breyer article was one of the things he pointed to.

The tale teaches more than one lesson. As Warren did not point out, it demonstrates his own energy–his willingness to commit a good part of a Saturday to improving a story that might have stayed as it was. And as he did point out, it demonstrates an altered sense of purpose. He and his bosses in Chicago are still not sure what the Washington bureau should be doing, but Warren is blunt about what it shouldn’t.

“One of the problems here is there has been no clear mission,” he told us. “I think to the extent there’s been a de facto mission, it’s been aping what the New York Times and Wall Street Journal do here. We can’t let that be the mission anymore for a lot of reasons. You can raise the question how interested our readers are in a lot of this inside Washington process stuff. Who’s up? Who’s down? Secondly, we don’t have the people. They have three times as many people. We can’t have someone covering every fucking agency.”

He went on to say his staff should cover Washington as the outsiders they in fact are, as “sophisticated, skeptical outsiders covering the place like it was a foreign land and not getting sucked up in the value system of people who have reported here far too long.”

He said, “I think the model on which bureau coverage was based was the same model used 30 or 40 years ago when print was king and the Tribune was one of the few newspapers running around with the president. An example–the single lowest priority of the bureau when I got here was coverage of the Illinois delegation. I think covering those people, and covering Illinois people who are here, may be the single most important thing we can do for our readers.”

Warren’s finally made a few beat changes. The most significant move was to pull Mitchell Locin out of the White House and give him a Sunday column called “D.C. Journal.” Locin’s beat is what Warren calls the “home team,” the delegation. “He’s been really, really professional,” Warren said, when we asked how Locin took it. “I think on one level this was kind of wrenching for him.” No doubt. “It’s an opportunity to write a column,” said Locin glumly.

There’s one last and most important lesson Warren wished us to draw from the Stephen Breyer profile. “Glen Elsasser is a guy who was totally shit upon, totally humiliated. He was a forgotten man. The first thing I did [on taking over] was tell Glen, “It’s over. You’re going back to reporting. You’re no longer a glorified clerk’–which is what he was. There’s an example of a guy who was totally misused, outright humiliated by his boss. Now do I deserve plaudits for the revival of Glen, or should someone have taken four lashes across the buttocks for having treated him the way he did? I’ll get praise for reviving Glen, but it didn’t take much to realize this was someone with huge, huge strengths that had not been utilized. A lovely person. A lovely writer.”

(We called Warren’s predecessor, Nicholas Horrock, who’s no longer with the Tribune, at his home outside Washington and left a message. He didn’t return it. The one person we can recall speaking well of Horrock is David Evans, the Tribune’s former military-affairs writer. Evans was fired by editor Howard Tyner not long before Tyner replaced Horrock with Warren.)

What do your bosses think of your staff? we asked Warren. He was silent a long time. “I think it’s very much like the situation in Tempo,” he finally said. Originally a media reporter, Warren was made Tempo editor on a hunch by Tyner in 1992, when Tyner ran the features department. Warren turned that backwater into the paper’s hot place to work. “The assessment is far more ambiguous than is merited. The folks in Tempo were regarded as a bunch of laggards. I think that assessment was totally wrong. Upper managers lock into impressions about people and have a hard time shaking them. The Tempo situation and this strike me as very typical of papers. Too many top-level people won’t take responsibility for something being screwed up, so you blame the workers.”

And so, he explained, upon taking over in Washington he did almost nothing for the first few months but try to dispel the “really repressive atmosphere” and see how his staff would function without it. Now he’s told them to cut loose, and not let the Times and Washington Post define what the news is. “This is not such a gruesomely intense, somber business,” he says. “Go out, find some stories, have some fun, and don’t worry about being second-guessed.”

Warren takes this approach to his own Sunday column, which gleefully chronicles the herd instincts and suck-up reflexes of the local press corps. Because the Tribune isn’t read in Washington, his “Sunday Watch” hasn’t turned him into an important local villain–or hero. But he has been noticed. There was a Newsweek item that–quoting Hot Type–had the new bureau chief saying, “I have no desire to be there in five or ten years as part of the Gridiron Show, prancing around onstage, singing to the president, or whatever the fuck they do.” This month the American Journalism Review finds Warren excoriating the “mix of sophistry and fervent self-righteousness” that allows the “reporter-pundit class” to make big bucks making speeches to partisan audiences.

The shame of this class and its pretenders, Warren argues, is that it holds so much of Washington beneath it. “I’ve popped into hearings and there’s nobody there–because they’re not really sexy in traditional Washington terms. I’d love to report full-time here and have the carte blanche I’ve given our reporters. It would be like stealing. Just go where the others ain’t.”

How do your people respond to carte blanche? we asked him. “Freedom ain’t easy,” he mused. “Freedom is kind of scary, as they’re finding out in Eastern Europe. A lot of people are sentimental for repressive regimes.”

Warren’s under no illusions about the difference “Sunday Watch” is making. “There’s a very entrenched journalistic establishment,” he said. “To the extent they’ve been conscious of it they see it as self-righteous moralizing. I’m sure I’m being branded as naive.”

And as hypocritical to boot. After all, he did go to this year’s Gridiron Show, even if he didn’t get up and dance in it. How come?

“My boss insisted I come as the Tribune bureau chief,” he said. “It was very enlightening. It just sort of fit–it just fit the stereotype I had of all these people sucking up to people they cover.

“And gutless. Besides putting on a second-rate show, the show itself was just absolutely gutless.”

Been There, Done That

Warren is running a bureau that has lost its influence and not yet found a role. The Sun-Times’s tiny Washington operation knows exactly what its job is. Its three reporters do what Warren’s dozen haven’t: they cover the home team.

“All I care about are the kind of stories that talk about Chicago and Illinois and the area, stories that may be of interest to readers that they can’t get anywhere else,” bureau chief Lynn Sweet told us. Like Warren, she pointed to a story in last Sunday’s paper.

Sweet wrote it–she’s as much reporter as manager. It said Illinois’ congressional delegation formally opposed the president’s plan to form a commission that would decide how to distribute medicaid funds.

“It’s part of a national story, but with tremendous local impact,” Sweet said. The piece ran on page three, beneath an inside-baseball account of why Clinton chose Breyer. The Sun-Times picked this up from the Washington Post.

“Here’s a big, big difference from the Tribune bureau,” Sweet reflected. “All three reporters at the Sun-Times came to Washington with tremendous in-depth reporting expertise in Chicago and Illinois. Michael Briggs is a former statehouse bureau chief for the Sun-Times. Basil Talbott is a former political editor and columnist. And I’m also a former political writer who’s spent years covering the legislature and local government. It’s a perfect match between the personnel and the mission.

“I think Mitch [Locin] is the only guy there who’s had any similar experience. He covered the legislature a number of years.”

Aside from Locin’s new column, which looks a lot like one her own bureau has been writing since ’92, Sweet says she hasn’t seen much difference in the recent Tribune product out of Washington. “If the Tribune has a grand plan for covering Washington,” she said, “it’s not apparent.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.